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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1 Comment for this entry

  • Dave

    Thanks for the insights…this is good stuff…
    The interesting thing is that what you are pointing out is how historical repetition is not new. In fact what you are pointing out is the opinions are usually biased by our own historical experiences which we feel we are entitled to expound upon so we do not repeat them.
    Yet we are doing just that to a limited degree…. Now isn’t this an interesting paradox? It is almost like the movie ground hog day where we keep doing the same things wrong over and over again until we get it right…It would seem that in this day and time we should be able to improve our decision making process and realize when faced with the new dilemmas that our opinions may be relevant facts that apply to the situation at hand and that we must not always think that history repeating itself is always a bad thing it might just be desirable … especially in this case today…
    Wouldn’t it be nice if the current politicians could just act like our forefathers for once and kiss and make up and get some business done?

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