Perhaps the most misunderstood of the Founding Fathers is John Adams. He was arrogant, short-tempered, vain. He was intelligent, honorable, and crucial to the success of the Revolution. Though much is made of Thomas Jefferson’s contradictory nature, Adams was a man besieged by contradictions, personally, politically, and in historical review.
He was an early advocate for American independence, but followed the rule of law by serving as the attorney for British soldiers charged with the massacre of several American colonists prior to the war. He helped develop the Declaration of Independence but, as the second President, Adams jailed newspaper editors for criticizing his administration. If one reads the collected editions of American Aurora, an early American newspaper, a reader would believe Adams to be an evil megalomaniac who wanted to be king. Yet, if a reader finds David McCullough’s “John Adams” biography, Adams is a far more complex and compassionate character.
Though his presidency was anything but smooth, Adams ensured the change of power within American government. He faced a formidable task following George Washington, but he accepted the job. Though he was unhappy to have lost his re-election to rival Thomas Jefferson, Adams readily followed the people’s will and departed Washington prior to Jefferson’s inauguration.
Yet, the contradictions of Adams’ life and nature do not end there. In formative days of the Revolution, Adams moved that the Continental Congress name George Washington as commander in chief of the American army. Later, Adams became jealous of Washington’s fame, power and prestige.
Adams and Jefferson were close friends in revolutionary days. Following his election as President in 1796, Adams even hinted at making Vice President Jefferson his co-president. Jefferson declined. During Adams’ presidency, their friendship faded and the two men became political rivals. These one-time bosom buddies became bitter enemies, and Adams and Jefferson refused to speak or correspond for several years.
Many years after their respective presidencies, Adams and Jefferson rekindled their friendship. They wrote to each other often, with Adams writing an estimated three letters to every one of Jefferson’s.
Yet, the two men shared a great connection. While Jefferson is given the lion’s share of credit for the Declaration of Independence, Adams has been called the “voice” of Independence. Yes, Jefferson wrote the Declaration, but Adams argued for American independence. He made the case for independence in a speech before Congress. So persuasive was his argument that Congress voted for independence on July 2, 1776. On July 3, 1776, Congress debated the details of Jefferson’s Declaration before the document was approved on July 4, 1776.
Adams believed that July 2 would be Independence Day. As the years passed, it irked Adams that his arguments for independence and July 2 were forgotten while Jefferson’s Declaration and its approval on July 4 were remembered and celebrated.
Still, Adams and Jefferson were uniquely connected to each other and July 4. By 1826, Adams and Jefferson were two of only three survivors who signed the Declaration of Independence. As Americans prepared to celebrate the 50th anniversary of American independence, both Adams and Jefferson were too old and infirm to attend any of the many events marking the occasion. On July 4, 1826, Jefferson died first. Adams did not know of Jefferson’s death, but Adams too was on his death bed that day. Shortly before, Adams died on July 4, 1826, he reportedly said, “Jefferson survives.”