Profile - John Adams
John Adams (1735-1826), the second President (1797-1801), was the stoutest chief executive the United States ever had, adjusted for height and weight. He was also possibly the most short-tempered. Descended from an English Puritan family that settled in Massachusetts during the 1630s. Adams’ great-grandfather and grandfather had both served in the Massachusetts militia, as did his father, also named John, who rose to colonel.
As a young man John Adams was educated for the law, and entered politics. Although he believed that the militia was one of the pillars of a free society, there’s no evidence that he served. This despite the service of his father and both his brothers. He did claim that during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), he “longed ardently to be a soldier.” Like many young New England farm boys of his day, Adams did know how to handle a musket; in fact, as a child he had often skipped school to go hunting. But whether he hand any formal military training is unknown. Given that he was for a time a school teacher, he may well have had an exemption. In any case, the closest he seems to have come to performing military service was to carry a military dispatch from the colonial government of Massachusetts to that of Rhode Island. Of course, during the Revolution he played an immensely important political and diplomatic role. And he was twice involved in incidents that might have resulted in his being on the firing line.
In 1778 Adams was sent on a diplomatic mission to France aboard the frigate USS Boston. A few days after leaving port, on February 19th, Boston found herself being pursued by several British warships. As the ship cleared for action, her Marines were mustered on deck. Adams secured a musket and fell in alongside, ready to help beat off the enemy. Within a few minutes, however, the ship's captain ordered Adams below, observing that he was more important to the war effort alive than as a musketeer. In any case Boston outdistanced her pursuer. A few weeks later, on March 10th, Boston fell in with an armed British merchant ship, Martha. Mindful of the captain’s admonition that he remain safe, Adams stayed below while the two ships exchanged fire; although Boston took some damage, she succeeded in capturing her opponent. Just a few days later Adams landed safely in France.
Adams did have a more direct impact on the military side of the Revolutionary War. From 1776 until he became Minister to France in 1778, Adams was Chairman of the “Board of War and Ordnance.” This was a committee of the Continental Congress which was charged with overseeing the armed forces. In this capacity, Adams nominated George Washington for the post of Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army; surely the most important personnel appointment in American history. In addition, Adams was largely responsible for writing the “Rules for the Regulation of the Navy of the United Colonies of North-America.” These were based on the service regulations of Britain’s Royal Navy, but they paid more attention of sailors’ rights, and included much more humane penalties for violations of the rules.
After the Revolutionary War, Adams remained prominent in national political life. Although often abroad serving on diplomatic missions, he took a lively part in the debate over constitutional issues, In 1789 he became the first vice-president of the United States, a post to which he was reelected in 1792. In 1796 he was elected the second president.
The principal military development during Adams’ presidency was the Quasi-War with France, on which see CIC No. 7, February 1, 2000.
John Adams died on July 4, 1826, the same day as Jefferson, just 50 years to the day since both had signed the Declaration of Independence.
The second president’s son John Quincy Adams also served as president, but had no military service. A second son, Charles, died young.
John Adams had two brothers who served. Peter and Elihu Adams did tours of duty as captains in the Massachusetts militia during the Revolution, in which Elihu died from disease contracted while on active duty.