John Adams died while his son John Quincy Adams was president.
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"Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."
— John Adams (1814)
"Democracy will soon degenerate into an anarchy; such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes and no man's life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure, and every one of these will soon mould itself into a system of subordination of all the moral virtues and intellectual abilities, all the powers of wealth, beauty, wit, and science, to the wanton pleasures, the capricious will, and the execrable [abominable] cruelty of one or a very few."
— John Adams
"The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves."
– John Adams, September 10, 1785
"There are two ways to conquer and enslave a nation. One is by the sword. The other is by debt." — John Adams
About John Adams
John Adams (October 30, 1735 (O.S. October 19, 1735) – July 4, 1826) was an American Founding Father, lawyer, statesman, diplomat and political theorist. A leading champion of independence in 1776, he was the second President of the United States (1797–1801). Hailing from New England, Adams, a prominent lawyer and public figure in Boston, was highly educated and represented Enlightenment values promoting republicanism. A Federalist, he was highly influential and one of the key Founding Fathers of the United States.
Adams came to prominence in the early stages of the American Revolution. As a delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress, he played a leading role in persuading Congress to declare independence and assisted Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence. As a diplomat in Europe, he was a major negotiator of the eventual peace treaty with Great Britain, and chiefly responsible for obtaining important loans from Amsterdam bankers. A political theorist and historian, Adams largely wrote the Massachusetts state constitution in 1780 which soon after ended slavery in Massachusetts, but was in Europe when the federal Constitution was drafted on similar principles later in the decade. One of his greatest roles was as a judge of character: in 1775, he nominated George Washington to be commander-in-chief, and 25 years later nominated John Marshall to be Chief Justice of the United States.
Adams' revolutionary credentials secured him two terms as George Washington's vice president and his own election in 1796 as the second president. During his one term, he encountered ferocious attacks by the Jeffersonian Republicans, as well as the dominant faction in his own Federalist Party led by his bitter enemy Alexander Hamilton. Adams signed the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts, and built up the army and navy especially in the face of an undeclared naval war (called the "Quasi War") with France, 1798–1800. The major accomplishment of his presidency was his peaceful resolution of the conflict in the face of Hamilton's opposition.
In 1800 Adams was defeated for re-election by Thomas Jefferson and retired to Massachusetts. He later resumed his friendship with Jefferson. He and his wife, Abigail Adams, founded an accomplished family line of politicians, diplomats, and historians now referred to as the Adams political family. Adams was the father of John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States. His achievements have received greater recognition in modern times, though his contributions were not initially as celebrated as those of other Founders.
John Adams at Continental Congress
Massachusetts sent John Adams to the first and second Continental Congresses in 1774 and from 1775 to 1777. In June 1775, with a view of promoting union among the colonies, he nominated George Washington of Virginia as commander-in-chief of the army then assembled around Boston. His influence in Congress was great, and almost from the beginning, he sought permanent separation from Britain.
Over the next decade, Americans from every state gathered and deliberated on new governing documents. As radical as it was to write constitutions (prior tradition suggested that a society's form of government need not be codified, nor its organic law written down in a single document), what was equally radical was the revolutionary nature of American political thought as the summer of 1776 dawned.
Declaration of Independence
In May 1776 John Adams persuaded congress to approve his resolution calling on the colonies to adopt new (presumably independent) governments. He then assembled a preamble to this resolution which elaborated on it, and which congress approved on May 15. These two resolutions were, as Adams put it, "independence itself" and set the stage for the formal passage of the Declaration of Independence. Once the initial resolution and preamble passed in May, independence became inevitable, though had to be declared formally. On June 7, 1776, Adams seconded the resolution of independence introduced by Richard Henry Lee which stated, "These colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states," and championed the resolution until it was adopted by Congress on July 2, 1776.
John Adams was appointed to a committee with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman, to draft the Declaration of Independence, which was to be ready when congress voted on independence. Because the committee left no minutes, there is some uncertainty about how the drafting process proceeded—accounts written many years later by Jefferson and Adams, although frequently cited, are contradictory and not entirely reliable. What is certain is that the committee, after discussing the general outline that the document should follow, decided that Jefferson would write the first draft. The committee in general, and Jefferson in particular, thought Adams should write the document, but Adams persuaded the committee to choose Jefferson and promised to consult with Jefferson personally. Although the first draft was written primarily by Jefferson, Adams continued to occupy the foremost place in the debate on its adoption. After editing the document further, congress approved it on July 4. Many years later, Jefferson hailed Adams as "the pillar of [the Declaration's] support on the floor of Congress, its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered."
After the defeat of the Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, Admiral Lord Richard Howe requested the Second Continental Congress send representatives in an attempt to negotiate peace. A delegation including Adams and Benjamin Franklin met with Howe on Staten Island on September 11. Both Howe's authority and that of the delegation were limited, and they were unable to find common ground. When Lord Howe unhappily stated he could only view the American delegates as British subjects, Adams replied, "Your lordship may consider me in what light you please, [...] except that of a British subject." Lord Howe then addressed the other delegates, stating, "Mr. Adams appears to be a decided character." Adams learned many years later that his name was on a list of people specifically excluded from Howe's pardon-granting authority. In 1777, Adams began serving as the head of the Board of War and Ordnance, as well as serving on many other important committees.
John Adams' Thoughts on Government
Several representatives turned to Adams for advice about framing new governments. Adams got tired of repeating the same thing, and published the pamphlet "Thoughts on Government" (1776), which was subsequently influential in the writing of state constitutions. Using the conceptual framework of Republicanism in the United States, the patriots believed it was the corrupt and nefarious aristocrats, in the British Parliament, and their minions stationed in America, who were guilty of the British assault on American liberty.
Adams advised that the form of government should be chosen to attain the desired ends, which are the happiness and virtue of the greatest number of people. With this goal in mind, he wrote in "Thoughts on Government",
There is no good government but what is republican. That the only valuable part of the British constitution is so; because the very definition of a republic is an empire of laws, and not of men.
The treatise also defended bicameralism, for "a single assembly is liable to all the vices, follies, and frailties of an individual." He also suggested that there should be a separation of powers between the executive, the judicial, and the legislative branches, and further recommended that if a continental government were to be formed then it "should sacredly be confined" to certain enumerated powers. "Thoughts on Government" was enormously influential and was referenced as an authority in every state-constitution writing hall.
John Adams' Constitutional ideas
Massachusetts's new constitution, ratified in 1780 and written largely by Adams himself, structured its government most closely on his views of politics and society. It was the first constitution written by a special committee and ratified by the people. It was also the first to feature a bicameral legislature, a clear and distinct executive with a partial (two-thirds) veto (although he was restrained by an executive council), and a distinct judicial branch.
While in London, Adams published a work entitled A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States (1787). In it he repudiated the views of Turgot and other European writers as to the viciousness of the framework of state governments. Turgot argued that countries that lacked aristocracies needn't have bicameral legislatures. He thought that republican governments feature "all authorities into one center, that of the nation." In the book, Adams suggested that "the rich, the well-born and the able" should be set apart from other men in a senate—that would prevent them from dominating the lower house. Wood (2006) has maintained that Adams had become intellectually irrelevant by the time the Federal Constitution was ratified. By then, American political thought, transformed by more than a decade of vigorous and searching debate as well as shaping experiential pressures, had abandoned the classical conception of politics which understood government as a mirror of social estates. Americans' new conception of popular sovereignty now saw the people-at-large as the sole possessors of power in the realm. All agents of the government enjoyed mere portions of the people's power and only for a limited time. Adams had completely missed this concept and revealed his continued attachment to the older version of politics. Yet Wood overlooks Adams's peculiar definition of the term "republic," and his support for a constitution ratified by the people. He also underplays Adams's belief in checks and balances. "Power must be opposed to power, and interest to interest," Adams wrote; this sentiment would later be echoed by James Madison's famous statement that "[a]mbition must be made to counteract ambition" in The Federalist No. 51, in explaining the powers of the branches of the United States federal government under the new Constitution. Adams did as much as anyone to put the idea of "checks and balances" on the intellectual map.
Adams's Defence can be read as an articulation of the classical republican theory of mixed government. Adams contended that social classes exist in every political society, and that a good government must accept that reality. For centuries, dating back to Aristotle, a mixed regime balancing monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—that is, the king, the nobles, and the people—was required to preserve order and liberty.
Adams never bought a slave and declined on principle to employ slave labor. Abigail Adams opposed slavery and employed free blacks in preference to her father's two domestic slaves. John Adams spoke out in 1777 against a bill to emancipate slaves in Massachusetts, saying that the issue was presently too divisive, and so the legislation should "sleep for a time." He also was against use of black soldiers in the Revolution, due to opposition from southerners. Adams generally tried to keep the issue out of national politics, because of the anticipated southern response. Though it is difficult to pinpoint the exact date on which slavery was abolished in Massachusetts, a common view is that it was abolished no later than 1780, when it was forbidden by implication in the Declaration of Rights that John Adams wrote into the Massachusetts Constitution.
Death of John Adams
Less than a month before his death, John Adams issued a statement about the destiny of the United States, which historians such as Joy Hakim have characterized as a "warning" for his fellow citizens. Adams said:
My best wishes, in the joys, and festivities, and the solemn services of that day on which will be completed the fiftieth year from its birth, of the independence of the United States: a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race, destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall, in time to come, be shaped by the human mind.
On July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Adams died at his home in Quincy. Told that it was the Fourth, he answered clearly, "It is a great day. It is a good day." His last words have been reported as "Thomas Jefferson survives" (Jefferson himself, however, had died hours before he did). His death left Charles Carroll of Carrollton as the last surviving signatory of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams died while his son John Quincy Adams was president.
His crypt lies at United First Parish Church (also known as the Church of the Presidents) in Quincy. Originally, he was buried in Hancock Cemetery, across the road from the Church. Until his record was broken by Ronald Reagan in 2001, he was the nation's longest-living President (90 years, 247 days) maintaining that record for 175 years.