Born on 19 October 1735, Adams was sixty-one when he took office. He had behind him thirty years of distinguished public service. His father, a respected farmer and artisan of Braintree, Massachusetts, had pointed him toward Harvard College and a career in the Congregational ministry. He took his degree in 1755, but by then theological uncertainty had turned him toward a secular vocation. He taught school briefly, then read law, and was admitted to the bar in 1758. Within a dozen years he became the colony's preeminent and busiest lawyer.
In defending such clients as John Hancock and other merchants accused of smuggling and sailors charged with rioting against press gangs of the Royal Navy, he was drawn into the local resistance movement. The Stamp Act of 1765 provoked him to argue in speech and in print against this parliamentary statute, which he termed an unconstitutional violation of colonial liberty. In 1770 he masterfully defended the British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre. He secured their acquittal while protecting the town's reputation against the charge that the soldiers had been unmercifully harassed. He held several local offices and served a term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In retaliation for Adams' opposition to royal government, the governor twice vetoed his election to the Massachusetts Council. His law practice ended in 1774 when the colony and the developing nation began to demand all of his talents and energy.
In 1764, Adams had married Abigail Smith of neighboring Weymouth, Massachusetts, who was to make a major contribution to his public career. Without attending school, she had mastered the literature of the day and developed a remarkably perceptive intellect and an unquenchable spirit. As John Adams became absorbed in politics and diplomacy, he increasingly left to her the responsibility of raising their four surviving children and managing the family's finances. At first impatient with the limitations of the private sphere to which women were confined, she in time accepted her husband's successes as her own and gladly took her place as his confidante and defender. Theirs was a marriage of equals as far as the roles society assigned men and women would permit. But his services for their country kept them apart during most of the ten years after 1774.