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John Adams (1735-1826)

45 min

Students will:

  • explain John Adams’s role in the American Revolution and the shaping of the Constitution.
  • understand the reasons for and objections to the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798).
  • understand key events leading up to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
  • understand the value of reading personal letters from history.
  • appreciate Adams’s contributions to America as a Patriot and as President.

Explain to students that John Adams’s wife Abigail was his closest, if not only, confidante. The two spent much time apart in the years leading up to and after the Revolution (1773–1784), first while Adams was traveling as a circuit judge, then later serving on the Continental Congress and traveling as a diplomat. Their correspondence reveals an intimate glimpse into the ways the events of the Revolution personally affected the Founders and their families.

Ask students to read Handout A—John Adams (1735–1826) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of John Adams.

John Adams defended in a court of law the British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre and drafted the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. He served in the Continental Congress and was a leading advocate of independence. He completed diplomatic missions in Europe, served as Vice President under George Washington, and was elected the second President of the United States. As president, he kept the U.S. out of war with France but signed the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts to do so.

  1. As a large group, ask students to brainstorm a list of ways they keep in touch with friends and family. Ask them to recall, in particular, ways they have shared happy news with loved ones.

    Students may suggest talking on the phone (land lines as well as portable cell phones), writing letters, sending emails, text messages, having Internet “chats” or instant messenger conversations. 

  2. Put up an overhead of Transparency Master A—Independence Timeline and review the events, helping students understand the chronology.
  3. Distribute Handout C—In His Own Words: John Adams on the Eve of Independence. Have students take turns reading the letters aloud (or, alternatively, choose one student who is a strong reader to read both letters aloud to the class). Have students speculate what day the letters were written, based on Transparency Master A. (They were written on July 3, 1776.)
  4. Distribute Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions and have students complete it individually.
  5. Divide students into pairs or trios and have them complete Handout D— Discussion Guide.

Bring the class back together and conduct a large group discussion, having students share their answers to Handout D.

  1. John Adams believed that future generations would celebrate Independence Day on July 2. He said that day “ought to be solemnized with pomp, shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forever.” Have students write a paragraph explaining whether Independence Day should be celebrated on July 2 or, as it is celebrated, on July 4.
  2. Have students create a graphic novel depicting John Adams and the events of July 1776. Illustrations should include the major events on Transparency Master A, and dialogue should demonstrate knowledge of Adams’s participation in and feelings about American independence.

  1. Have students research the Alien and Sedition Acts. Were they justifiable wartime measures? Why or why not? How much responsibility does John Adams bear, given that he did not advocate for the measures, yet did not oppose them? Have students explain their responses in a one-page essay.
  2. Have students research the Adams family including John Adams’s son, who was president when Adams died, and his grandsons. Have students create a PowerPoint presentation sharing what they learned with the class.

Student Handouts

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