John Adams: A Patriot's Foreign Service

Karen Lee of Ancestry explores Founding Father John Adams’ fascinating life and his years serving as a foreign diplomat.
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Official presidential portrait of John Adams by John Trumbull. (Image: John Trumbull [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Born in 1735 not far from Boston, Massachusetts, John Adams attended Harvard as a teen, then worked as a schoolteacher for a couple of years before settling on his chosen career: law. Though his career got off to a slow start, Adams’ reputation grew, and he eventually built one of the largest legal practices in Massachusetts. In 1765, the year after he married Abigail, he began gaining recognition for drafting the Braintree Instructions, which argued against Britain’s Stamp Act.  

John Adams Marriage Record Courtesy

Marriage record for John Adams and Abigail Smith, from Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988, on Ancestry.

Adams burst onto the national scene when he agreed to defend eight British soldiers and their captain involved in the Boston Massacre. He won acquittals for the captain and six of the soldiers and manslaughter convictions (rather than murder) for the remaining two. Not long after this, Adams was elected to the Massachusetts legislature and was part of the Massachusetts delegation to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia four years later. 

Adams also attended the Second Continental Congress, which began the following year, 1775, chairing more than 20 committees (most notably the Board of War) and serving on many more. When a leader was needed for the Continental Army, Adams nominated George Washington. He was also instrumental in drafting and passing the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and was one of its signers as well. 

Foreign Diplomatic Career 

Having become such a visible patriot and member of Congress, it’s no surprise that Adams was selected in 1778 to join a commission to Paris that would help form an alliance between France and America in the war against Great Britain. Adams’ appointment to the commission began a 10-year career as a foreign diplomat. These years are captured—in Adams’ own words—in his letters to the Continental Congress, found on Fold3 by Ancestry in the “Continental Congress — Papers” collection. Adams was a prolific letter writer, both in his personal and professional life, and reading his letters on Fold3 gives us a peek inside the mind of one of America’s most important Founding Fathers. 

We read in his letter accepting his appointment as a commissioner to France that, though he acknowledges his “deficiencies” and wishes he were “better qualified for the important trust,” he pledges to “devote all the faculties” he has and “all that [he] can acquire” to the service of Congress. 

John Adams Commissioner to France Document Courtesy

Excerpt from John Adams' acceptance letter for the position of commissioner to France, from Continental Congress ― Papers, on Fold3.

As things turned out, however, Adams was disappointed in his role on the commission. He arrived in France—accompanied by his 10-year-old son, John Quincy—to find that the alliance had already been settled by the other members of the commission, and he largely served in an administrative capacity and did consular work. He remained in France about a year, then returned to America, where he played a large part in writing the constitution of Massachusetts, which would later influence the U.S. Constitution. 

Shortly thereafter, Adams was again asked by Congress to sail to France, this time to help negotiate peace with Britain—though the war was far from over. Despite his previous dissatisfaction in a foreign post, Adams accepted his new appointment. He was aware that he would be facing a difficult task, remarking in his letter of acceptance that “peace is an object of such vast importance; the interests to be adjusted in the negotiations to obtain it are so complicated and so delicate; and the difficulty of giving general satisfaction so great: that I feel myself more distressed at the prospect of executing the trust than at the thought of again quitting my country and encountering the dangers of the sea and of enemies.” 

John Adams Minister to France Document Courtesy

Excerpt from John Adams' letter of acceptance for the position of Minister to France, from Continental Congress ― Papers, on Fold3.

This time he traveled to France with his two young sons, and what was supposed to be a voyage by sea turned into a difficult journey by land when the ship proved to be in such poor repair that it had to dock in Spain. Adams reported to Congress that “the frigate the Sensible is found to be in so bad a condition that I am advised by everybody to go to France by land. The season, the roads, the accommodations for travelling are so unfavorable that it is not expected I can get to Paris in less than thirty days. But if I were to wait for the frigate, it would probably be much longer.” 

John Adams Journey to France Document Courtesy

Excerpt from John Adams' letter to Congress about his journey to France, from Continental Congress — Papers, on Fold3

After being in Paris for six months or so, Adams decided to travel to the Netherlands in 1780 to try to secure a loan to bolster Patriot resources. The following year, Congress appointed him minister to the Netherlands, and the year after that, 1782, Adams succeeded in getting what would turn out to be the first of several loans he would negotiate with the Dutch. He was skeptical, however, about when the funds would be available, reporting to Congress that “although I was obliged to engage with them to open the loan for five millions of Guilders, I don't expect we shall obtain that sum for a long time. If we get a million and an half by Christmas it will be more than I expect.” 

John Adams Dutch Loan Document Courtesy Ancestry

Excerpt from John Adams' letter to Congress about the loan he secured from the Dutch, from Continental Congress ― Papers, on Fold3.

Adams returned to Paris in late 1782, and about a year later, peace was finally negotiated with Great Britain. He sent a letter to Congress reporting on the signing of the treaty: “On Wednesday the third day of this Month, the American Ministers met the British Minister at his Lodgings at the Hotel de York, and signed, sealed and delivered the Definitive Treaty of Peace between the United States of America and the King of Great Britain. Altho’ it is but a Confirmation or Repetition of the Provisional Articles, I have the honor to congratulate Congress upon it, as it is a Completion of the work of Peace, and the best we could obtain.” 

John Adams Treaty with British Document Courtesy

Excerpt from John Adams' letter to Congress about the signing of the peace treaty with Britain, from Continental Congress — Papers, on Fold3.

Abigail and their daughter Nabby joined Adams in France in the summer of 1784. The following year, Adams was appointed the first U.S. minister to Great Britain, and the family moved to England. Adams served as minister to Great Britain until 1788. Before departing, Adams took his leave of the king and recounted his conversation with the British monarch to Congress: “The King’s Answer to me, was in these Words ‘Mr Adams You may, with great Truth assure the United States that whenever they Shall fulfill the Treaty, on their Part, I, on my Part will fulfill it, in all its Particulars. As to yourself, I am sure I wish you a safe and pleasant Voyage, and much comfort with your Family and Friends.’” 

John Adams Meeting with the King Document Courtesy

Excerpt from John Adam's letter to Congress summarizing his meeting with the British king, from Continental Congress ― Papers, on Fold3.

Later Life 

Adams and his family finally returned to Massachusetts in the summer of 1788. Though his foreign service was complete after 10 years abroad, Adams’ contributions to his country were far from over. In 1789, Adams was elected as George Washington’s vice president and served in that capacity for two terms, after which he served a single—somewhat fraught—term as the nation’s second president. 

Adams would live to see his son John Quincy elected president in 1824, before passing away at age 91 on the 4th of July, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the nation’s independence and the same day Thomas Jefferson also died. 

John Adams Death Record Courtesy

Death record for John Adams, from Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988, on Ancestry.

Interested in reading more letters from John Adams and America’s other Founding Fathers? Search or browse on Fold3 by Ancestry!