John Adams - Teacher Overview

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John Adams
Overview of John Adams

Born in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1735, Adams was the son of a modest preacher.
A former surveyor, college professor, and selectman, he became a Boston’s most successful
lawyer. He quickly developed a reputation for honesty and hard work, which continued his entire
He successfully defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, and was attacked
by many Patriots for doing so. No one else would take the case. He believed the soldiers were
entitled to a vigorous defense, and persuaded the jury that most of them were not guilty.
During the revolutionary era, he challenged British oppression in Boston. He originally became
politically active to preserve the independence of the Massachusetts judiciary and the right to
jury trials. He was a prolific writer, penning thoughtful and persuasive essays attacking British
actions and rule.
He served in the First and Second Continental Congress. Fellow Founding Father Benjamin Rush
wrote that “Every member of Congress in 1776 acknowledged him to be the first man in the
House. Dr Brownson (of Georgia) used to say that when he spoke, he fancied an angel was let
down from heaven to illuminate the Congress.”
Adams was the leading voice for American independence in the Second Continental Congress.
His advocacy and electrifying speeches eventually swayed the colonists to declare
independence. He was appointed to the committee on the Declaration of Independence, but
insisted that Jefferson draft it. He also nominated George Washington to lead the Continental
Army. Washington would go on to win the war, preside over the Constitutional Convention, and
become the first President.
After the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress sent Adams to
France and Holland, where he negotiated for diplomatic and financial support.
He aided in negotiating the peace treaty that ended the American Revolution. Afterwards he
served as minister to the Court of St James in England, where he meet King George III - the very
King he had obtained independence from.
After his return from England, he was elected as the very first Vice President (under George
Washington). He spent most of his time presiding over the Senate during the precedent setting
days of Washington’s administration.
After Washington retired, Adams was elected the second President of the United States., beating
out Jefferson.
During his presidency, American shipping came under harassment by France, and the infamous
“X, Y, and Z” affair broke out (in which France’s foreign minister tried to bribe American
diplomats). Adams built up the navy, but he also worked vigorously to avoid open war.

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Although highly unpopular at the time, his policy was vindicated when peace took hold. He also
appointed John Marshall as Chief Justice to the United States Supreme Court, the most important
Supreme Court Justice in American history.
He lost his bid for a second term to Jefferson, which, as a peaceful transfer of power resulting in
major policy changes, is often dubbed “the Revolution of 1800.”
He retired to his home, and mostly farmed.
Although bitter political enemies earlier, Adams and Jefferson eventually reconciled and
exchanged a series of fascinating letters which revealed much about American history and
His son, John Quincy Adams, was elected President for one term.
Jefferson and Adams both died on July 4, 1826 - 50 years to the day of American independence.

1.     Students should understand the general biography of John Adams.
2.     Students should understand the enormous contribution Adams made in connection with
       American independence.
3.     Students should understand that as stated in the Declaration of Independence, America
       embraces the First Principle that when governments become destructive of unalienable
       rights, equality, and the Social Compact, that the people have the right to alter or abolish it.
4.     Students should understand that his career after the Declaration of Independence was vital
       for many reasons, including a peaceful transfer of power, the appointment of Chief Justice
       Marshall, and avoiding war.
5.     Students should understand why a committed Patriot would defend the soldiers of the
       Boston Massacre.

     • More about Adams and related materials can be found at:


1.       Have students create a timeline or collage of Adams’ life.

2.       Have students write an essay or composition about what they consider to be Adams’ most
         important contribution to American history, and explain why (as compared to the others).

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3.    Consider what it must have been like to defend the British soldiers responsible for the
      Boston Massacre. Have students write a letter from Adams to his wife Abigail about why
      he took the case.

4.    Consider what Adams and King George III must have felt when they met after the
      Revolution. Have students write an exchange of letters between them.

5.    Consider some of the topics Adams and Jefferson must have written in their retirement
      years - have students draft and exchange of letters.

6.    Have students imagine what American and world history would be like without Adams.
      Write a “what if there was no John Adams” essay.


Hon. Michael Warren

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