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National Archives

Fathers and Sons: Two Families, Four Presidents

John Adams Wall 1


1735 - 1826
Second President of the United States
1797 - 1801


John Adams was born on October 30, 1735 in Braintree (now Quincy) Massachusetts. He came from middle class stock and grew to manhood milking cows, feeding horses, and helping in the kitchen on the family land grant. His father wanted him to become a minister, but after graduating Harvard in 1755, Adams took up the practice of law. He fiercely opposed the 1765 Stamp Act, but in 1770, on principle and at great risk, successfully defended British soldiers accused of killing five civilians in the infamous "Boston Massacre."


John Adams gained a regional notoriety, and Massachusetts sent him to the Continental Congresses from 1774 to 1778. He advocated a bicameral legislature, a strong executive branch, an independent judiciary, checks and balances of all branches, and a strong navy to protect U.S. interests. He headed the Declaration of Independence drafting committee and appointed Thomas Jefferson as the principal writer.

John Adams Wall 2

He advocated George Washington's appointment as Commander of the Army. And headed the Board of War for Arms and Munitions. Essentially becoming the first Secretary of Defense.

His energy, patriotic fervor, and single-mindedness elevated him to be the most recognized and respected member of the Continental Congress. Adams, as no other, made the revolution a fact.


Adams spent ten years negotiating French military support, financial support from the Netherlands, and finally a peace treaty with Great Britain. In 1782, he joined with John Jay and Benjamin Franklin to negotiate the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution. From 1785 to 1788 he served as the first minister to Great Britain. Between trips abroad, John Adams wrote the Constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.


1789 - 1797

After a decade of service in Europe, Adams returned to America to become the first vice president, serving under George Washington from 1789 to 1797. The Vice President's job is a difficult one. John Adams as the very first vice president had an unusual problem. No one, including him, was quite sure what role he was to play.

Protocol and ceremony had to be determined. Precedents were being set. As President of the Senate constitutionally he could only vote during a tie. Adams, of course, chafed at this largely ceremonial role. He expended a lot of political capital on a huge debate over how the president should be addressed - "Mr. Washington" or "Sir" or "Your Excellency" or "Mr. President" or "His Highness". Adams persisted with more formal titles, but the Senate preferred the simple "Mr. President." He lost the fight. Eventually, he reigned himself in and stopped lecturing the Senate on issues, but he lost considerable respect with his colleagues.

Internationally, the revolution in France was a subject of intense speculation in the United States. Feelings ran strong in discussions regarding the tyranny of the mob versus the tyranny of the monarchy. Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate soon divided themselves into Parties. Some supported the Federalist Party led by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton; other supported the Republican-Democrats led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. President Washington's entire Cabinet had split into factions. President Washington was above petty squabbles through most of his eight years in office, but toward the end of his term, he too was coming under public criticism. Vice President Adams remained staunchly independent, but isolated. Adams found comfort in writing a series of articles eventually published as Discourses on Davila.


1797- 1801

When Washington declined to stand for elections for a third term, John Adams was elected President, with Thomas Jefferson his vice president. He inherited a tough international situation and a fractious domestic political landscape. Though Washington had issued a Proclamation of Neutrality, France continued to intercept American shipping because of France's war with England. Adams would not declare war on its former ally. Adams did promote a strong navy for defense. After Adams' peace mission failed and he was severely criticized. He signed the highly unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts that imposed fines and prison for criticizing the government.

John Adams was the first President to live in the White House. He and his wife, Abigail, occupied it in November 1800. The words he had written to her - "may none but wise and honorable men serve in this house" - are preserved in marble in the White House.

In 1800, Adams sent a second mission to France, now under Napoleon, avoiding war through last-minute masterful diplomacy. This news arrived too late to save the domestic political situation, and Adams lost the presidential election to Thomas Jefferson. Adams left Washington, D.C., not attending Jefferson's inauguration.

John Adams lived for another quarter century, leaving his diaries and many letters defining the values and virtues that were important to establishing a new government and forming a new nation, which he considered a work of the highest morals. He defended his presidency, but mellowed in his writings and mended fences with his adversaries. On January 1, 1812, Adams and Jefferson resumed their remarkable correspondence with each other. Miraculously, John Adams died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, within five hours of the death of Thomas Jefferson.

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