John Adams can safely be said to have had a very controversial presidency. He was at first, forced to follow George Washington, the "Father of his Country." How could he realistically succeed in this endeavor? After all, he was the Second president, not the first. If Washington was the face of the American Revolution, John Adams could certainly lay claim to being the spirit of the revolution. Thomas Jefferson seized the role of the voice of the revolution, much to John Adam's chagrin. He was every bit as good a writer and was certainly Jefferson's equal, if not superior intellectually.
John Adams, as president, was buffeted from all sides with crises. First, the French Revolution had led to a war in Europe mainly between the revolutionary French government and Great Britain, along with other European monarchies seeking to save the monarchial system. In America, political parties were born, dividing into the Federalists of Adams and Hamilton and the anti-Federalists of Jefferson. Hamilton was a loose constructionist who saw implied powers in the constitution, while Jefferson was a strict constructionist who saw only those powers as written. Adams was caught between the battle of the these two titans. The Federalists were spoiling for war with France owing to several factors, foremost among them the XYZ Affair and the national humiliation at the hands of their former ally.
The country was basically divided into the two camps, both spoiling for war, and Adams was caught in the middle. He was always sensitive to criticism and this sensitivity culminated in the Alien and Sedition Acts. The most insidious of these was the Sedition Act which made it illegal to criticize the government and the president. Obviously, a blatant violation of the First Amendment. This misstep cost Adams more than anything else. Jefferson and Madison put forth the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in opposition to the Acts and gave rise to the compact theory and nullification that became the basis for the seccession of the Confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War. This cost Adams a second term and caused a rift between he and Jefferson that lasted into the 18 teens. They eventually reconciled and carried on an active letter writing relationship reuniting the two greatest men of the revolutionary age, that endured to their dying day.
Adams, to his everlasting credit finally negotiated a treaty with the French, ending the Quasi-War, 1798-1800 and saving the US from a devastating war that more than likely would have ended the American experiment at the beginning. We owe Adams for the steady hand with which he guided the country at its inception. He had a single misstep with the Alien and Sedition Acts. After that he did the best for his country and guided it to a successful conclusion of the European problems that threatened the world.
On top of all that, he was the first president to live in the White House, or Executive Mansion as it was called. And we can't leave Adams without a nod to Abigail who kept the family together through all the absences of John and really operated their family farm better than John ever could. She was his most trusted advisor. Take the time to read their letters to each other and you will be made part of one of the greatest love stories in American history.
By the way, let's put something to rest right here. The Founding Fathers were not uniformly rich, white, slaveholders. Adams was a lawyer with a farm that barely survived each year. He and his northern brethren appalled slavery and only agreed to punt the problem 20 years down the road in the constitution in order to form a compromise and get the constitution approved. Nineteen out of the fifty-five delegates owned slaves, a definite minority. It gives the lie to the historical revisionists that want to paint them as rich, white guys with little connection to the people. They were the people.
The fact that most of the Founding Fathers held property should be proof that had they not had a large amount of civic virtue the country would have been stillborn. We owe them for our very existance. They deserve to be revered and they rightfully are. The wisdom of John Adams:
But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations...This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.
John Adams, letter to H. Niles, February 13, 1818
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It is fitting that the two who conferred in its writing died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration. It is only fitting.