John Adams (October 30, 1735 – July 4, 1826) was an American writer, diplomat and politician who played a leading role in the American Revolution. When the British Parliament imposed the Stamp Act on the colonies in 1765, Adams was one of its most vocal critics and he wrote several documents against it. In the initial phase of the Revolution, Adams was among the more conservative of the Founders and he even defended British soldiers in court after the Boston Massacre. However, his position changed over time and he argued for complete independence. As the American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Adams assumed a number of roles including his being the de facto Secretary of War of the American colonies. Adams was also a prominent diplomat during the war and he played a key role in negotiating the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the American Revolutionary War. In independent America, Adams served as the 1st Vice President and then as the 2nd President of the United States. Here is a summary of the role of John Adams during the American Revolution.

 

Stamp Act

The Stamp Act of 1765 was an act of the Parliament of Great Britain which for the first time imposed direct taxation on all colonial commercial and legal papers, newspapers, pamphlets etc. John Adams raised to prominence as a leading opponent to the Stamp Act. He authored the “Braintree Instructions”, a document which explained that the Stamp Act should be opposed by the colonies as it denied two fundamental rights guaranteed to all Englishmen (and which all free men deserved): rights to be taxed only by consent and to be tried by a jury of one’s peers. The Braintree Instructions were among the earliest in America to officially reject the authority of the British Parliament over the 13 American colonies. Adams also wrote a series of four articles against the Stamp Act which were first published in the Boston Gazette. Due to protests in the colonies, the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766.

John Adams
John Adams – 1766 Portrait by Benjamin Blyth

 

Boston Massacre

On March 5, 1770, after an altercation with an apprentice of a wig-maker, a British Private Hugh White was surrounded by Bostonians. Seven British soldiers with bayonets then moved through the crowd to rescue White. In the confusion, the British soldiers fired at the crowd. This resulted in 11 people being hit; three died on the spot while two were mortally wounded. This event became known as the Boston Massacre and it turned colonial sentiment decisively against Britain. Despite his hostility towards the British government, Adams believed the soldiers should receive a fair trial. He successfully defended the British soldiers with six of them being acquitted while the other two receiving reduced sentences.

Portrayal of Boston Massacre
A sensationalized famous portrayal of Boston Massacre by Paul Revere

 

Boston Tea Party

During the early phase of the Revolution, Adams was among the more conservative of the Founders. Though he believed British actions to be wrong, he yet wanted a peaceful resolution of the conflict. However, his ideas began to change by 1772 as he became convinced that the British Parliament was trying to destroy judicial independence and place the colonial government in closer subjugation to the Crown. On May 10, 1773, the Tea Act was enforced by the British Parliament to aid the financially struggling British East India Company. The Act allowed the Company to sell tea in American colonies without paying taxes except the import duty under the Townshend Acts. The colonists responded to this through the Boston Tea Party, an event in which a group of Americans boarded the East India Company ships and dumped all 342 chests of tea, worth £10,000, into into the Boston Harbor. Adams hailed the Boston Tea Party as the “grandest Event” in the colonial protest movement.

Depiction of Boston Tea Party
Boston Tea Party – Iconic 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier

 

Olive Branch Petition

The British Parliament responded to the Boston Tea Party through a series of legislation known as the Intolerable Acts in America. This in turn led to the formation of the First Continental Congress in the colonies. John Adams was elected as a representative of Massachusetts to the body. The First Continental Congress decided that the colonies would boycott all British goods beginning on December 1, 1774. It was Adams who engineered a compromise between the conservatives and the radicals in the First Continental Congress. A petition was sent to the King outlining the grievances of the colonies and asking for repeal of the Intolerable Acts. The Congress then disbanded. However, the “Olive Branch Petition” was ignored and, instead, King George III issued a Proclamation of Rebellion which stated that the colonies were “in rebellion” and the members of Congress were traitors.

Olive Branch Petition
Signature page of the Olive Branch Petition

 

Declaration of Independence

American Revolutionary War began with the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. A month later, Adams returned to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress as the leader of the Massachusetts delegation. It was Adams who nominated George Washington to serve as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Moreover, Adams was part of the Committee of Five which was asked to draft the Declaration of Independence. Although the first draft was written primarily by Jefferson, Adams assumed a major role in its completion. Adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776, the United States Declaration of Independence inspired many similar documents in other countries; and it is thus considered one of the most important documents in world history.

United States Declaration of Independence
United States Declaration of Independence

 

American Revolutionary War

In 1776, Adams began serving as head of the Board of War, a special committee to administer the Continental Army. He was thus responsible for raising and equipping the American army and creating from scratch an American navy. He sat on at least ninety committees and chaired twenty five of them. He was referred to as “the first man in the House” and “one man war department”. Moreover, he kept extensive correspondences with a wide range of officers in the Continental Army concerning supplies, munitions and tactics. John Adams was thus the de facto Secretary of War of the American colonies.

 

Diplomacy

John Adams also played a diplomatic role during the Revolutionary War. He traveled to France and then the Dutch Republic to form alliances and further American interests. Though it was Benjamin Franklin who played the key role in assuring a Franco-American alliance in the war, it was the efforts of Adams which led to the Dutch Republic recognizing American independence and acknowledging Adams as ambassador. Moreover, he negotiated with the Dutch a loan of five million guilders in July 1782; and a treaty of amity and commerce in October.

John Adams Statue in South Dakota
Statue of John Adams in Rapid City, South Dakota

 

Treaty of Paris

After negotiating the loan with the Dutch, Adams was appointed as the American commissioner to negotiate the war-ending treaty. Along with John Jay and Benjamin Franklin, Adams played a key role in negotiating the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the American Revolutionary War. The British recognized the United States as a free, sovereign and independent state; and the other terms of the treaty were exceedingly in favor of America. Though it was Franklin who played the foremost role in the negotiations, Adams stubborn temperament was also important for achieving the favorable terms.

1783 Treaty of Paris
Signature Page of the 1783 Treaty of Paris

 

Post Revolution

Post independence, John Adams went on to play a key role in the development of the fledgling nation. The Massachusetts Constitution, which was authored by him; as well as his document Thoughts on Government influenced the United States Constitution. In 1785, he was appointed the first American ambassador to Great Britain. Most importantly, Adams served as the 1st Vice President of the United States from April 21, 1789 to March 4, 1797; and then as the 2nd President of the United States from March 4, 1797 to March 4, 1801.

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