“There are two ways to conquer and enslave a country. One is by the sword. The other is by debt.” -John Adams
John Adams was the first to live in the White House (then the Executive Mansion). A brilliant but short-tempered lawyer and small-time farmer from Massachussets, Adams first made a name for himself by defending the British soldiers accused of killing unarmed civilians in the Boston Massacre in 1770. Soon afterwards, he became involved in the struggle for independence. An influential pamphleteer, he served as a diplomat in France and the Netherlands during the Revolutionary War, and was on the panel charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence. In 1789 he was elected vice-president under George Washington – a post that he found frustrating: “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” he complained to his wife.
He became president at a time when the French Revolutionary Wars were causing great difficulties for the US, both at sea and in the intense partisanship that the issue provoked at home. The factional divisions that had begun to appear under Washington soon dominated his presidency.
Adams was not helped by the then unresolved constitutional anomaly whereby the runner-up in the presidential election automatically became vice-president. Adams was a Federalist; Thomas Jefferson, his Vice-President, was a Republican; and the election contest between the former friends had been a bitter one. There were predictable tensions.
Adams built up the navy to defend US shipping against French privateers, but resisted popular pressure for war, and sending a peace mission to France probably contributed to his defeat in the 1800 election. (Nonetheless, he considered his diplomacy “the most splendid diamond in my crown”.) He spent the final hours of his administration appointing his supporters to many judgeships and court offices. He then ungraciously left town to avoid Jefferson’s inauguration. Jefferson undid many of these “Midnight Appointments”.
Adams retired to his farm at Quincy, Massachussetts, where he lived not only to be 90 but also to see his son, John Quincy Adams, elected president. In later years Adams was reconciled to Thomas Jefferson, and the two enjoyed a famous correspondence. Bizarrely, they died on the same day: 4 July 1826, which also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.