1938 2¢ John Adams
Issue Date: June 3, 1938
First City: Washington, DC
Quantity Issued: 25,038,485,700
Printing Method: Rotary press
Perforations: 11 x 10 ½
Color: Rose carmine
Known affectionately as the “Prexies,” the 1938 Presidential series is a favorite among stamp collectors.
The series was issued in response to public clamoring for a new Regular Issue series. The series that was current at the time had been in use for more than a decade. President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed, and a contest was staged. The public was asked to submit original designs for a new series picturing all deceased U.S. Presidents. Over 1,100 sketches were submitted, many from veteran stamp collectors. Elaine Rawlinson, who had little knowledge of stamps, won the contest and collected the $500 prize. Rawlinson was the first stamp designer since the Bureau of Engraving and Printing began producing U.S. stamps who was not a government employee.
John Adams was one of America’s earliest and most influential patriots. An eloquent author, Adams penned passionate arguments against the English Parliament’s Stamp Act of 1765. The oppressive taxes, which applied to papers and documents produced in the colonies, inflamed a spirit of independence that led to the American Revolution. Adams was a member of the group of young, educated colonials who were instrumental in the fight for democracy, and later played a critical role in forging the new government. In Thomas Jefferson’s words, Adams was the “Colossus of Independence.”
After serving as George Washington’s vice president, John Adams was narrowly elected President in 1797. England and France were at war, and each of the powerful nations hoped to form an alliance with the United States. History credits Adams with heeding Washington’s parting advice to avoid embroiling the young nation in international conflicts. However, the emergence of partisan politics hampered his administration, and Adams was defeated in his re-election attempt.
Adam’s Early Life
John Adams was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, in 1735. In his youth, Adams was a bright yet indifferent student who preferred the outdoors to a classroom. At the age of 15, Adams entered Harvard College and graduated in 1755. He taught school for a few years and practiced law. In 1764, Adams married Abigail Smith. The couple had four children who survived infancy.
Adams was never a fiery orator or a popular leader in the growing independence movement. However, his essays combined a thorough knowledge of the law, careful analysis of historical perspectives, and inspiring pleas for liberty. In 1772, Adams successfully defended the British officers who were indicted for their roles in the Boston Massacre. The acquittal was unpopular at the time, but Adams’ respect for the right to an adequate legal defense eventually enhanced his reputation. Adams gained further fame for his opposition to the Stamp Act, and he was elected to the Massachusetts state legislature in 1773.
Adams served as Massachusetts’ delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses from 1774-78, where he nominated George Washington to serve as the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. By 1776, each colony had been encouraged to write its own state constitution. John Adams penned an essay entitled “Thoughts on Government,” which was instrumental in shaping the writing of many of the state constitutions.
Adams was appointed to a committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. Although he was a compelling author, Adams left the writing to Thomas Jefferson and used his abilities to ensure that the document was adopted. For his efforts, Jefferson referred to Adams as “...the great pillar of support to the Declaration of Independence, and its ablest advocate and champion on the floor of the House.”
Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, sailed to France in 1779. During their two-year stay, Adams negotiated a critical alliance with France. France contributed money, munitions, and military force that helped sustain the Continental Army during the American Revolution. A French naval presence helped ensure victory at the Battle of Yorktown.
Adams’ trip to France was the first of many extended periods away from Abigail and his young family. In 1779, Congress chose Adams to negotiate treaties for peace and commerce with Great Britain. He served as the U.S. envoy to France and the Netherlands from 1780 to 1785, and negotiated the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War.
In 1785, Adams was selected to serve as the U.S. Minister to Britain. In his new capacity, Adams was the first patriot of the War of Independence to meet King George III. Upon meeting his former king, Adams spoke of his desire to help with the restoration of “the old good nature and the old good humor between our peoples.” When King George spoke of Adams’ widely acknowledged lack of confidence in the French government, Adams admitted that he “must avow to your Majesty that I have no attachment but to my own country.”
Upon his return, Adams wrote the Massachusetts state constitution. Adams was also influential in writing the U.S. Constitution, with his finest contribution being the concept of three branches of federal government: executive, legislative, and judicial.
America’s First Vice President
George Washington was the unanimous choice as President in the 1789 election. John Adams placed second, becoming our nation’s first vice president. Adams immediately began a month-long controversy to determine the President’s official title. His preference for grandiose titles such as “His High Mightiness” and “His Majesty the President” offended a constituency that had recently won its independence from the English monarchy. Adams’ lofty titles and increasing girth led to his nickname, “His Rotundity.”
Washington did not seek his vice president’s input on policy or legal matters, and Adams lamented, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Nevertheless, Adams played an active role in the Senate, where he cast 31 tie-breaking votes and influenced the location of the national capital. Adams won his re-election bid in 1792.
Political parties began to form during Adams’ term in office. The Federalist Party was led by Alexander Hamilton, a brilliant man whose foreign birth made him ineligible for the nation’s highest office. The opposing Democratic-Republican Party was led by Thomas Jefferson, who advocated strong relations with France. Adams aligned himself with the Federalist Party, and was selected to be its presidential nominee in 1796. By a margin of only 3 votes, Adams won the presidency and Thomas Jefferson became his vice president. It was the only time in U.S. history that the nation’s two highest offices were held by opponents from different political parties.
Adams’ inauguration was held on March 4, 1797. Adams arrived at the ceremony in a gilded white coach drawn by six white horses he’d purchased for the event. The ceremony was held in the House of Representatives Chamber in Congress Hall, Philadelphia. Adams was the first President to receive the oath of office from the Chief Justice of the United States, Oliver Ellsworth. The event, which was somber and low-key, included an inaugural address with a 727-word-long sentence. Abigail had remained in Quincy, and only Thomas Jefferson accompanied Adams on his return home after the swearing-in ceremony.
In a move considered to be one of his greatest political mistakes, Adams kept George Washington’s entire Cabinet. The group’s allegiance was to Alexander Hamilton, which would weaken Adams’ administration. A deep rift formed between the two men’s factions within the Federalist Party.
The war between France and Britain was raging before Adams took office, causing a foreign policy crisis during his administration. Adams and the Federalists favored Britain, while Vice President Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican Party urged an alliance with France. George Washington’s declaration of neutrality, which Adams embraced, was sorely tested in the days leading up to his inauguration, as France seized almost 300 U.S. merchant vessels.
The Quasi-War was a naval battle between the United States and France. Fought between 1798 and 1800, the undeclared war began with France’s seizure of American commercial ships that were trading with England. In 1796, France refused to receive the new U.S. Minister. The following year, Adams reported on France’s refusal and reminded Congress of the need to “place our country in a suitable posture of defense.” Informed of a secretive 1798 French attempt to secure a large bribe from America for the restoration of peaceful relations, Congress authorized Adams to acquire and man ships for war with France.
Congress officially rescinded its treaties with France, and the Quasi-War began on July 7, 1798. Four days later, the United States Navy and Marine Corps was created to help bring about the defeat of France and the restoration of America’s commercial shipping. Called upon to lead the Army once again, General George Washington insisted Alexander Hamilton be appointed to be his assistant, to the chagrin of President Adams.
In the midst of the intense disputes over foreign policy, a group of four acts were introduced in Congress. Known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts, the laws sought to limit political immigrants and domestic opponents. The Naturalization Act increased the residency requirement for American citizenship to 14 years. The Alien Enemies Act allowed the President to deport any foreigner he deemed to be a danger to the country, and the Sedition Act made it a crime to publicly criticize the federal government. Violators faced from two to five years in prison and fines of up to $5,000. Although he had not introduced the legislation, Adams signed the controversial acts into law.
Even though it had once seemed full-scale war was inevitable, the Quasi-War ended with the Treaty of Mortefontaine in 1800. However, Adams’ reputation and political career had been deeply damaged. He battled a rift in his own Federalist party, lost control of the U.S. Army to Hamilton, a political opponent who led the break-away “High Federalist” movement, and served with a vice president from an opposing political party.
Election of 1800 and the Midnight Judges
The 1799 death of George Washington shattered any remnants of unity within the Federalist Party, leaving Adams vulnerable as he sought re-election in 1800. Once ardent patriots who worked together to free a great nation from the tyranny of King George III, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams waged a bitter battle for the presidency. When the electoral votes were counted, Jefferson won by a margin of 73 to 65 votes.
As his term expired, Adams appointed a series of Federalist allies to federal judicial seats. Known as the “Midnight Judges,” most were eventually unseated by the Jefferson administration. John Marshall remained as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and his decision in Marbury v. Madison established the concept of judicial review. By ruling any legislation deemed contrary to the U.S. Constitution to be illegal, the decision is a legal landmark that shaped the role of the court and impacts judicial decisions today.
Retirement and Reconciliation
Deeply depressed, Adams retired to his farm in Quincy without attending Jefferson’s inauguration. In 1804, the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed. The Amendment altered the electoral process, doing away with the system that allowed members of opposing political parties to hold the two highest offices. Adams’ son, Charles, succumbed to alcoholism in 1800, followed by daughter Abigail (“Nabby”) of cancer in 1816, and wife Abigail in 1818.
In spite of his losses, Adams found an oasis of peace in his retirement. In 1812, mutual friend Benjamin Rush encouraged Adams to send a short letter to Jefferson. Their friendship quickly resumed, and the two great leaders enjoyed corresponding with one another for the rest of their lives. Their surviving letters offer remarkable insight into historical events as seen through the eyes of two of America’s leading patriots.
Adams lived to see his son, John Quincy Adams, win the presidential election in 1825. (The accomplishment would not be repeated until 2000, when George W. Bush was elected to the office his father, George H. Bush, had once held.) Like his father, John Quincy served one term before mounting a re-election campaign. The younger Adams took exactly the same states as his father had in 1800, losing to Andrew Jackson in a landslide.
As America prepared to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the nation lost two of its authors. John Adams died at his home on July 4, 1826, after uttering the words, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Adams was unaware that Jefferson, his greatest political rival and closest friend, had died a few hours earlier.