John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; A Friendship Renewed – Lessons For A Divided Nation

On July 4, 1826, two of the great founders of American democracy breathed their last. John Adams, ensconced at Peacefield in Quincy, Massachusetts was comforted in his last moments in the belief that Jefferson still lived. Such were Adams’ last words. Unknown to Adams Jefferson had died several hours earlier, asking in his final moments “This is the fourth”?

Having worked together in the Continental Congress drafting the Declaration of Independence, working in concert as Ambassadors to European governments, then later as Jefferson served as Adams’ Vice President they had a long personal and professional relationship of great amity that was finally broken by presidential politics. Many Americans complain of the rough and tumble and often outright bad manners of national politics; it is unlikely that the acrimony of the 1800 election (Jefferson vs. Adams) has often been surpassed.

With the election of Jefferson came the exit of Adams from national politics and the end of his Federalist political party. Another casualty of the campaign was their friendship.

While the campaign itself was unpleasant, with supporters of Adams accusing Jefferson of having an affair with one of his slaves (Sally Hemming), the final issue for Jefferson was last moment appointments by Adams of men Jefferson considered political enemies. (DNA evidence linked the descendents of Sally Hemming with Jefferson’s family only several years ago.) Adams and Jefferson did not speak to one another, though retaining respect and feelings of friendship between them, for eight years.

With the intercession of a mutual friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, the two renewed their friendship and began a lengthy correspondence that lasted from 1811 to 1826. An insightful sidebar that illustrates the character of Adams and Jefferson involves the 1811 visit to Peacefield, the Adams’ Mansion, of Edward Coles of Virginia.

During his visit to Adams, Cole mentioned Jefferson’s care in choosing the proper time for President-elect Jefferson to visit President Adams for the final session of the Congress under the Adams administration. Adams told Cole “I never heard before that Mr. Jefferson had given a second thought as to the proper time for making the particular visit described.”

Adams went on to express admiration for the character of his old friend and strong disapproval of the scurrilous attacks upon him in the newspapers. “I always loved Jefferson,” Adams exclaimed, “and still love him.”

The Adams-Jefferson Letters, edited by Lester J. Cappon (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1959)

Volume 2, p.283-4.

Cole was a friend and neighbor of Jefferson. Upon his return to Charlottesville Cole told Jefferson the details of his meeting with Adams. Jefferson wrote the following in a letter to Benjamin Rush, dated December 5, 1811.

He spoke of his masters, as he called his heads of departments, as acting above his control, and often against his opinions. Among many other topics, he adverted to the unprincipled licentiousness of the press against myself, adding, ‘I always loved Jefferson, and still love him.’

This is enough for me. I only needed this knowledge to revive towards him all the affections of the most cordial moments of our lives. Changing a single word only in Dr. Franklin’s character of him, I knew him to be always an honest man, often a great one, but sometimes incorrect and precipitate in his judgments: and it is known to those who have ever heard me speak of Mr. Adams, that I have ever done him justice myself, and defended him when assailed by others, with the single exception as to his political opinions. But with a man possessing so many other estimable qualities, why should we be dissocialised by mere differences of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, or any thing else? His opinions are as honestly formed as my own. Our different views of the same subject are the result of a difference in our organization and experience. I never withdrew from the society of any man on this account, although many have done it from me; much less should I do it from one with whom I had gone through, with hand and heart, so many trying scenes. I wish, therefore, but for an apposite occasion to express to Mr. Adams my unchanged affections for him.

Memoirs, Correspondence, and Private Papers of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Vol. 4., (London, 1829), p.171.

The issues that separated Jefferson and Adams, brilliant men who loved their country and the extraordinary and revolutionary ideas of liberty upon which it was founded, who staked everything to see the United States created, are still with us today. Foundational issues that created havoc between the founders continue to do so today and that is, essentially: what is the proper relationship between government and governed? Adams as a Federalist believed in a strong central government and a national financial/banking system (the Hamiltonian system) while Jefferson the populist believed in more of a decentralized model with a weaker Federal government and more autonomy to the states.

Rarely in our history has our country been challenged simultaneously on so many fronts as it is on this July 4th. With multiple wars, a stagnant, failing economy, and partisanship and rancor at levels not often seen before the United States in this season of rising thermometers and equally rising frustrations seems at a cross-roads. But where do the different roads lead and which path should we choose?

History is our great benefactor as it shows us the paths that others have taken during times of crisis, roads that we might also take. Jefferson and Adams left us this legacy of bi-polar political opposites united in their reverence for the Union they created and the great potential that its preservation and growth would provide for future generations. They were very clear in their correspondence in the latter part of their lives that they were writing for posterity. It is not hubris on their part for them to have believed that what they wrote to one another will perhaps be of value to future Americans; though it is a false pride for us to ignore what they have written. It is only for us now to learn from what they did and listen to what they said.

As the Adams Administration (with Jefferson as Vice President) began (1797) the two men were excellent friends, or so it appeared to Supreme Court Justice William Paterson. In a letter to a friend Paterson wrote,

I am much pleased that Mr. Adams and Mr. Jefferson lodge together. The thing carried a conciliation and healing with it and may have a happy effect on parties. Indeed, my dear sir, it is high time we should be done with parties.

Party of the People-A History of The Democrats, by Jules Witcover (Random House, New York), 2003, p.51.

Many today suggest that party affiliation and the political partisanship that such affiliation engenders is at the heart of our current political crisis. This is an oversimplification.

The great issues that caused such rancor and conflict between Adams and Jefferson, Republican/Democrat and Federalist are the same that we have today. While political division is a central truth of our democracy or of any free society, the question must be asked how do we have political conflicts of opinion – that is, essentially hold fundamentally opposing views about the country itself – without tearing the Union itself apart?

Responding to a letter from John Taylor in which Taylor suggested that the Union be dissolved Jefferson wrote on June 4, 1798:

In every free & deliberating society there must, from the nature of man, be opposite parties & violent dissensions & discords; and one of these, for the most part, must prevail over the other for a longer or shorter time. Perhaps this party division is necessary to induce each to watch & delate to the people the proceedings of the other. But if on a temporary superiority of the one party, the other is to resort to a scission of the Union, no federal government can ever exist.


Seeing, therefore, that an association of men who will not quarrel with one another is a thing which never yet existed, from the greatest confederacy of nations down to a town meeting or a vestry, seeing that we must have somebody to quarrel with, I had rather keep our New England associates for that purpose than to see our bickerings transferred to others.

A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to it’s true principles. It is true that in the mean time we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war & long oppressions of enormous public debt. But who can say what would be the evils of a scission, and when & where they would end?

… for this is a game where principles are the stake.

Witcover, p. 60, and here.

Amid all of our fractious debates, angry rhetoric and economic frustration we can take a longer view that unjust laws can be rescinded (the Alien & Sedition Acts, the great disaster of Adams’ presidency for example); our economic situation will improve; our leaders will recognize domestic and international threats and respond, etc.

This is a difficult view to take when emotions run high and challenges are ongoing. Every generation has their challenges, and these are ours.

There is a greater strength in unity as Americans, even while we are divided in political disputes and cultural disagreements. If we retain our affections for our roots, continue to appreciate and learn from the great men and women who came before us and gave to us our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and accept our great differences but appreciate our unity as Americans, we can and will see light at the end of every tunnel before us.

This is not an easy path. The Union was sundered, despite the excellent defense of unity amidst division from Jefferson and many others. The issue of secession was hopefully forever resolved on the battlefields of the Civil War. We really haven’t any option but to appreciate one another as fellow Americans while we disagree with those same people at the same time.

The reconciliation of Jefferson and Adams; their long friendship, their previous associations, successes and conflicts are a model to us. These heroes, as are all of our heroes, are a light to us in our present darkness.

Today, July 4th, 2011, Adams and Jefferson both live.


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