America’s Greatest Oddcouple
In the pantheon of figures that dominated American History around the the time the traitors to the British crown cast off their Kingly shackles, Thomas Jefferson is perhaps one of the most prominent names remembered today, only equalled by the likes of scientist, philosopher, and statesman Ben Franklin and revolutionary General and later first President George Washington. Slightly more forgotten, but arguably one of the most influential men in American History, as we’ll get to shortly, was Washington’s Vice President, John Adams, the man who would narrowly succeed Washington as President after defeating Thomas Jefferson 71-68- for the first time seeing two parties in the U.S. bitterly vying for the presidency, yet a peaceful transition of power nonetheless. In this case, by the rules of the day, Adams became President and Jefferson, having finished second, became Vice President- leaving the two electoral enemies to try to work together, with predictable results.
Doubling down, in the following election Jefferson and Adams once again were electoral rivals in what has gone down as one of the most vitriolic Presidential Elections in U.S. History. To give you an idea of the tone, at one point Jefferson funded a pamphlet in which Adams was accused of being a hermaphrodite, while Adams’ supporters accused Jefferson of advocating for incest. Indeed, so heated were matters and so critical for the young nation that when Jefferson ultimately narrowly defeated Adams but a technicality made it so his running mate Aaron Burr could be made President, rumors abounded of militias taking up arms for another revolution should Burr be selected and that the other side was planning to assassinate Jefferson. In the end, Jefferson was chosen and Adams quietly took a carriage from the relatively newly built White House- then called the President’s House- back to his home in Quincy, Massachusetts, seemingly snubbing Jefferson by not attending his inauguration. But what might surprise you about all this, is Jefferson and Adams, though starkly different in temperament, background, and political and religious beliefs, had long been the closest of friends before and for many years after, with Jefferson stating of Adams to James Madison, “[Adams] is so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him if ever you become acquainted with him.” And Adams entoning of Jefferson “intimate Correspondence with you … is one of the most agreeable Events in my Life.”
Here now is the true story of two of America’s most influential statesmen and their rather odd couple, endearingly close friendship that endured for nearly a half a century of their lives.
Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, initially raised at his family’s Shadwell Plantation in Virginia, though upon his father’s death when Jefferson was only 14, he inherited a portion of his estate, some 5,000 acres which included his future home Monticello, as well as a significant number of slaves, all of which he would add to upon his wife’s father’s death whereupon Jefferson gained another 11,000 acres and 135 more slaves.
As would be something of a paradox throughout Jefferson’s lifetime, when he would later take up practicing law, he would spearhead several pieces of anti-slavery legislation, and even defended for free several slaves seeking emancipation, in one such case making the argument in court, “everyone comes into the world with a right to his own person and using it at his own will … This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of nature, because it is necessary for his own sustenance.” Sentiments he would later double down on in the Declaration of Independence, writing perhaps one of the most famous sentences every written in history, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
However, when this argument failed to sway the judge and his client lost, Jefferson reportedly gave him money presumed to be used to help him escape his master. Yet despite all this, of the hundreds of slaves he owned in his lifetime, Jefferson freed only a handful, even upon his death having them all sold off to cover his debts instead of freed as others, such as George Washington, had done.
As for Washington, when he was near death, he noted in his will that all his slaves (over 300) should be freed upon his wife’s death and those who were too elderly or sick to work should continue to be supported by the estate. Further, those who were unable to acquire an education on their own should be provided with tutors to teach them reading, writing, and some useful trade with which they could then support themselves after being freed. He wrote of all this, “The unfortunate condition of the persons, whose labour in part I employed, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret. To make the Adults among them as easy & as comfortable in their circumstances as their actual state of ignorance & improvidence would admit; & to lay a foundation to prepare the rising generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born; afforded some satisfaction to my mind, & could not I hoped be displeasing to the justice of the Creator.”
In contrast, going back to Jefferson, of the only handful of slaves he did free, they were almost all connected to his slave Sally Hemmings, who was also the half sister of his deceased wife. Hemmings was herself briefly freed by default by joining Jefferson for a couple years in France, but he ultimately persuaded the teen girl to return with him to the United States and a life of slavery once again, with the pair seemingly having a longstanding secret relationship the nature of which is still hotly debated today, though that allegedly produced several children who Jefferson would later free. But that is a topic for another day.
In any event, by the time of his adulthood, by virtue of his wealth, education, and prominence in Virginia, Jefferson was practically a shoe-in for high political office, including selected to the Continental Congress, as well Governor of Virginia for a time. Tall, eloquent, polite to the extreme, and exceptionally reserved, Jefferson was the model of a Virginian gentleman of the age, massive plantation and slaves to boot.
Coming into existence 8 years before Jefferson in 1735, John Adam’s could not have contrasted more starkly with Jefferson. Born to a more upper middle-class level background and owing his rise to prominence more to his intelligence, extensive learning, and legal work than gifted many of the advantages Jefferson was. Adams’ father had originally thought his son would follow him into life in the clergy and as a farmer, but Adams instead noted he felt lawyers of the age were “noble and [with] gallant achievements” whereas most clergy, in his opinion, were men who “pretended sanctity” and among them “some absolute dunces.”
As was a theme throughout Adams’ life, contradictory behavior, such as Jefferson had with regards to slavery, wasn’t Adams’ thing. If Adams felt a certain way about something, the entire world could tell him he was wrong and he wouldn’t budge on his assertions nor actions nor shut up about it, no matter the consequences, unless convinced otherwise through reason. And as for slavery, Adams loathed it, stating “Slavery is a foul contagion in the human character.”
Further contrasting their characters, while Jefferson was known for extreme politeness and courtesy, even with his staunch enemies, Adams was, shall we say, less couth, as you may have gathered from his aforementioned “dunces” comment about clergy, despite that his own father who he was telling this to was one of those ministers.
As fellow founding father and great friend to both men, Benjamin Rush, would write of Adams, “He was a stranger to dissimulation”. Or as Adams would sum up of himself, “I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular.”
Short, squidgy around the edges, known for his inability to keep his mouth shut on any matter he had an opinion on, as well as seeming unabashedly little caring of hurting anyone’s feelings or about the abrasiveness with what he said, Adams was nonetheless, if not always liked, extremely respected among his peers as one of the greatest political and legal minds of his era, as well as for is devotion to the burgeoning nation and extreme integrity.
With such contrasting personalities, backgrounds and, as we’ll get into shortly, diametric political beliefs, it may seem odd that the two men would form such a deep and lasting friendship. But form it they did.
It was in 1775 that a 32 year old Thomas Jefferson would first encounter the 40 year old Adams, and seemingly the pair quickly took to each other, with Jefferson impressed by Adams’ fierce defense of his ideas before Congress, and Adams respecting Jefferson’s reserve and keen insights.
From here, the two men’s roles in the forming of the United States cannot be understated. Perhaps no other individuals outside of Washington and Ben Franklin, played a greater single part in the revolution. For his part, Adams would pen the Massachusetts constitution as well as a work called the A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States that would ultimately both largely inspire a massive amount of the U.S. Constitution, despite that Adams himself would not be directly involved in it owing to being overseas at the time. But while he was not there, his ideas were. With his Defence serialized in papers in Philadelphia and read religiously by the crafters of the Constitution while they were crafting it. For some choice ideas he proposed in these two things, these included the formation of a three branch government as well as a bicameral legislature, among countless other contributions derived from his works and mirrored in the U.S. Constitution.
Adams also changed history markedly during the Treaty of Paris. In this one, Adams particularly played a key role in the Preliminary Article of Peace officially agreed to on November 30, 1782. Just as significant, before this, Adams convinced Ben Franklin that while Congress had instructed them to make no efforts towards peace that didn’t include France being involved in the negotiations, instead, they should deal directly with the British, as this would increase the odds of a maximally favorable deal for the United States, without any concern for France. This was a slight double cross to a nation who had been critical in helping the colonists win the war. But it also was an accurate assessment of the situation, and Franklin was persuaded.
On this note, the negotiations were extremely successful, with the British not only agreeing to officially acknowledging the United States’ sovereignty, but also giving shockingly favorable terms to the new nation in a variety of history changings ways, including giving up many lands that, had they not, would have seen the young United States surrounded on all sides by the British, instead of only in the North in Canada.
While on the surface some have noted this was an odd move for the British given their still respective might compared to the United States, then British Prime Minister Lord William Petty, Earl of Shelburne felt that in granting the United States such favorable terms, they also positioned the U.S. to prosper to a great degree, while simultaneously helping to open up very favorable trade with them which would benefit British merchants, as well as help supply the British Empire with much needed resources. This would also all hopefully foster a decent amount of goodwill towards Britain from the new nation, and potentially help ensure that the relationship between France and the U.S. didn’t continue to mature unchecked at the expense of Britain. And in retrospect, while the now dubbed “special relationship” between the British and Americans wasn’t always smooth in the aftermath, on the whole, such friendly relations with their former colonies has served the U.K. extremely well, and been a boon to the United States as well. So much so that the U.S. Department of States’ webpage on the relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. starts off,
“The United States has no closer Ally than the United Kingdom. Following the end of the American Revolution in 1783… in 1785 our two countries established diplomatic relations. Other than a brief break in relations during the War of 1812, the United States and the United Kingdom have remained durable partners and Allies. Our partnership is a foundation of our mutual prosperity and security.”
From all this, it is interesting to think what would have happened if John Adams had not convinced Benjamin Franklin that they should abandon trying to negotiate the peace with France as a partner, and instead deal directly with Britain, with a key selling point for the generous terms in the treaty being closer ties between Britain and the U.S. and a lessening of relations with France.
In any event, more indirectly, Adams influenced the nation through very explicitly grooming his son to achieve a similar life of political greatness in the country, and instilling in him the same unrelenting morals and ideals he himself held- with John Quincy Adams ultimately rising to the office of President, and then somehow seeing this be the least of his adult achievements, when he followed it up by a long and distinguished career in Congress where he tirelessly laid the foundation for what Abraham Lincoln and his supporters would ultimately achieve in the fight against slavery.
Going back to Jefferson, beyond as noted becoming a Virginia representative to the Second Continental Congress, he was subsequently selected to the Committee of Five to help craft the Declaration of Independence, along with Ben Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. In a surprising move, the committee selected the young 33 year old Jefferson to write the document over the much more distinguished writer and well known individual world wide in Ben Franklin, or the massively more accomplished legal and political mind in John Adams. It was, however, Jefferson’s soon to be great friend in Adams who would ultimately persuade both the committee to choose Jefferson, and to convince Jefferson himself to take the lead. As Adams would write to Jefferson on his reasoning, “Reason first—You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second—I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third—You can write ten times better than I can.”
As noted, Jefferson also served as the Governor of Virginia, eventually became Minister to France, became the first U.S. Secretary of State during George Washington’s presidency, helped organize the Democratic-Republican Party, became Vice President under John Adams, and then ascended to the Presidency itself, serving two terms before following in George Washington’s footsteps and choosing not to run a third time despite his extreme popularity.
Going back to their rather odd friendship, the two men became particularly close following the death of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, at the age of only 33 in 1781. This event sent Jefferson into a depressive spiral. Reportedly for weeks after simply pacing back and forth to the point of extreme exhaustion. Later, his daughter Martha would state she’d accompany him on long rides to nowhere where she was “a solitary witness to many a violent burst of grief.” After his wife’s death, Jefferson would wear a locket containing her hair for the rest of his life, and never remarried. Although, as noted, he seems to have had a secret lifelong relationship with his wife’s half-sister and his slave, Sally Hemings.
A few years later, in 1785, apparently still grieving, Jefferson was appointed as Minister to France alongside Adams, with it alleged some hoped venturing off to Europe would help finally heal this wound in the man. Even before his departure, their friendship had become close, with Jefferson rushing to try to catch the same ship Abigail Adams was on to travel across the big blue, writing to John Adams in 1784, “I have hastened myself on my journey hither in hopes of having the pleasure of attending Mrs. Adams to Paris and of lessening some of the difficulties to which she may be exposed.”
On this note, it wasn’t just Jefferson and John Adams who became great friends, but similar affections resided between Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson, with the two penning countless extremely affectionate letters to one another. With, for example, Abigail stating of Jefferson, he is “one of the choice ones of the earth”. And Jefferson at one point writing in kind to James Madison stating that Abigail Adams was “one of the most estimable characters on earth.”
Unfortunately, Jefferson arrived too late and was not able to accompany Abigail, ultimately sailing two weeks later. But upon their combined arrival in France, Jefferson took to frequently dining and otherwise spending significant time with the Adams’ family. Abigail Adams would state of this time together, Jefferson was “the only person with whom my companion could associate with perfect freedom and reserve.”
Not only this, but certain of their children also came to be beloved by the other family. With, for example, Jefferson’s daughter, Maria, upon first arriving in Europe residing with Abigail Adams until Jefferson could reunite with her, with the two forming an extremely strong bond. For his part, Jefferson also came to adore John Quincy Adams, with the feeling seemingly mutual, and John Adams even later writing to Jefferson referring to John Quincy Adams as “our son”.
By the time of the Adams’ family departure to Britain upon new appointment there, Jefferson would write to them that “The departure of your family has left me in the dumps—my afternoon hangs heavily upon me.” In turn, Abigail Adams would write of the move, “The exchange of climate must be for the worse. I shall regret that, and the loss of Mr. Jeffersons Society.” And later in a letter to Jefferson, “I will not deny that there may be a little vanity in the hope of being honourd with a line from you.” To which Jefferson replied, “I … am now to return you thanks, for your condescension in having taken the first step for settling a correspondence which I so much desired ….” And later again, “[W]hen writing to you, I fancy myself at Auteuil, and chatter on till the last page of my paper awakes me from my reverie.” On top of this, when at one point he’d not received a letter from Abigail for some time, Jefferson wrote to John Adams asking, “what step to take to provoke a letter from Mrs. Adams, from whom my files inform me I have not received one these hundred years.”
At this point, the group were virtually family to one another, with Abigail herself exchanging dozens of letters with Jefferson over the following three years they were distanced in Europe, and her husband and Jefferson countless more. But it would not last, and, as is so common in so many families and among the best of friends, politics would turn this family into bitter enemies, with seemingly no reconciliation possible. Though a chance shockingly prophetic dream by a mutual friend would ultimately change their fates, as we’ll get to in a bit.
But for now, upon their respective returns to the United States, the two men’s troubles with each other started. As for Jefferson, ever the optimist and idealist, he believed humans, properly educated, would gravitate towards self governing, with little in the way of rule over them needed, and the states should be the central power and decision makers in this, not the federal government.
Adams, in contrast, believed a strong central government was necessary to oversee any nation that had any hope of thriving. He further had little faith in humans put in power exercising this power for the benefit of the masses instead of themselves. And thus, felt checks at every level were necessary to reign those individuals in. In contrast, he also felt every bit as much that having those in power have significant power to oversee the states was necessary to ensure prosperity of the nation. In short, Adams believed in the fallibility of man at all levels, and Jefferson believed in the inherent goodness of man to do the right thing in the end, even the elite among society. Jefferson wanted the weakest possible central government, Adams wanted a strong one, but where power “must never be trusted without a check.” And it was all downhill from there.
When Adams defeated Jefferson to become the nations’ second president, while at this point the affections each one had for each other were still strong, things were becoming strained.
As for Abigail, she nevertheless had strong belief this would not cause significant issue, writing to her sister, “I have long known Mr Jefferson, and have ever entertained a Friendship for him; he is a Man of understanding, and of probity, … between him and Mr Adams there has ever subsisted harmony, tho they have not accorded always in sentiment, they have dissented without warmth, or ill will, like gentlemen, and Mr Jefferson I have not a doubt will support the President.”
And, indeed, upon election, Adams reached out to Jefferson in hopes of forming something of a bipartisan Presidency, working together towards shared goals of the nation and mending the ever growing extreme divide between the two new parties. Jefferson, however, could not bring himself to publicly join forces with the most prominent member of the party that opposed his own, despite their friendship, and refused the request to work together in this way.
Further, as the presidency progressed, Jefferson would privately attack Adams in certain correspondence, such as with French consul Joseph Létombe. He also sought to undermine Adams’ efforts with regards to relations with France, by stating he felt Adams would only serve one term and thus, when dealing with the delegation Adams had sent, the French should “listen to them and then drag out the negotiations at length and mollify them by the urbanity of the proceedings.” He would also describe Adams during this time as “distrustful, obstinate, excessively vain, and takes no counsel from anyone.”
Adams, for his part, likewise became increasingly frustrated by Jefferson, writing he had a “mind soured, yet seeking for popularity, and eaten to a honeycomb with ambition, yet weak, confused, uninformed, and ignorant.”
Adams’ presidency ultimately was strongly hampered by a similar attitude he initially tried with Jefferson, of hoping for bipartisan collaboration at a time when the two sides in Congress and beyond were bitter rivals. John Quincy Adams would write to his father of all this, “Had you been the man of one great party which divides the people of the United States, you might have purchased peace by tribute . . . had you been the man of the other party, you would have left the only favorable moment for negotiating peace to the best advantage. . . . You have therefore given the most decisive proof that in your administration you were the man, not of any party, but of the whole nation.”
As alluded to, things did not improve in the subsequent election. In fact, at one point Jefferson seems to have helped bankroll Scottish “scandalmonger” James Callender’s work The Prospect Before Us, which, among other things, attacked Adams by stating he was “mentally deranged” and a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Ultimately Callender was jailed for this thanks to the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it, at the time, a crime to knowingly make false statements about the federal government. Jefferson would later pardon Callender upon becoming president, only to see Callender try to blackmail Jefferson if not given a postmaster position. Jefferson refused and Callender subsequently outed Jefferson for allegedly funding his work attacking the Federalists and Adams, and further outed Jefferson’s alleged longstanding relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings. Stating, “IT is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY. The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking… resemblance to those of the president himself. The boy is ten or twelve years of age. His mother went to France in the same vessel with Mr. Jefferson and his two daughters. The delicacy of this arrangement must strike every person of common sensibility. What a sublime pattern for an American ambassador to place before the eyes of two young ladies!”
Adams would remark of this in a letter to Joseph Ward in 1810 lamenting the situation and the institution of slavery, “Callender and Sally will be remembered as long as Jefferson as Blotts in his Character. The story of the latter, is a natural and almost unavoidable Consequence of that foul contagion… in the human Character Negro Slavery. In the West Indies and the Southern States it has the Same Effect. A great Lady has Said She did not believe there was a Planter in Virginia who could not reckon among his Slaves a Number of his Children….”
Going back to Adams and that second presidential run, it should be noted of Adams that he did express at times during the campaign his desire to retire and be done with all the stressors and issues with politics and the Presidency. And, in fact, he would later tell his son, John Quincy Adams, upon his own election to the office of President, that “No man who ever held the office of President would congratulate a friend on obtaining it.”
Upon losing his second bid, Adams quietly accepted defeat, withdrawing somewhat from the spotlight immediately after despite still being President. Though this withdrawal perhaps was also in part because almost at the same time he found he’d lost the Presidential election, he also learned that he had also lost something much greater, his son Charles had tragically died at only 30 years old.
Ultimately when his time in office was up, as noted, Adams, for what reasons today aren’t fully clear, skipped attending Jefferson’s inauguration, with most advocating that his reasons were to snub Jefferson in the transition of power. That said, some have speculated this all may have had less to do with animosity towards Jefferson, and more to do with his own inauguration having been overshadowed by George Washington’s presence there, and not wanting to do the same to Jefferson. Or the fact that he seemingly was never officially invited to the inauguration and at the time there still wasn’t a set etiquette about this situation, so he may have not felt welcome. And, of course, he was still grieving for the relatively recent loss of his son. Thus, some have speculated he simply wanted to get home to his family as soon as his presence in the capital was no longer required. Whatever the case, he reportedly arose at 4 am on March 4, 1801 and began his over 400 mile journey home to Quincy.
As for his career after, upon suggestion that he return to Europe as a minister for the United States, Adams declined, writing on January 20, 1801, “I believe however upon the whole I must be a farmer. John of stony field & nothing more (I hope nothing less) for the rest of my life…. The happiest life it will be to me (at least I think so) that I ever led.”
As for Jefferson, upon taking office, he would do his utmost to publicly downplay the role as President, in stark contrast to George Washington particularly. Again, Jefferson wanted a weak central government and weak Presidential office. And he played the part, right down to living a very simple lifestyle as president in many ways, including occasionally wearing old homespun clothes and slippers at Presidential dinner parties, and avoiding much of the pomp and circumstance generally afforded such leadership, even skipping out on addressing Congress himself annually- instead simply sending a clerk to read his message. All in the hope of diminishing the role of the President publicly.
After these tumultuous years, the two former friends were now seemingly irreconcilable and did not speak to each other again for over a decade outside of one brief neutral paragraph John Adams included in a letter Abigail sent to Jefferson.
In this one, after the death of Jefferson’s aforementioned daughter Maria in 1804 owing to complications during childbirth, Abigail, who had deep affection for Maria after their time together in France, wrote Jefferson on May 20, 1804,
“Had you been no other than the private inhabitant of Montecello, I should e’er this
time have addressed you, with that sympathy, which a recent event has awakend in my Bosom.
but reasons of various kinds withheld my pen, untill the powerfull feelings of my heart, have
burst through the restraint, and called upon me to shed the tear of sorrow over the departed
remains, of your beloved and deserving Daughter, an event which I most sincerely mourn.
The attachment which I formed for her, when you committed her to my care; upon
her arrival in a foreign Land: has remained with me to this hour, and the recent account of
her Death, which I read in a late paper, brought fresh to my remembrance the strong
sensibility she discovered, tho but a child of nine years of age at having been seperated from
her Friends, and country, and brought, as she expressed it, “to a strange land amongst
strangers.” the tender scene of her seperation from me, rose to my recollection, when she
clung arround my neck and wet my Bosom with her tears—saying, “o! now I have learnt to
Love you, why will they tear me from you”. It has been some time since that I conceived of any event in this Life, which could call forth, feelings of Mutual sympathy. but I know how closely entwined arround a parents heart, are those Chords which bind the filial to the parental Bosom, and when snaped assunder, how agonizing the pangs of seperation. I have tasted the bitter cup, and bow with reverence, and humility before the great Dispenser of it, without whose permission, and over ruling providence; not a sparrow falls to the ground….”
As for Jefferson, he replied with an olive branch on June 13, 1804,
“The affectionate sentiments which you have had the goodness to express in your
letter of May 20. towards my dear departed daughter, have awakened in me sensibilities
natural to the occasion, & recalled your kindnesses to her which I shall ever remember with
gratitude & friendship. I can assure you with truth they had made an indelible impression on
her mind, and that, to the last, on our meetings after long separations, whether I had heard
lately of you, and how you did, were among the earliest of her enquiries. In giving you this assurance I perform a sacred duty for her, & at the same time am thankful for the occasion
furnished me of expressing my regret that circumstances should have arisen which have
seemed to draw a line of separation between us. The friendship with which you honoured me
has ever been valued, and fully reciprocated…”
Had he stopped there, and indeed Abigail would later explicitly state had he stopped there, no animosity between them would have arisen in their exchange. Instead, while he did continue on expressing his extreme affections for John Adams as well, despite their political differences, he then went on to describe the, to quote, “one act of Mr Adams’s life, and one only, ever gave me a moment’s personal displeasure. I did consider his last appointments to office as personally unkind. They were from among my most ardent political enemies, from whom no faithful cooperation could ever be expected, and laid me under the embarrassment of acting thro’ men whose views were to defeat mine; or to encounter the odium of putting others in their places.”
While he likely intended this to show he had no real strong animosity towards John Adams about anything, and only slightly offended by this one thing, Abigail Adams would not hear a word against her husband nor stand for the implication that he had done this to slight Jefferson instead of just what he had felt was best for the country and was his job as President.
It was on from there, in a rather heated series of letters between the two laying out the various offenses that Adams and Jefferson had seemed to cause one another during the years they were politically at odds.
That said, for his part, Jefferson continually seemed intent upon forging a bridge between them in the discussion and expressing his sincere affections for both of the Adams’s, despite their differences. But, again, Abigail would not take any perceived past slights at her husband lying down. And while her first letter had signed off, “her who once took pleasure in subscribing Herself Your Friend”. One of her follow ups would snub this sentiment entirely, simply stating, “Subscribe the Name of Abigail Adams”
In the end, as before, reconciliation seemed impossible, with the final letter concluding with John Adams’ paragraph on the matter- the first time the men had communicated in years. Adams wrote on November 19, 1804, “The whole of this Correspondence was begun and conducted without my Knowledge or Suspicion. Last Evening and this Morning at the desire of Mrs Adams I read the whole. I have no remarks to make upon it at this time and in this place.”
Silence, for 8 years this time, followed.
But this was not the end. In 1809, with both men now having left their political careers behind, the aforementioned mutual friend and founding father, Benjamin Rush, decided enough was enough. Starting that year, Rush began intimating to each man that the other still held affection for the other, and that they should take up a correspondence again. With Rush writing Adams on October 17th of that year about a dream where Jefferson and Adams had renewed their friendship. And that the byproduct of this was years of letters where “Many precious aphorisms, the result of Observation, experience, & profound reflection it is said are contained…. It is to be hoped, the World will be favoured with a sight of them, when they can neither injure nor displease any persons or families whose ancestor’s follies or crimes were mentioned in them.” He also just as prophetically, as we’ll get to in a bit, predicted in the dream, “These gentlemen sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country.”
Making little headway with either man over the next two years, things finally changed thanks to a chance encounter, as described by Jefferson himself in a letter to Rush asking Rush to persuade Adams to write to him. In the letter, dated December 5, 1811, Jefferson wrote,
“Two of Mr Coles, my neighbors and friends, brothers to the one who lived with me as Secretary at Washington, took a tour to the Northward during the last summer. In Boston they fell into company with Mr Adams, & by his invitation passed a day with him at Braintree. He spoke out to them every thing which came uppermost, among many other topics, he adverted to the unprincipled licenciousness 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 & 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 dissocialized 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 & experience. I never withdrew from the society of any man on this account, altho’ many have done it from me; much less should I do it from one with whom I had gone thro’, with hand & heart, so many trying scenes.”
Rush then passed on Jefferson’s sentiments to Adams, and Adams finally relented, writing to Jefferson on New Years’ day 1812 a rather short and simple letter compared to all their other correspondence, a mere three paragraphs. The first paragraph mentioning sending him a simple gift of works written by John Quincy Adams, who in his youth as noted for a time was like a son to Jefferson. In the next paragraph, Adams briefly spoke of his family and their health. And finally, an olive branch of his own,
“I wish you Sir many happy New Years and that you may enter the next and many Succeeding Years with as animating Prospects for the Public as those at present before Us. I am Sir with a long and Sincere Esteem your Friend and / Servant, John Adams”
Jefferson would reply on January 21 a much lengthier correspondence, and full of less formal affection, Writing in part,
“I find myself much the happier. Sometimes indeed I look back to former occurrences, in remembrance of our old friends and fellow laborers, who have fallen before us. Of the signers of the Declaration of Independance I see now living not more than half a dozen on your side of the Patomak, and, on this side, myself alone. you & I have been wonderfully spared, and myself with remarkable health, & a considerable activity of body & mind… I have heard with pleasure that you also retain good health, and a greater power of exercise in walking than I do. but I would rather have heard this from yourself, & that, writing a letter, like mine, full of egotisms, & of details of your health, your habits, occupations & enjoyments, I should have the pleasure of knowing that, in the race of life, you do not keep, in its physical decline, the same distance ahead of me which you have done in political honors & achievements. No circumstances have lessened the interest I feel in these particulars respecting yourself; none have suspended for one moment my sincere esteem for you; and I now salute you with unchanged affections and respect. Thomas Jefferson”
Over the course of the next 14 years, the two men would exchange over 150 lengthy letters that have since become a treasure trove of insight into both two of the most prominent men of the Revolution, as well as events that transpired around them and their deepest thoughts on all of it.
Abigail Adams herself would also finally relent and let go of past offences, chiming in on July 15, 1813. While her husband signed off his letter by writing, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other. I shall come to the subject of religion by-and-bye. Your friend, John Adams” enough room was left for Abigail to write, “I have been looking for some time for a space in my good husband’s letters to add the regards of an old friend, which are still cherished and preserved through all the changes and vicissitudes which have taken place since we first became acquainted, and will, I trust, remain as long as… A. Adams” From here, their separate correspondence resumed as well all the way to her death.
On this, upon learning of the death of Abigail Adams in 1818, Jefferson, wrote his friend,
“I know well, and feel what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure. The same trials have taught me that, for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medecines. I will not, therefore, by useless condolances, open afresh the sluices of your grief nor, altho’ mingling sincerely my tears with yours, will I say a word more, where words are vain, but that it is of some comfort to us both that the term is not very distant at which we are to deposit, in the same cerement, our sorrows and suffering bodies, and to ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved and lost and whom we shall still love and never lose again. God bless you and support you under your heavy affliction.”
On this note, in some of their last correspondence their discussions turned to that of both their looming demises, with Jefferson writing Adams on June 1, 1822,
“When all our faculties have left, or are leaving us, one by one, sight, hearing, memory, every avenue of pleasing sensation is closed, and athumy, debility and malaise left in their places, when the friends of our youth are all gone, and a generation is risen around us whom we know not, is death an evil?
When one by one our ties are torn,
And friend from friend is snatched
When man is left alone to mourn,
Oh! then how sweet it is to die!
When trembling limbs refuse their
And films slow gathering dim the sight,
When clouds obscure the mental light
Tis nature’s kindest boon to die!”
And Adams replying two weeks later, “I answer your question, Is Death an Evil? It is not an Evil. It is a blessing to the individual, and to the world. Yet we ought not to wish for it till life becomes insupportable; we must wait the pleasure and convenience of this great teacher.”
But through it all, the great friends continued writing, with Jefferson stating, “Crippled wrists and fingers make writing slow and laborious. But while writing to you, I lose the sense of these things, in the recollection of ancient times, when youth and health made happiness out of everything.”
In the end, despite their extreme political differences, backgrounds, and dispositions, the odd couple of the Revolution’s affection for one another never waned again, all the way to their deaths.
On this, Benjamin Rush’s final prediction from his dream of what would happen if the two men reunited came true. On July 4, 1826, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would die almost simultaneously- the 83 year old Jefferson in his expansive estate in Monticello, and the 90 year old John Adams in his more humble Quincy home, both passing on the 50th anniversary of the day the nation they helped form declared its independence.
As for Jefferson, it is unknown what his mind was thinking of in his last moments, with his last known words simply asking if it was yet the fourth of july, and later, when it was, refusing further laudanum from his physician stating, “No doctor, nothing more.” Adams, however, was thinking of Jefferson just before death, reportedly stating as his last words, “Thomas Jefferson survives”. Whether this was said in amusement that his rival had succeeded in living beyond him or simply affection for his great friend isn’t known. But what is known is that his last statement was incorrect. Over 500 miles away, Thomas Jefferson had passed away a few hours before.
Today, if you’re in the neighborhood, you can visit John and Abigail Adams’s crypt, as well as John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa’s, at the United First Parish Church in Quincy. As well as visit the couple’s humble home at Adams National Historical Park.Expand for References
|Share the Knowledge!