Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

John Adams,
the Leader of the Boston Patriots

While Samuel Adams was the leading spirit among the New England patriots in the times before the Revolution, there were others little less prominent. Chief among these was his cousin, John Adams; his co-worker, John Hancock; and the orator of patriotism, James Otis, who, in the words of John Adams, was "a flame of fire." John Hancock shared with Samuel Adams the honor of being left out of the pardon offered the rebels and of being one of the men whom the British troops marched to Lexington to arrest. He was afterwards President of the Continental Congress, and his name stands at the head of the signers of the Declaration of Independence in large, bold letters. When he wrote it he said: "The British ministry can read that name without their spectacles."

Most important among these men in his after career was John Adams, the story of whose ,life we shall here give. Born in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1735, John Adams came to bear a great part in American public life. He succeeded Washington as President of the United States. Before he died his son, John Quincy Adams, was elected President. His grandson, Charles Francis Adams, was afterwards nominated for Vice-President. This is certainly a fine record for the Adams family.

The father of John Adams was a poor farmer, but he wanted his son to be educated, and toiled the harder 85) ?> that he might send him to Harvard College. After leaving college Adams studied the law, married a bright and clever young woman, and settled down to practice in his native town. In principles he was a sturdy patriot, and when the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, and an uproar broke out in America, Adams was one of its leaders. He was an able speaker, with a fine-sounding voice and a clear way of thinking, and he told the people in plain language what he thought about Parliament and the tax. He wrote as well as spoke, and made such a stir that the British leaders tried to buy him over by offering him a good paying position. They made a mistake. Adams was poor, but he was not to be bought.

John Adams believed in justice, no matter on which side it was. When the "Boston Massacre "took place, the soldiers who fired on the people were arrested and tried for murder. Adams did not think this just. They had been attacked by a mob and fired in self-defence. So he became their lawyer, saying that it was the people and not the soldiers who were in fault. He won his case. All the soldiers were set free, though two whose shots had killed men were branded in the hand. The people, when they quieted down, thought all the better of John Adams for what he did.

In 1774 Adams became a member of the First Continental Congress, and in 1776 was one of the committee to prepare the Declaration of Independence. He supported this by a great speech. Jefferson said of him:

"John Adams was the ablest advocate and champion of independence on the floor of the House. He was the colossus of that Congress. Not graceful, not eloquent, not always fluent in his public addresses, he yet came out with a power of thought and expression which moved his hearers from their seats."

In 1774 his friend Sewell had urged him not to engage in the dangerous business of revolution. Adams replied with the memorable words: "The die is now cast. I have passed the Rubicon. Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish with my country, is my unalterable determination."

On the 3d of July, 1776, he wrote a letter to his wife which had in it this celebrated passage:

"Yesterday the greatest question was discussed which was ever debated in America; and a greater, perhaps, never was nor will be decided among men. The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to Almighty God. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of the continent to another from this time forward, forevermore."

His prediction has come true, but not for the 2d of July, the day when the resolution before Congress was adopted, but for the 4th, the day when the Declaration which sprang from this resolution was adopted and John Adams and most of the members signed it. For more than a century and a quarter that day has been celebrated in the way he suggested, and it will probably be for many centuries to come.

There was no busier man in Congress than Adams. He was chairman of twenty-five committees and was at the head of the War Department. In 1777 he was sent to France to help make a treaty with that country: On the way across, the "Boston," in which he sailed, was chased by a British man-of-war, but was fast enough to escape. It had also a fight with a British privateer, and when the two vessels came close together Adams seized a musket and began fighting like a common sailor. When the captain saw him he was angry and roared out:

"Why are you here, sir? I am commanded to carry you safely to Europe and I will do it." Adams was a little man and the captain was a big one, and the big man picked up the little man in his arms as if he were a child and carried him below deck. Soon after the privateer was captured, and the "Boston "sailed onward for France.

It was March, 1778, when Adams got there. He was too late, for Franklin had already made the treaty with France. He went to Europe again in 1780, was Minister to Holland in 1782 and got that country to recognize the United States, and in 1783 was one of the five men who negotiated the treaty of peace with Great Britain. As he had been in at the beginning of the struggle for independence, he was in at its close.

In 1784 Adams had the honor of being made the first United States Minister to Great Britain. It was a dramatic moment when he stood before King George III., as the representative of that nation which had just won its liberty from the king. George received him politely and graciously, but he said something which drew from Adams the proud remark: "I must tell your Majesty that I love no country but my own."

"An honest man will never love any other," was the polite reply of the king.

But there were men at the British court who were not as gentlemanly as their king and treated Adams coldly. And the British queen was as cold in her demeanor towards Mrs. Adams. So, when he got back home again in 1788, he was glad enough to set foot on American soil. He had seen all he cared to of Europe.

In 1789 a new and greater honor came to Adams. When Washington was chosen for President, Adams was made Vice-President of the new nation, and for eight years he held this office, serving as the first president of the United States Senate. When Washington declined to be President for a third term, Adams was looked upon as the next most prominent man in the country, and was elected to the highest office in the gift of the American people, that of President. Thomas Jefferson, his old associate in Congress, was made Vice-President.

As President, Adams had many difficulties to contend with. One of the worst of these was a trouble which broke out with France. The leaders in that country wanted to see Jefferson, the democrat, made President, and were so angry at the election of Adams that they would not receive the Minister he sent them. They passed an insulting decree against American commerce, and hinted that the American envoys might get what they wished if they paid well for it. But Charles Pinckney, one of the envoys, indignantly exclaimed, "Millions for defence, but not one cent for tribute!"

There arose a cry in the States for War. Adams was in favor of it. He called out an army, and Washington consented to lead it. The navy was ordered to fight, and it captured two French frigates and many smaller vessels. This was more than the French had bargained for, and they were glad enough to withdraw their demands and make a treaty of peace.

The short naval war made Adams very popular, but he did other things that made him unpopular, and in 1800, when the time for the next election came, he was defeated and Jefferson was made President. Adams was bitterly disappointed. He felt so badly that he would not wait at Washington to welcome the new President. That was a very discourteous thing to do, and it made him many enemies.

After that Adams lived quietly at home, where he spent a great deal of time in writing. Despite his patriotism and ability, he was a vain man, one of the kind that always thinks his side is the right one. And he had no soft, smooth ways, but was always blunt and plain-spoken. This helped to make him enemies. In this he was very different from Franklin, who once wrote about him from Europe: "Mr. Adams is always an honest man, often a wise one; but he is sometimes completely out of his senses."

As he grew older he grew softer. The bad feeling between him and Jefferson died out and they once more became friends. He had the satisfaction in 1824 of seeing his son elected President of the United States, and died on July 4, 1826, his last words being, "Thomas Jefferson still lives." He was mistaken. His old associate in the Declaration had died earlier that same day in his home at Monticello. It was certainly a remarkable coincidence that the two members of the committee on the Declaration who afterwards became President should have died on the fiftieth anniversary of its signing.