Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died within hours of one another on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. On the evening of that day, the ninety-year-old Adams uttered his final words, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” He was wrong. Jefferson, gravely ill for several weeks, had expired a few hours earlier at his hilltop home outside Charlottesville, Virginia. The deaths on that day of those two heroes of the Revolution were an uncanny coincidence, and it reinforced the belief among Americans that there was something providential about the origins of their republic.
Though the two men were thus joined in the public’s memory, they could not have been more different in their personalities, in their private lives, in their political outlooks, and in their contributions to the new order—a theme artfully developed by Gordon S. Wood in Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, his new biography of the Adams–Jefferson association that stretched over five event-filled decades. As Professor Wood reminds us, the two men represented dual sides of the American character: Jefferson was a visionary and somewhat detached Southern slave owner and aristocrat, Adams a skeptical and irascible Yankee lawyer. They began their careers as friendly associates and co-conspirators in the revolutionary cause, then became antagonists in the early decades of the Republic as leaders of opposing political parties, before reconciling with one another in a celebrated epistolary friendship in the last decade of their lives. Their reputations began to diverge even before they died: Jefferson, as principal author of the Declaration of Independence, was acclaimed as the apostle of American democracy while Adams was dismissed as a failed president and the author of tedious and reactionary theoretical tracts.
The lives of Jefferson and Adams have been chronicled in numerous scholarly and popular biographies, many of them of recent vintage. The on-and-off-again relationship between the two men has similarly received attention in countless histories of the revolutionary and constitutional era, including in volumes authored by Professor Wood himself. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Gordon Wood has written better and more extensively than anyone about the events and leading figures in that formative period of U.S. history.
Wood adds a great deal of depth and detail to the relationship between Jefferson and Adams.
This new biography, though nicely crafted in Professor Wood’s usual style, does not add anything substantially new about the two men or about their relationship with one another, nor does it challenge the conventional interpretation of the relative importance of Jefferson and Adams in subsequent debates over the meaning and character of the regime they helped to establish. Yet this new work does succeed in adding a great deal of depth and detail to the relationship between Jefferson and Adams (along with Abigail Adams), thereby making more understandable their political rupture in the 1790s and their late-in-life reconciliation. In addition, Professor Wood’s book helps to bring Adams into clearer focus by emphasizing his critical role as a leader in the campaign for independence and as the author of theoretical books and pamphlets that were influential in shaping the design of various state constitutions and, later, the federal Constitution. He is scrupulously fair to both men, and many readers will finish his book wondering which of them comes off better in the contrast.
As Professor Wood reminds us, Adams was the more influential and active of the two men in the revolutionary cause, at least until the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Adams plunged immediately into the imperial crisis when it burst into the open following Parliament’s approval of the Stamp Act in 1765. While Jefferson was making plans for the design of Monticello and courting his future bride, Adams led the successful campaign in Boston for repeal of the tax. Adams argued both in public debates and in published essays that under established law Parliament had no right to tax the colonies absent their representation in that legislative body, and that any concession to Parliament on taxes would inevitably lead to further assaults on colonial liberties. Parliament, he suggested, was breaking established law and precedent in trying to tax the colonies.
In contrast to Virginians like Jefferson, who had few direct dealings with the British and thus saw them as a distant power, Adams knew and lived in close proximity in Boston to American loyalists and representatives of the Crown whom he called “my bitter foes” and “conspirators against public liberty.” Adams engaged in the campaign for independence “up close,” as it were, and at considerable risk to his life and career. Through all the crises, beginning with the Stamp Act until the outbreak of the revolution in 1775, Adams was a persistent thorn in the side of the British and a vocal proponent for colonial rights and, eventually, for American independence.
Jefferson and Adams came to know one another when, following the Boston Tea Party and the retaliatory response of the British, the two men were selected by Virginia and Massachusetts in 1774 as representatives to the first Continental Congress. Despite their differences in outlook and temperament, the two men soon began to work in tandem as spokesmen in Congress for independence. Adams typically took the lead in those debates, so much so that Jefferson looked to the slightly older man as his guide and mentor on constitutional questions. As Jefferson would later remark, Adams “was our colossus on the floor” of the Congress on crucial debates over independence. As Professor Wood observes, “no one did more [than Adams] to move the delegates toward independence” during those critical months in the spring and summer of 1776.
Though a spokesman for independence, Adams was a skeptic when it came to popular government and democracy, a view he expressed to colleagues in answer to the democratic thrust of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense. When the states began to draft their own constitutions beginning in 1775, several sent formal requests to Adams for advice as to the appropriate form of those documents. Adams quickly obliged with his Thoughts on Government (1776), a short work that made the case for separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and a bicameral legislature with the two bodies operating as checks on one another. His Thoughts influenced the structure of the several state constitutions adopted in those years, including the Massachusetts constitution (1780) that Adams took a hand in drafting. Adams, as Professor Wood emphasizes, was thus something of a conservative on popular government, an outlook that would later bring him into direct conflict with Jefferson.
In recognition of his leadership, Congress appointed Adams to serve on several key committees, including one to draft a model commercial treaty and another to draft an official Declaration of Independence. The Model Treaty, largely drafted by Adams, established a template for a treaty with France and for future commercial relations between the United States and major European states. The resolution for independence, at least in Adams’s mind, would be a formality that would ratify principles that had been expressed previously in published pamphlets, public debates, and official resolutions of the Continental Congress. Adams, aware of Jefferson’s felicitous prose style, asked his friend to draft the document based on commonly agreed-upon principles of natural right, republicanism, and the ultimate right of revolution. Neither Adams nor anyone else at the time foresaw that the role Jefferson played as draftsman of the Declaration would later win him status as a hero of the revolution and “apostle” of American democracy—titles that Adams felt were not fully deserved or should have been shared with others, including himself.
Adams spent nearly the entire decade from 1778 to 1788 in Europe negotiating commercial treaties on behalf of the United States with France, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and other European states. He served successively during this decade as a peace commissioner in Paris, Ambassador to the Netherlands (in which capacity he secured diplomatic recognition of the new nation), one of the American negotiators of the Treaty of Paris (1783), and the first U.S. minister to the Court of St. James in London. By the time he finished these tours of duty in 1788, Adams probably knew more about European politics and diplomacy than any other living American.
Adams acquired a reputation as a difficult and hot-tempered diplomat.
The Americans shared a hopeful vision that the world might be knitted together through commercial relations and reciprocal trade agreements as opposed to military strength and balance-of-power considerations. Unfortunately, in his diplomatic post in Paris, Adams acquired a reputation as a difficult and hot-tempered diplomat, sparring with French negotiators and American colleagues like Benjamin Franklin, whom he accused of being too eager to win the approval of French diplomats. Franklin—like Jefferson—believed America owed a debt of gratitude to France for its support during the Revolution and should thus deal with France as an ally, but Adams distrusted the French as much as he did the British. In his view, France got as much as it gave in the bargain with the United States. Besides, he argued, the United States had to look out for its own interests, and to that end should avoid special relationships with any and all of the European powers, including France.
Jefferson joined Adams in Paris in 1784 as a fellow commissioner on behalf of the United States to assist in drafting commercial treaties with European states. This provided an opportunity to renew his association with Adams and to begin one with Abigail Adams, whom he came to admire for her strong political opinions and whom he would later describe to James Madison as “one of the most estimable characters on earth.” After the Adamses moved to London in 1785, they sustained their friendship via a continuous three-way correspondence.
Jefferson was sent to Paris partly to mollify the French and repair the relations that Adams had disrupted by his undiplomatic conduct. Jefferson, like most American leaders, hoped to arrange a broad-based commercial treaty with several European nations based upon free trade and freedom of the seas, an approach that was in conflict with the mercantile policies of most of those countries. By this time, based upon his experience in Europe, Adams had given up on this vision. As he said to Franklin, “No facts are believed but defensive military conquests; no arguments are seriously attended to in Europe but force.” That view implied that the United States would have to defend its own interests by force rather than relying upon a revolution in European diplomacy.
Adams and Jefferson were abroad when the U.S. Constitution was drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788, and as a consequence neither exercised any direct influence over those proceedings. While Adams expressed general approval of the final product, Jefferson had reservations about the powers granted to the executive and the absence of a bill of rights, and even wondered why a new constitution was even needed. Adams may have exercised indirect influence over the deliberations by virtue of his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, which was written in haste in London in 1786 and published in America early in 1787. Though supportive of the division of powers and the checks and balances incorporated into the structure of the Constitution, the Defence offered a pessimistic view of the prospects for self-government in America and the promise of the Declaration of Independence.
As Professor Wood writes, “Adams offered his countrymen a terrifying picture of themselves,” with aristocrats and commoners engaged in a relentless struggle for power. While the authors of the Constitution saw each of the three branches as answerable to the sovereign people, Adams wrote that the House and Senate must represent different social orders, much along the lines of Commons and Lords under the British Constitution. Adams thus appeared to embrace the British theory of mixed or balanced government. Critics responded that America had no such established social orders; indeed, this was a condition that distinguished the new nation from European states. As if to compound these heresies, Adams wrote bluntly that, “there is no special providence for Americans, and their nature is the same with that of others.” On all of these points, Adams’s views were out of touch with America’s increasingly democratic culture, and much in opposition to Jefferson’s optimistic views. Professor Wood suggests that Adams may have been somewhat naive in articulating principles that he must have known would offend most Americans.
Jefferson was in Paris as an ambassador during the early stages of the French Revolution, and was something of a participant in those events, entertaining many of the leading theorists of radical reform and expressing confidence that France would soon join the United States as a sister republic. Conveying the general spirit of the revolution, Jefferson wrote to Madison from Paris, asserting “that the earth belongs to the living; the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” Despite the escalating violence in Paris, and Madison’s tactful yet firm rejoinder, Jefferson never adjusted his assessment of the Revolution as an upheaval motivated by positive democratic intentions. He felt “that the liberty of the whole earth was at stake” in the revolution. He hoped (as he later wrote) “that the revolution will be established and spread through the whole world.” In his view, critics of the revolution were “conspirators against human liberty.” Adams’s views were a world apart. He told Jefferson as early as 1787 that the upheavals in France would “revive confusion and carnage, which must again end in despotism.” He dismissed the campaign to erase the past, and a few years later praised Edmund Burke as the only commentator on France who understood the lessons to be learned from history and the futility of trying to begin everything anew.
It was thus inevitable that the friendship between the two men would be strained by political differences when each assumed important positions in the new government, Adams as vice president under Washington and Jefferson as secretary of state. Jefferson opposed Hamilton’s commercial program, which he saw as part of a larger campaign to build an American state on the model of Britain’s, but (as Professor Wood notes) Adams knew little about commerce and banking and thus had little to do with it. In fact, Adams distrusted Hamilton as an ambitious and conceited upstart. The feeling was mutual: Hamilton viewed Adams as indiscreet and lacking in judgment.
It was inevitable that the friendship between the two men would be strained.
It was, at bottom, differences over the revolution in France that broke apart the Adams–Jefferson friendship by placing them on different sides of the great issues of the day. In those years, the upheaval in France was a surrogate for a host of issues: Britain versus France; tradition versus revolution; liberty versus order; manufacturing versus agriculture; diplomacy versus military force; universal peace versus balance of power. All of these matters introduced divisions into the councils of government, with Adams in one camp and Jefferson in the other. As Professor Wood writes, “With Jefferson’s hatred of Britain and passion for the French Revolution growing ever more extreme, his relationship with Adams was bound to deteriorate.” It was not long before these differences led to the formation of rival political parties—the Federalists and Republicans—with Adams at the head of one and Jefferson leading the other.
Adams was elected handily in 1796 as Washington’s logical successor, but (as Professor Wood argues) he turned out to be an ineffective politician and thus a failure as president (according to the rules of the Electoral College in place at that time, Jefferson was chosen as his vice president). Adams had great experience as a diplomat and negotiator, but none as an executive. He made the initial mistake of re- appointing Washington’s cabinet, most of whose members were loyal to Hamilton and suspicious of Adams. Hamilton and his allies were also in favor of a confrontation with France over seizures of U.S. merchant ships on the high seas. Adams, heeding those councils, called for a build-up of the U.S. navy in preparation for a possible war. Fearing a spread of the upheaval in France, he signed the unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts, the latter making it a crime to criticize the government—thereby uniting Jefferson’s party against the Federalists. With war fever at a peak in 1799, Adams abruptly sought to calm the waters by sending a peace delegation to France, thus surprising and dividing his Federalist allies. Hatred of revolutionary France united the Federalists as much as hatred of Britain united the Republicans. Hamilton soon published a pamphlet attacking Adams as unfit for the presidency due to his “eccentric tendencies,” “ungovernable temper,” and especially for his erratic policy toward France. With his party badly split, Adams had little chance of defeating Jefferson in the watershed election of 1800. From Adams’s point of view, it was a public and personal repudiation that gnawed at him for the remainder of his life.
The election effectively ended the friendship between the two men for a time, as Adams retired to his home in Quincy with bitter feelings toward erstwhile friends and foes alike and a sense that the country would be “tossed in the tempestuous sea of liberty for years to come.” He particularly chafed at Jefferson’s claim that his election saved the nation from monarchism, and feared that Jefferson’s enthusiasm for the French Revolution would create problems with the British. Jefferson meanwhile set about maneuvering the nation on a new path regarding the national debt, commercial development, westward expansion, and relations with France and Great Britain. Privately Jefferson praised Adams for his honesty and ability, while Adams’s hostility to Jefferson was neutralized somewhat by his antipathy to many of his former Federalist allies. Nor in his eyes did Jefferson’s administration turn out to be as dangerous as he initially feared. Adams endorsed the Louisiana Purchase against the criticisms of most Federalists and even had positive things to say about Jefferson’s 1807 trade embargo against the French and British.
After a lengthy interlude, the old friends arranged a long-distance reconciliation with the assistance of their friend Benjamin Rush, who urged Jefferson and Adams to renew their correspondence. The two revolutionary heroes, he suggested, still had much to teach future generations. Adams initiated the correspondence with a letter to Jefferson on January 1, 1812, and there followed 157 letters back and forth, two-thirds of them supplied by Adams, who seemed to enjoy the exchanges more than Jefferson. “You and I,” wrote Adams “ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to one another.” The correspondence is historically significant, highly quotable, and mostly amicable, though Adams occasionally needled Jefferson about the revolution in France and the importance of religion in public life. Jefferson shrugged off these taunts as beneath his notice, a gesture that Professor Wood takes to be emblematic of his superiority over Adams.
In any historical reckoning, Professor Wood argues, Jefferson must be judged the more significant figure because, as he writes, “Jefferson offered a set of beliefs that through the generations have supplied a bond that holds together the most diverse nation that history has ever known.” Adams, however, was not necessarily wrong in his skepticism about popular government and his expressed doubts about the American future, but (as the author writes) “there was nothing inspiring about it, nothing that could sustain a nation.” As he concludes, “This is why we remember Jefferson, and not Adams.”
This assessment is undoubtedly valid, though it may yet prove premature regarding Jefferson’s ultimate legacy in America. While it is true that Jefferson’s ideas provide a foundation for a “diverse” society, his legacy in this regard is complicated by the fact that he was a slave owner who defended the institution in the early years of the Republic at a time when others were beginning to repudiate it as contrary to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. The United States today is still encountering some difficulties in making the transition into a genuinely multiracial and multiethnic society, with the historical subjects of race and slavery being very much implicated in those difficulties. Those today who wish to topple statues or rewrite history in a campaign to cleanse the nation’s past of counter-democratic influences would not necessarily be wrong to cite Jefferson’s own words to justify their conduct. After all, like many today, Jefferson was something of a democratic absolutist, which is one reason why he and Adams found themselves in opposition to one another. Is it possible that in order to build upon Jefferson’s legacy we may still need something of the spirit of John Adams? It is a point worth considering. After all, as Professor Wood has been telling us all these years, the past has yet something to teach us all.
1Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, by Gordon S. Wood; Penguin Press, 479 pages, $35.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 3, on page 56
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