Descendants of Puritans who settled near Boston in 1638, members of the Adams family distinguished themselves over two centuries as political leaders and thinkers. Second cousins Samuel Adams and John Adams played crucial roles in the founding of the United States. John’s wife, Abigail Smith Adams, was an early advocate for women’s expanded public roles.
Their son, John Quincy, was the first president’s son also elected president and dedicated his later years to ending slavery. Into the early 20th century, the Adamses excelled in diplomacy and history.
Harvard-educated brewer and Boston tax collector, Samuel Adams was a leading Son of Liberty who fought new taxes and restrictions imposed by Britain on its American colonies after the Seven Years’/French and Indian War ended in 1763. He organized the 1773 Boston Tea Party in which tea worth £100,000 was dumped into the harbor to protest British policies.
His younger cousin, John, a Harvard-educated lawyer, successfully defended British soldiers who killed five Americans in a 1770 encounter dubbed the Boston Massacre by people like Samuel, who deemed it a “bloody butchery.” Wary of mob enthusiasms, but convinced of the rightness of American liberty, John Adams soon surpassed his cousin’s importance in the looming American Revolution.
Both were delegates to the First Continental Congress; John drafted plans for a new national government and soon was helping Thomas Jefferson revise and refine his draft of the Declaration of Independence.
After Continental victory at Saratoga in 1777, John endured long intervals of painful separation from his family as he pursued financial and military support for the new nation in European capitals, working uneasily with senior diplomat Benjamin Franklin and helping negotiate the treaty ending the Revolution. In 1784 Abigail joined her husband in Europe; his diplomatic service culminated with his appointment as first American ambassador to Britain.
|Mrs. Abigail Smith Adams|
In 1789 Adams was selected as George Washington’s vice president. As such, he had little to do, sidelined in part by the dramatic political and personal clashes of Washington cabinet secretaries Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
Adams won the presidency by just three votes over Jefferson in 1796; his tenure in office would prove mostly disastrous. A combination of personality traits and crises would erode Adams’s reputation, ending his administration after a single term. Partisanship unleashed by earlier battles over the Constitution brought forth viciously competitive political parties.
Soon Adams, a Federalist, would find himself at odds with his own vice president, Jefferson, once a dear friend, but now a rival. The two men had already split over the French Revolution, whose growing violence was to Adams a horrifying breakdown of order and a direct threat to American independence.
Although Adams avoided a costly war with France, his popularity plummeted amid partisan rancor. In 1798, a Federalist-dominated Congress passed and Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Targeting Republican publishers and other political critics, these acts clearly violated the First Amendment. Charles Francis Adams would later call these acts the fatal error that doomed his grandfather’s Federalist Party.
Adams and Jefferson resumed their correspondence, but these old friends and enemies would truly reunite only in death. Both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration to which both contributed mightily.
By the time his father died, John Quincy Adams, his parents’ eldest son, was in the second year of his own presidency. It was a tormented four years after years of public distinction.
Trained in diplomacy at his father’s side as a teenager in Europe, John Quincy returned to attend Harvard and take up law, although attracted by literature and teaching. In 1803 John Quincy went to the U.S. Senate as a Federalist but often supported President Jefferson, losing his seat as a result.
As James Madison’s ambassador to Russia and lead negotiator of the War of 1812’s Peace of Ghent, John Quincy found his own political fame. He authored the Monroe Doctrine while serving James Monroe as secretary of state.
Becoming president seemed the obvious next step. But U.S. politics were changing as voting rights expanded. Being notable—a man of wealth or distinguished family—no longer assured electoral success.
In 1824’s five-way race, John Quincy became president only after a “corrupt bargain” steered votes from war hero Andrew Jackson to the former president’s son. John Quincy’s single term was almost devoid of accomplishment and dogged by family difficulties.
His postpresidential career would be as difficult but more fulfilling. In 1830 the former president was elected to the House of Representatives, a freshman member at age 64, serving his Plymouth, Massachusetts, district until suffering a stroke on the House floor in 1848.
For nine years, he fought a gag rule that prevented slavery opponents from conveying their views to Congress. In 1841 his nine-hour speech to the Supreme Court won freedom for 33 Africans who had commandeered the Spanish slave ship Amistad.
The Adamses were hard on their sons. Just as John Quincy was John’s only son of three to make his father proud, Charles Francis Adams was the only one of three of John Quincy’s sons to gain distinction. Charles Francis became his family’s financier and historian, publishing important family writings, including Abigail’s letters.
Entering Massachusetts politics in 1840 he was the new Free-Soil Party’s vice presidential choice in 1848 as the U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War roiled sectional politics. Soon he joined the emerging
Republican Party. Appointed minister to Britain by Abraham Lincoln, Charles Francis was instrumental in keeping Britain from backing the Confederacy during the Civil War.
It was left to a fourth generation, especially brothers Henry and Brooks, to try to understand America through the lens of the Adams’ legacy. Henry, Harvard lecturer and historian, was early drawn to medievalism.
In The Education of Henry Adams, his third-person autobiography, he tried to make sense of how medieval Europe could have given birth to early 20th-century America. Brooks, a more “erratic genius,” predicted inevitable decay as capitalist civilizations faltered and more energetic nations emerged. Some believe he was describing his own family.
The family Adams did not disappear with Brooks’s death. But with the transfer of the old family homestead in Braintree/Quincy, Massachusetts, to the National Park Service in 1946, the Adamses became the “property” of the nation so many of them had served.