Founders and Frenemies

A new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood, A55, chronicles the intertwined lives and politics of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams
The revolutionary movement drew Thomas Jefferson and John Adams together, but “they were later divided by politics and political partisanship,” said Gordon Wood. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
February 5, 2018

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It was certainly an amazing coincidence: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, American revolutionaries and the second and third presidents of the United States, both died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

The two had first become friends in 1776 at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and their relationship became closer still when both were ministers abroad in the mid-1780s, as Adams and his wife Abigail took the newly widowed Jefferson under their wing. Despite their early friendship, though, the two men “differed in almost every conceivable way,” said historian Gordon Wood, A55, H10.

In his recent book, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (Penguin), Wood can’t help but highlight the contrasts. Adams was from “middling stock,” short and stout, prone to emotional outbursts and reckless honesty, a respecter of religion, and admirer of the English constitution; Jefferson was a born aristocrat and slave-holder, tall and lanky, polite to the point of reticence, no respecter of religion, and an admirer of the bloody French Revolution.

The book is not just a study of two men, but also a primer on what divided the country at its founding, and to some extent divides it today: North and South, Federalists who believed in larger role for government and Republicans who wanted to limit it.

Wood, the Alva O. Way University Professor emeritus at Brown University, a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, and former Tufts trustee, had initially planned to write about Adams; he had just completed editing three volumes of Adams’ writing for the Library of America. But his editor at Penguin suggested a dual biography of Adams and Jefferson, pitting the two against each other. “I’m glad I did, and I think I learned more about these two men in contrast to one another than if I had worked on either one of them alone,” he said.

Tufts Now recently spoke with Wood about Adams, Jefferson, and the lessons of history.

Tufts Now: Jefferson and Adams seemed more different than alike—how did they become friends?

Gordon Wood: “That’s the paradox of the early republic—the leaders of the popular Republican Party come from the most socially conservative, hierarchical, slave-holding areas,” said Gordon Wood. What drew them together was the revolutionary movement. They were both radicals. When Jefferson joined the Continental Congress, where Adams had already been hard at work, they both agreed on opposing the British. Adams had taken the lead on this right from the outset, and Jefferson joined in. In 1774 Jefferson wrote the most radical pamphlet to appear until Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. So Adams took to him right away.

And later, when Jefferson joined Adams abroad as minister in Paris, Jefferson was a widower.  John and Abigail took him under their wing, and he became really fascinated by this family, especially by Abigail; he flirted with her in their correspondence when John and Abigail moved to London. I think he’d never really experienced a family like the Adamses, and he became part of the family. That was a very important part of the bonding.

What divided them?

They were divided by politics and political partisanship. Adams was a great admirer of the English constitution—and Jefferson, who despised England, was a real radical and an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, which Adams hated. By the 1790s, they didn’t share very much, except for having a common enemy in Alexander Hamilton. The presidential election of 1800, when Adams lost to Jefferson, was devastating to him, and he didn’t easily forget it. He and Jefferson had no contact for a dozen years afterwards.

It took two years of work by a mutual friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, to bring these two men together again in 1812. And from then until their deaths in 1826, they exchanged 158 letters, with Adams writing three to every one of Jefferson’s. Adams never minded writing more letters than Jefferson. He understood that Jefferson had many more correspondents to deal with.

You write that Adams was “no politician and certainly no party leader, and he had very little political sense.” And yet he was a founder of the country, and served as the first vice president and the second president. What explains that contradiction?

Because he was so far ahead of his colleagues in support of the revolution, and the revolution succeeded so well, he became the most famous Northerner in America. So  when the electors came to vote in the first election of the president in 1788, it was natural that he would come in second to Washington, especially when the electors wanted to balance the geographical sections. The way the Constitution read at that time the electors voted for two people, and the man who got the most electoral votes got to be president, and second most got to be vice president. And you couldn’t vote for two people from the same state. It couldn’t be Washington and Jefferson, and people inevitably thought of Adams; he’d done so much.

There were lots of people who were not happy with Adams even being vice president. Hamilton didn’t trust him, thought he was erratic, unstable; he could fly off the handle. And he had once been the friend of Jefferson, whom the Federalists, and especially Hamilton, despised.  

Adams spoke his mind; he wasn’t like Jefferson, who was very diplomatic.

No one accused Adams of dissimulation. He often resembled Alceste in Moliere’s The Misanthrope. By contrast, Jefferson was often accused of dissimulation. He was obsessed with politeness—gentlemen restrain themselves, hold back what they actually thinkWhen carried too far, this kind of excessive politeness can lead to being thought two-faced.

You say Jefferson was a radical, but he was also an aristocrat, owning large properties and many slaves.

That’s the paradox of the early republic—the leaders of the popular Republican Party come from the most socially conservative, hierarchical, slave-holding areas. The conservative leadership, the Federalists, on the other hand, came from New England, which was by far the most democratic and egalitarian area  of the new republic.

The paradox is understandable, because the slaveholding planters in the South didn’t really know what democracy was like; they lived in a hierarchical world where they had very little sense of a threat from the common white people, the electorate. Whereas the Federalists were in a much more middling society, which was much more volatile, much more democratic than the society of the South. The conservative leaders were threatened all the time by the possibility of popular unrest. So they were much more suspicious of democracy. And of course Adams is part of that, but he feared aristocrats as much as democrats. He really didn’t trust anyone.

Jefferson was a big supporter of the French Revolution, even though friends he made in France were executed.

Yes, and there’s an extraordinary letter that he wrote in February 1793. He was told by his successor in Paris, William Short, that many of his former aristocratic French friends were being guillotined by the thousands. Jefferson’s reply was extraordinary. Well, he said, this is the nature of revolutions, and people have to expect bloodshed. He almost sounds like the defenders of Stalin in the 1930s. He wrote that if only an Adam and Eve were left alive but left free, it would be worth it.

It’s not that Jefferson would have actually overseen executions, but he was an extreme radical in his thinking. And he really did excuse the thousands of people being guillotined in the French Revolution, because he felt those being executed were only useless aristocratic monarchists who were defending an ancient regime that had to be destroyed to make way for a new enlightened republic. It was worth all the bloodshed. Jefferson was as much an eighteenth-century radical as Thomas Paine.

In the end you laud Jefferson for his ability to inspire Americans with his ideals, and seem to dismiss Adams for his pessimism about human nature.

Frankly, I like Adams; I find him more akin to my own sensibility. But Adams can’t be the spokesman for the nation. He’s a realist, he’s cynical and pessimistic, and he opposed America’s sacred myths. He denied the exceptionalism of the United States. We were just as corrupt and sinful as any other nation, he said. He denied the American belief in equality. He thought that all men are created unequal and education could not do much to erase that inequality. He could never be America’s spokesman.

Jefferson’s message, that all men are created equal, has become for most people the most important, the most inspiring, part of the Declaration of Independence, and the source of Jefferson’s fame. Jefferson, like most of the enlightened in the late eighteenth century, believed that the obvious differences between adults was due to their being brought up in differing environments. Nurture, not nature, was what mattered, which was why Jefferson was so keen on public education for every male.

This message of all men being born equal, as many subsequently came to use it—including Abraham Lincoln—is what allows a diverse nation like ours to survive. Lincoln in 1858 thought the society of the United States was very ethnically diverse and could only be held together by Jefferson’s message. Lincoln claimed that those words about equality made all the subsequent immigrants one with the Founders, made them “blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.”

It may be that Adams is more accurate and more realistic about the sources of inequality—that nature, not nurture, is what matters—but certainly that’s not a message that could inspire the people of the United States. But Jefferson could inspire people. Despite being a slaveholder, one who did not believe that black slaves were the equal of whites, Jefferson has become our spokesman. His great words transcend his racism and his other personal weaknesses.

Were Adams and Jefferson hopeful about the future of the country in their later years?

Both men died thinking that the country was going in the wrong direction, and with good reason, as the emerging sectional conflict did end in a civil war. All the revolutionaries who lived into the nineteenth century died disillusioned with what they had wrought. The society was much wilder, more unruly, and more democratic than they had expected.

Are there lessons that we can draw from the lives of Adams and Jefferson?

I think there is a general lesson from history, that much of what happens consists of the unanticipated consequences of purposive action. What’s impressive is the blindness of the participants in the past, their inability to foresee the future and the significance of what they were doing. Jefferson and Adams had no idea, for example, how important the Declaration would become.  

History, if it teaches anything, teaches prudence, caution, and wisdom. How can you be sure that what you are going to do will be for the best? It seems to me that history is ultimately a conservative discipline—not in political terms, but in its effect of softening our enthusiasm to change the world overnight.

It gets us off the roller coaster of emotions where we think it is the best of times or the worst of times. It emphasizes the limitations within which people in the past were obliged to act. We see where people in the past have misjudged the future, and we realize that we might not know what the future is either.

Still, we don’t want to have so much prudence that we inhibit action. But that’s not a danger that we Americans are likely to experience. We are not a very history-minded people. America, said President Polk, was the only nation that had its history in the future.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.