Adams was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts. He had a playful childhood, putting only minor effort into his early schoolwork. But Adams went on to attend Harvard, where he became a lawyer.
Adams was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1758. He steadily built his law practice, and his most celebrated case was his successful defense of the British soldiers accused of carrying out the Boston Massacre. Of the eight accused of murder, six were acquitted and two were convicted only of manslaughter.
In 1770, Adams was elected to the General Court (Lower House) of the Massachusetts legislature. Three years later, he was elected to the Governor's Council (Upper House), but his election was vetoed by the Royal Governor, most likely due to Adams' support for the Boston Tea Party.
Adams served from 1774 to 1777 as a member of the Continental Congress. It was he who nominated Washington to be commander of the armed forces. From 1778 to 1788, Adams served abroad as a diplomat. In France, with Benjamin Franklin, then in the Netherlands, where he succeeded in gaining Dutch recognition, and loans, for the United States, he earned a reputation as a skillful negotiator and spokesman for his fledgeling country. In 1882, he returned to France to help negotiate the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War. From 1785 until 1788 he served as the first United States Ambassador to Great Britain.
In 1789, he was elected Vice President, an office he held until 1797. His view of the Vice Presidency can be summed up in the following statement:
"My country has, in its wisdom, contrived for me the most insignificant office ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." The relations among the United States, Great Britain and France became the key issue of the Adams Presidency. Adams started his administration with a conciliatory posture.
Despite rising passion against France, he sent three representatives to France to try to work out differences between the French and the US government. His emissaries were met by three French representatives demanding a bribe.
When word of this outrage reached Adams, he decided that this was tantamount to war. He requested that the US make preparations for a war with France. The republican opposition demanded that Adams release the contents of the correspondence with France. They believed he had exaggerated the affair.
Adams at first refused, citing executive privilege. (This is the doctrine that activities of the executive branch need not be released to Congress). Eventually, after he was convinced by his Federalist supporters, Adams released the documents, but witheld the names of the Frenchmen involved.
The release of the documents brought the cry for war against the French to a fever pitch. The United States armed its merchantmen and proceeded to succesfully combat the French in repeated naval encounters. Adams never asked for a Declaration of War. Soon the French came to realize that they had nothing to gain by pursuing a war with the United States. They soon expressed their willingness to receive a new envoy from the United States to work out their differences.
Adams' pursuit of peace was roundly condemned by the Federalists. Adams lost his bid for re-election to Jefferson, due largely to the disarray of the Federalist party.