Founders and the Constitution

John Adams (1735-1826)

Clock One 45-minute class period.

In this lesson, students will study the life of John Adams. Students will learn about his role in the American Revolution, in the shaping of the new nation, his role as president, and his reasons for and objections to the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Founding Principles

Civil Discourse image

Civil Discourse

Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Representative / Republican Government image

Representative / Republican Government

Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.


There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty. - John Adams (1772)


Short, overweight, and quick-tongued, John Adams hardly fits the model of the typical Founding Father. But Adams’s contributions to American independence and the formation of the United States government were on a par with his contemporaries. Adams penned defenses of American rights in the 1770s and was one of the earliest advocates of colonial independence from Great Britain. The author of the Massachusetts Constitution and Declaration of Rights of 1780, Adams was also a champion of individual liberty. He favored the addition of the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution, and indeed the federal Bill in many respects resembled his Declaration. As president, he kept America out of war with France, but signed the unpopular (and probably unconstitutional) Alien and Sedition Acts to do so.

Adams was a principled man who was willing to take unpopular stands. For example, his legal defense of the British soldiers who killed five Bostonians in the infamous “Massacre” of 1770 lost him law clients and friends. Though he often spoke his mind openly, Adams trusted few people aside from his wife Abigail, his only confidante. To her he once lamented that “mausoleums, statues, monuments will never be erected to me.” For many years such contemporaries as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson obscured him from the gaze of posterity. But in recent years, Adams’s contributions have been reevaluated and the man whom Thomas Jefferson called “a colossus of independence” has assumed his rightful place among his fellow Founders esteemed by history.


In this lesson, students will learn about John Adams. They should first read as homework Handout A—John Adams (1735–1826) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to those in class, the teacher should have students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the primary source activity, Handout C— In His Own Words: John Adams On The Eve Of Independence in which Adams writes to his wife, Abigail, about the events of July 2, 1776. As a preface, there is Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help the students understand the documents. Handout D—Discussion Guide will facilitate conversation about the documents.

There are Follow-Up Homework Options that ask students to explain when Independence Day should be celebrated, or to create a graphic novel depicting John Adams’s involvement in the events of June and July 1776. Extensions asks students to research the Alien and Sedition Acts, or to research the Adams family and their contributions to American government.


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.


Student Handouts

  • Handout A—John Adams (1735–1826)
  • Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
  • Handout C—In His Own Words: John Adams On The Eve Of Independence
  • Handout D—Discussion Guide

Additional Teacher Resources

  • Transparency Master A — Independence Timeline
  • Answer Key


CCE (9–12): IC1, IC3, IIIA1, IIIA2
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B, 3D
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10

Background Homework

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

Warm-up 10 min.

  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.

Context 5 min.

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.

In His Own Words 20 min.

  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.

Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.

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

Follow-Up Homework Options

  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.


Diggins, John Patrick. The Portable John Adams. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
Ellis, Joseph E. Passionate Age: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. Reprint. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.
Ferling, John. John Adams: A Life. Reprint. New York: Owl Books, 1996.
McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
Thompson, C. Bradley. John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty. Reprint. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.
Waters, John J. Jr. The Adams Family in Provincial and Revolutionary Massachusetts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.


Adams National Historical Park. National Park Service.
“Online: The Adams Family.” The Massachusetts Historical Society.
Biography of John Adams. The White House.
Biography of John Adams. Colonial Hall.

Selected Works

By John Adams

  • A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765)
  • Thoughts on Government (1776)
  • Defense of the Constitutions of Governments of the United States of America (1787–1788)
  • Discourses on Davila (1805)

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