Founding Friendship

A new dual biography of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

John Trumbull, “Declaration of Independence” / Wikimedia Commons

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson met for the first time in the summer of 1775. Still in their thirties, they had been elected delegates to the Second Continental Congress, Adams from Massachusetts and Jefferson from Virginia. It was a desperate hour. Only weeks before, British regulars and colonial minutemen had fired on each other at Lexington and Concord. The American colonies were in open rebellion. Representatives from all thirteen colonies hastened to Philadelphia to plan their next move. The meeting between Adams and Jefferson was the beginning of a friendship that would last more than half a century. It expressed, like no other relationship of the era, the ambiguity and drama of the American founding.

They were an odd couple from the start. Adams was stout, pugnacious, and arrogant. He never saw the point of having a conversation if he could have an argument instead. After raising himself from the middling class of Massachusetts society (his father was a shoemaker), he became obsessed with titles, privilege, and rank, especially his own. During one difficult Atlantic crossing later in life, he refused to work the ship’s pump. He would rather drown than perform manual labor. Jefferson was his opposite — tall, elegant, quietly cheerful, and utterly self-possessed. From the highest rung of the tidewater gentry, Jefferson wore a placid, amiable expression even in the most trying circumstances. His friends found him inscrutable. Adams never forgot an insult; Jefferson, it seemed, never remembered one. Adams feared and disliked ordinary citizens; Jefferson put all his trust in them. Adams never owned a slave; Jefferson had more than a hundred.

How Adams and Jefferson managed to work together and to sustain a friendship over so many decades is a wonder. “No two men who claimed to be friends were divided on so many crucial matters,” writes Gordon S. Wood in his latest book, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. To understand their relationship is an enduring challenge in the scholarship on the revolution and Early Republic. Wood is the best imaginable guide. The editor of the Writings of John Adams for the Library of America, as well as a past winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Bancroft Prize, and National Humanities Medal, Wood is an eminent American historian and an excellent writer.

Gordon S. Wood, “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.” Penguin Press, 2017. $35.00

As relations with Great Britain deteriorated through 1775 and 1776, many delegates to the Continental Congress came to believe independence was their only remedy. In June of 1776, Congress appointed the so-called Committee of Five, including Adams and Jefferson, to draw up a formal declaration of independence. We now know that Jefferson was the primary author of this historic document. Yet Adams played a crucial role, which has been largely forgotten. Jefferson’s text offers justification for a previous congressional resolution to “Institute Governments” in the new states (they were no longer called colonies). Its wording, and its passage through Congress that spring, had been the work of Adams. The resolution stipulated, among other things, that “the exercise of every kind of authority under the…Crown should be totally suppressed.” It amounted to nothing less, Adams said, than “independence itself.” The ratification of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th was a triumph for both men.

During the Revolutionary War, Congress appointed Adams minister to France, while Jefferson served first as a member of the Virginia legislature and then as wartime governor. After the Treaty of Paris ended hostilities in 1783, Congress instructed Jefferson to join Adams in France as part of a delegation that would negotiate commercial treaties between the new United States of America and the nations of Europe. Despite their obvious differences in personality and life experience, Adams and Jefferson developed a uniquely intimate relationship during their year together in Paris. It was much assisted by the presence of Adams’ spouse, Abigail Smith Adams. Jefferson was struck, as was everyone, by Abigail’s competence, dignity, and intelligence. In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson described her as “one of the most estimable characters on Earth.”

Abigail admired Jefferson’s gentle good humor and vast erudition in fields as diverse as architecture, art, music, philosophy, and politics. She called him, in curiously similar terms, “one of the choice ones of the Earth.” Jefferson’s wife Martha had recently died at a tragically young age. John and Abigail, along with their son John Quincy Adams, now welcomed Jefferson and his young daughter Polly nearly as members of their family. Jefferson began to refer to John Quincy as “our John.” And Abigail privately revealed to Jefferson that he was the only man in the world with whom John Quincy’s father “could associate with perfect freedom, and unreserve.”

In 1785, Adams was sent to London to assume the delicate office of first U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. Jefferson remained in Paris as the new ambassador to France. During the subsequent years in these great European capitals, each man’s thinking became more radical in a way that would eventually stress their friendship to the breaking point. Adams came to endorse parts of the English class system and the elitist aspects of British governance. Jefferson, by contrast, embraced the robust currents of democratic philosophy he found in the French Enlightenment. Although they both generally approved of the new U.S. Constitution written in 1787, and they supported its ratification, they had different ideas about what it meant and how it should shape American politics into the future. Jefferson’s most profound concern about the Constitution was that it lacked a Bill of Rights. More upsetting to Adams was that presidential appointments required Senate approval.

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, “Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776” / Wikimedia Commons

The first rift opened in response to the French Revolution. Jefferson believed that the American Revolution had been, in Wood’s phrase, “a world historical event that had launched a republican revolutionary movement that would spread around the world.” The French Revolution was, from this perspective, a “consequence” of the revolution in America. It was the next step toward liberating the globe from tyranny. Adams had the opposite response. The effort to establish democracy in Europe, or to expand it in the United States, would, he said, “revive confusion and carnage, which must end again in despotism.” “Democracy,” he wrote, “will infallibly destroy all civilization.” Jefferson celebrated the publication of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. Adams promoted Edmund Burke and his Reflections on the Revolution in France. American progressivism and conservatism were arguably born out of this dispute.

Adams was able to reconcile himself to the new Constitution in part because it granted the president veto power and command of the armed forces. On this basis, he took to calling his country a “monarchy,” which was now for him a term of praise. His friend Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote him saying that he had recently spoken with Jefferson. “We both deplored your attachment to monarchy,” Rush revealed, “and both agreed that you had changed your principles since the year 1776.” Adams did little to assuage him. Having returned home to serve as the first vice-president under the new constitution, he traveled around New York City in a carriage pulled by six horses and accompanied by four servants in livery. He wore a powdered wig and a sword in the style of a European courtier. When the question arose of what title to give George Washington, most people preferred the sturdy “Mr. President.” Adams suggested that “His Most Benign Highness” would be more appropriate.

Jefferson veered sharply in the opposite direction. As secretary of state in Washington’s administration, he received early news of the mob violence in France that would soon lead to the Reign of Terror. He blithely answered, “Was ever such a prize won with so little blood?” After all, nothing less was at issue than “the liberty of the whole earth.” Reflecting on the French Revolution as a whole, he wrote:

Rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than it now is.

This was an extraordinary sentiment coming from the country’s chief diplomat. After war broke out between France and England in 1793, Jefferson pushed President Washington to side with the French, who had supported America’s revolution. Adams counseled the president not to get involved. When Washington issued his Proclamation of Neutrality, Jefferson resigned from the government and retired to Monticello.

Because Washington had twice received all possible Electoral College votes, the election of 1796 was the first true contest for the presidency. Modern political parties did not yet exist, but the country was deeply divided along both ideological and economic lines. Adams offered himself for the office as a Federalist, advocating a strong central government with less authority for the states and less accountability to ordinary citizens. Jefferson agreed to come out of retirement to defend the so-called Democratic-Republican cause, which favored a weaker federal government and more opportunities for ordinary people to be involved in governance. The philosophic divide mirrored a geographic one. Federalists were concentrated in the north, which was the region of banking, cities, manufacturing, and Protestant zeal. The Democratic-Republicans were prominent in the south, which meant agriculture, plantations, slavery, and a vigilant concern for states’ rights.

Federalists used the issue of slavery to attack Jefferson in both the north and the south. In the north, they emphasized that he was a slave owner; in the south, that he had spoken eloquently and repeatedly against slavery. They also questioned his Christianity. He was the man who had written: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god.” Adams made an equally easy target for the Democratic-Republicans. He was a monarchist who, at one point, had gone so far as to say that “no government could long exist…no people could long be happy, without an hereditary first magistrate, and an hereditary senate.” George Washington had no children. Perhaps Adams intended a hereditary presidency to begin with himself and his precocious son John Quincy.

Adams bested Jefferson by only three votes in the Electoral College. Under the rules that then existed, Jefferson would be vice president. Opposites in philosophy and demeanor, and now the heads of two opposing political camps, Adams and Jefferson found themselves in a fight to the political death. Both England and France had, in their war with each other, harassed American ships carrying goods of the other nation. Adams believed France had inflicted greater harm on U.S. shipping, and he wished to see that nation defeated in any case. He now threatened war. For Jefferson, a war on the only republic in Europe would be a war on liberty, a war on humanity itself.

In the grip of this irreconcilable difference, the warm friendship they had cultivated a decade before in Paris was now crushed. At Adams’ request, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798, which made it a crime to “write, print, utter, or publish” anything that might bring the government into “contempt or disrepute.” Tellingly, the act covered the president and Congress but not the vice president. Jefferson saw it as a test run for tyranny, calling it “an experiment on the American mind to see how far it will bear an avowed violation of the Constitution.” Seeing no other option, Jefferson urged the states to declare the Sedition Act null and void. The vice president was now advocating disobedience toward the national government in which he was the second-ranking member.

Realizing, perhaps, that he had overplayed his hand, Adams sought reconciliation with France. This sudden and unexpected reversal did nothing to improve his reputation among Democratic-Republicans, but it did anger many Federalists. The following election of 1800 was, Wood says, “a brutal campaign, perhaps the most vicious and scurrility-ridden in American history.” The Federalist president of Yale University said that if Jefferson were elected:

The Bible would be cast into a bonfire, our holy worship changed into a dance of Jacobin phrensy, our wives and daughters dishonored, and our sons converted into the disciples of Voltaire.

Warming to his subject, the worthy gentleman added: “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.” The Democratic-Republicans were no better. A journalist on Jefferson’s payroll wrote of Adams that future generations “will enquire by what species of madness America submitted to accept, as her president, a person without abilities, and without virtues: a being alike incapable of attracting either tenderness, or esteem.” This author soon found himself in jail, a victim of the Sedition Act.

With the Federalists divided over Adams and his presidency, Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans swept to victory. Adams was not surprised by the result; he knew he lacked the qualities necessary for sustained success in electoral politics, notably a genuine affection for American voters. Still, he despaired of his country’s future. Jefferson’s presidency would, he said, cast America onto “the tempestuous sea of liberty.” He thought that ordinary Americans, the kind who supported Jefferson, believed themselves to have “superior information, intelligence and public virtue in comparison with the rest of mankind.” These capacities, he predicted, “will very soon be found wanting.” On the day of Jefferson’s inauguration, Adams left the capital before dawn. He remains the only sitting president not to welcome his successor.

The relationship might well have ended there. When Polly Jefferson died at only twenty-five in 1804, however, Abigail Adams broke the silence by sending President Jefferson a heartfelt note of condolence. In reply, he thanked her for the kindness she had shown Polly during her childhood in France, and he expressed regret to Abigail that “circumstances should have arisen which have seemed to draw a line of separation between us.” He explained that he and John had been split apart by forces stemming from “different conclusions we had drawn from our political reading.” In 1811, after Jefferson had served two terms as president and retired again to Monticello, their mutual friend Dr. Rush urged the two giants of the revolution to mend their friendship. “Embrace each other!” he wrote to Adams. “Bedew your letters of reconciliation with tears of affection and joy. Bury in silence all the causes of your separation.” On January 1, 1812, Adams wrote Jefferson a clumsy, tentative note wishing him well for the new year. It was their first communication in more than ten years.

Jefferson replied with typical aplomb: “A letter from you calls up recollections very dear to my mind. It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government.” There followed one of the great exchanges of letters in American history. Over the next fourteen years, Adams and Jefferson together wrote 158 letters touching on their careers, their families, economics, religion, and politics above all. Jefferson consoled Adams on the death of Abigail in 1818 and congratulated him on John Quincy’s election to the presidency in 1825. Adams frequently lectured Jefferson on Christianity, still concerned, it seems, that his friend was not quite in the fold.

Wikimedia Commons

Although Wood does not offer an abstract theory of their friendship, his exploration of their lives and writings is highly suggestive. Adams appears to have been a man who never quite knew what he believed until he tested it in an argument. Rather than thinking first and speaking later, he thought by means of declamation. He needed an audience, or perhaps a jury, to know his own mind. He authored three-quarters of the letters in the Adams-Jefferson correspondence. Few people have the good humor, intelligence, and patience to accommodate this kind of conversation partner. Abigail Adams was one, and Thomas Jefferson was another. Again and again in their correspondence, Jefferson pushes back against Adams just enough to clarify the issue and suggest alternative viewpoints. He then changes the subject to a pleasant memory or charming anecdote.

Jefferson appears to have genuinely loved the Adams’s in spite of John’s lack of tact and his monarchical philosophy. Jefferson also possessed an equanimity that seems superhuman today, in an age of internet rants and cable news delirium, but which was a point of pride for some people in the eighteenth-century. Wood quotes a letter from Jefferson to his grandson in which he says we must always give “a pleasure and flattering turn to our expressions which will conciliate others, and make them pleased with us as well as themselves.” Above all, Jefferson conveyed the importance of “never entering into dispute or argument with another.” A great merit of Wood’s study is that unlike John Adams, the 2001 megahit by David McCullough, Friends Divided leaves the ambiguities and contradictions of these two men on full display. The slave-owning patrician who loved democracy, and the gruff shoemaker’s son who aspired to be an aristocrat, are worthier of our interest than simple heroes and villains.

On a summer day in 1826, Congressman Daniel Webster visited Adams at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. Adams was now ninety-years-old and among the last of the founding generation. Although nearly blind and too weak to walk, Adams retained a sardonic sense of humor. When Webster asked how he was doing, Adams is reported to have replied, “Not very well. I am living in a very old house, Mr. Webster, and, from all that I can learn, the landlord does not intend to repair.” The next day he slipped into unconsciousness. Briefly awaking, Adams is reputed to have uttered his final words, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He could not have known that Jefferson had passed away only hours earlier at Monticello. They died on the same afternoon. It was a Tuesday, July the 4th, fifty years to the day after the ratification of the Declaration of Independence.


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Matthew C. Simpson

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Writer. Massachusetts man trending westward. Twitter: @MattCSimpson