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Jefferson and Adams; Political Enmity and Friendship

by on Nov.15, 2010, under History

In this time of division in the nation, interesting stories from the nation’s founding can often lend some perspective.  The fact that people of often very different political minds could work closely together to create a nation for the ages often goes unnoticed today.  In the presentation of The Founders and their times in idyllic stories we loose the truth and, what is to me, a valuable insight which can help guide our expectations as well as enhance our oversight of the people we elect to our government. 

For example, how many people know that three delegates refused to sign the Constitution including Edmund Randolph who presented the first draft?  How many people know that the close friendship of Jefferson and Adams was broken by partisan divisions and not restored until the final years of life?

In her book Dearest Friend; A Life of Abigail Adams, Lynne Withey describes Thomas Jefferson and John Adams as an “odd-looking pair” with different backgrounds.  However, they were both passionately fond of books, both preferred a quiet family life, and the two had been “fond of each other ever since they had worked together on the Declaration of Independence”. 

There are many accounts of the very close friendship of not only Adams and Jefferson , but of Jefferson and Adams ‘ family.  In a letter to her sister, Abigail writes that she and Adams dine regularly with Jefferson and that she “shall really regret to leave Mr. Jefferson; he is one of the choice ones on earth”.  Withey writes further that Jefferson “visited weekly if not more often.  He was the only person in France with whom they enjoyed the kind of casual, intimate social life that they were used to at home.”

Adams and Jefferson passed time together in work and out.  They were frequent companions in Europe and Jefferson wrote to Madison that Adams  “”is so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him if you ever become acquainted with him”.  It seems safe to assume that nothing could break a friendship cast in a cause that built a nation through the trials of war and nurtured by familial love.

But that would not be the case, and with their friendship went the nation.  Jefferson and Adams were members of the opposing political parties and were selected by their respective conventions to run opposed.  Because the 12th Amendment hadn’t passed, and possibly due to some “activity” by Hamilton, for the only time in the country’s history the president and vice-president elected were from opposing parties. 

Even so, Adams tried to stay grounded, even writing of Jefferson at the election that he “ever believed in his honour, Integrity, his love of Country and his friends”.  However,  at the very beginning of the Adams-Jefferson administration, the effects of this partisan in-fighting that started under Washington could be seen in the matter forming the first major rift between the two friends; relations with Europe.  In Jefferson’s diary, The Anas, he recorded on March 2, 1797, that Adams wanted him to help in the diplomatic effort with France but didn’t find it justifiable to send away his replacement in case of accident, “nor decent to remove from competition one who was a rival in the public favor.”  But throughout the men retained feelings of friendship.

During the campaign of 1800 additional strains appeared and here the beginnings of deceitful exaggeration can be seen  as the “Democratic-Republican” party of Jefferson was tarred in violence and anarchy, and the members of the “Federalist” party, including Adams, were branded monarchists.  In another eerie parallel to politicking today, both party camps slandered the other in the media with baseless claims and sometimes vicious attacks.  The Democratic-Republican party took aim calling Adams a “bald, toothless, hermaphroditical character”, and the Federalists (republicans today) went with the fear factor claiming that if Jefferson was elected “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes”.

Despite very different political views and Jefferson’s defeat of Adams in that election, Jefferson wrote to Abigail “I can say with truth that one act of Mr. Adams’s life, and one only, ever gave me a moment’s personal displeasure”.  Continuing “I did consider his last appointments to office as personally unkind.  They were amoung my most ardent political enemies, from whom no faithful cooperation could ever be expected.”  The two friends did not communicate for 10 years following. 

Abigail did not communicate with her friend during that time, with one exception.  The death of Jefferson ‘ daughter, brought forth sympathy and she began writing again letters in which they offered mutual support as Abigail had also lost her eldest daughter Nabby.  But even their shared grief could not keep their disagreements from driving them back apart.  After a flurry of letters, they ceased communication again.

For 10 years Jefferson and Adams ceased writing to each other.  Benjamin Rush, the preeminent physician of the time and signer of the Declaration of Independence tried and failed for two years to bring the estranged friends back together.  It wasn’t until one of Jefferson’s neighbor’s reported hearing Adams speak fondly of him that he decided to renew their friendship.

Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush; “But with a man possessing so many other estimable qualities, why should we be dissocialized by mere differences in opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, or anything else?  His opinions are as honestly formed as my own.”  The two men renewed their friendship and reveled in it for the rest of their lives.

The end for both men came within hours of each other on the same day; July 4th, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  From first hand accounts, it is possible that the two men actually fought off death until they reached that day.  Would it have been that the story of their lives and the symbolism of the date of their deaths would serve as a reminder to abstain from the destructive practice of partisan slander, and to act only in the honest debate that might improve the imperfect government they helped form.  The act which might render the Declaration of Independence, as Jefferson wrote of it in his final letter; “the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government. that form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. these are grounds of hope for others. for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.” (To General Weightman, mayor, Washington D.C.)

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Fox News, The Post, at the Founding of the Nation

by on Oct.28, 2010, under History

The news media today crawls in the sludge of partisan attacks and dirty laundry from which it seems incapable to rise above.  The current trend towards ruthless, and very often baseless, assertions goes well beyond reason and no doubt furthers the media’s descent into pure propaganda.  The stories include:

“The treasury secretary is an aristocratic tool of the rich, using his office to further the financial gain of his powerful friends at the expense of the common man …”  “The former president traded sexual favors from the wife of the candidate to secure votes…”  “The president, described as a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman” plans to name himself king and groom his son as his heir…”

This would seem enough to cause Abigail Adams, a leading figure in the American Revolution to call for a censure on the freedom of the press.  As a matter of fact, it did, as the”hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman” was none other than her husband, a hero of our nation’s founding; John Adams.

These claims were actually made in the press at the time immediately following the founding of the United States, and were, of course, untrue.  The treasury secretary was Alexander Hamilton.  The purported pimp of a candidate’s wife for votes was Thomas Jefferson1; the claim supposedly coming from John Randolph, a congressman from Virginia.  And this was not the half of it.  James Callender, came in from England, aided by Jefferson in establishing himself in the U.S., became the source of tabloid style, political attacks thrown in any direction which opposed the current source of his paychecks.  He even attacked Mr. Jefferson when he refused to give him a government job.

Abigail actually wrote to Jefferson in 1804 stating; “In no country has calumny, falshood[sic], and revileing[sic] stalked abroad more licentiously, than in this.  No political character has been secure from its attacks, no reputation so fair, as not to be counted by it, until truth and falshood[sic] lie in one undistinctioned heap”.

The attacks were not just tabloid style, but fear mongering just as we would find in the media today.  For example, Alexander Hamilton, writing under a pseudonym attacked Jefferson and his party; “Hence it is, in the present moment, we see the most industrious efforts made to violate the Constitution of this State, to trample upon the rights of the subject, and to chicane or infringe the most solemn obligations of treaty; while dispassionate and upright men almost totally neglect the means of counteracting these dangerous attempts.”

In 1798 John Adams received the what became known as the Alien and Sedition acts.  All accounts I’ve read had Abigail Adams encouraging the president to sign the acts into law.  Of interest here is the 4th act which made a high misdemeanor “false, scandalous, or malicious writing”.  However, this one act is often sited as a major cause of his failure to win reelection in 1800.  The new congress that followed repealed the acts and the newly elected president Thomas Jefferson, the man who made efforts to “trample upon the rights of the subject [the people]” pardoned all those imprisoned under the act.

So where does this leave us today?  Are Fox News and it’s less bombastic counterparts on “the left” off the hook given that the tradition of often baseless and even seditious political attacks in the media date back to the nations founding? Does the fact that Hamilton and Jefferson directly employed and encouraged these practices lend them merit?

In my opinion… no.  Madison wrote “A  popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”  Further, “Do not separate text from historical background. If you do, you will have perverted and subverted the Constitution, which can only end in a distorted, bastardized form of illegitimate government.”  In essence, a well educated and informed populace is required, and to understand their work, we must understand these people and the times in which they lived.  Jefferson wrote that ““Information is the currency of democracy” and “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

In the words of these two men we find what I read to be the caveat in the core pillar of our system of government.  Government of the people, by the people, and for the people cannot be carried out effectively if the people are not well informed and do not prize education.  Any source that intentionally distorts the truth or circulates out right falsehood as truth for some political goal is, in my opinion, acting to subvert the true sovereign recognized by the consensus of the founders; the people.  Do I agree with Abigail and the Sedition Act, no.  But warning labels are used on many products to alert people about the contents, perhaps the same can be applied to the media.  *Warning*: the following program may contain material presented as factual and unbiased, when actually the exact opposite is true.  People are advised to seek other sources before reaching any conclusions.

And it goes further…  What if Hamilton and Jefferson had put aside their anger and sat down together as Washington had requested in letters to both men?  What if the politicians in the North and those in the South set out with the only goal being to work for ends of mutual benefit instead of slashing and burning and the near constant threats to secede from or dissolve the union?

And today, when we honestly ask who among us wants “big government breathing down our necks”, spending our money with reckless, let alone money borrowed from not-necessarily-friendly powers.  I would wager no one would raise their hands.  I would think no one wants high taxes… no one wants our rights trampled.

However, with fear running high, and anger and hatred stoked We The People will never sit down and safely debate the salient questions.  In my opinion, the people involved in creating this country committed an act of historic greatness indeed, but that does not render their every act great, or even the best choice.  Perhaps its time we relegated these worthless practices, that are at once injurious to those people and to the nation itself, to the magazines on the supermarket check-out racks.  If we don’t I fear that we will never come together as “We the People” and ensure that the guards we appoint for our security are actually concerned with it.

1: Cokie Roberts, Ladies of Liberty: The Women who Shaped Our Nation

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