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John Adams v. Thomas Jefferson on the Fourth of July

THEY WERE THE ODD COUPLE of the American Revolution: John Adams, short, stout, emotional, impatient, vain, highly opinionated, and honest-to-a-fault, from New England; Thomas Jefferson, tall, slim, rarely honest about his true opinions and motives, always well groomed, and ever polite, the very image of decorum and good manners, from Virginia.

With John Adams, storm clouds seemed to follow him wherever he went.  With Thomas Jefferson, blissfully detached, the world around him seemed to be possessed of nothing but blue skies.

While vastly different, they first became friends in 1774, at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  John Adams was well known as a savvy Boston attorney, who had been speaking out against British authority in New England for a decade.  Outside of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was relatively unknown.  Both were trained in the legal arts: John Adams graduated from Harvard, while Thomas Jefferson graduated from the Harvard-of-the-South (William and Mary College). As a persuasive and indefatigable speaker, Adams singlehandedly talked a reluctant Congress into going against their better judgement, and declaring independence from England.

In throwing off the yoke of monarchy, the colonies were attempting to create the world anew.  Someone needed to explain it.  Instead of picking himself (an excellent writer), John Adams chose a brilliant young southerner with a flair for writing the right words.  Possessing a "canine appetite" for books, Thomas Jefferson had little trouble in finding the words that went to the heart of the issue, that the common man could easily understand as well as appreciate:

"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.  That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . . and . . .  when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evince a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security."

Jefferson's initial draft included passages that called slavery into question, passages that were struck out by his fellow delegates.  Indeed, the biggest obstacle to independence was slavery. The South would not compromise.  The South would have its slaves without condition, or there would be no revolution.

Adams, like most northern delegates committed to independence, was not about to let southern slavery jeopardize the larger purpose, which was to break free from English rule.  Yes, Adams was against slavery, but going forward he would speak not of abolition, but of "gradual emancipation".  Gradual emancipation was underway in the north, and nowhere was this more evident than in Philadelphia, where Congress was meeting.  No doubt, such evidence convinced delegates that the same thing would happen south of the Mason-Dixon Line--eventually.

"Gradual emancipation" proved to be magical words that brought unity to the Continental Congress, and ultimately independence from England.  The very idea of gradual emancipation allowed slave owners north and south to live with their hypocrisy.  Not everyone was taken in, however.  In London, Samuel Jackson asked: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?"

After independence was officially declared, Congress chose John Adams to join Benjamin Franklin in Paris to negotiate an alliance with France.  When the war ended, Franklin returned to America, and Adams remained in Europe, first working with Thomas Jefferson for legal representation of the new American nation, and then with Dutch bankers in Amsterdam, to negotiate a series of loans to help pay America's large war debt.

Meanwhile, in America, a new generation of delegates were meeting in Philadelphia, to draft a new Constitution. While Jefferson remained in Paris as Minister to France, Adams returned home to Boston in time to learn that he had been elected as an officer in the new Federal Government.  While at first excited to be elected as Vice President, Adams came to loathe the job, especially when members of the Senate (where Adams presided as president pro tem), grew tired of his endless digressions, and issued a gag order to shut him up, so they could get some work done.

On top of that, President Washington did not include Adams in his cabinet, and seldom consulted him on policy questions.  Adams desperately wanted to be consulted, but he was too proud to push himself forward.  He steadfastly backed all the major initiatives of the Washington administration, including Hamilton's financial plan, the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, the Proclamation of Neutrality, and Jay's Treaty.

It seems Adams had the misfortune of becoming the nation's first vice president.  About his responsibilities as vice president, to his wife Abigail, he wrote:  "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."  Nonetheless, Adams carefully studied every bill  before the Senate. During his eight years in office, Adams cast more tie-breaking votes--at least thirty-one and perhaps as many as thirty-eight--than any subsequent vice president in American history.

During Washington's first term as president, a rift arose among his cabinet officers, that divided the Washington Administration.  The rift was led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, which would result in the creation of the nation's first political party. Jefferson and House Leader James Madison feared that Washington's nationalists policies (and those of his Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton), exceeded the limited powers prescribed in the U.S. Constitution and, if not checked, would be ruinous to the ideals of the American Revolution.


Two opposing political parties took shape, one as the Federalist Party, formed to counteract Jefferson's party (the four principles of the Federalists Party were: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and John Marshall).   Jefferson's party called itself the Democratic Republicans.  Besides Jefferson, members included James Madison, Aaron Burr, New York governor, George Clinton, and a host of New York and Virginia politicians.  The revolution then raging in France, deepened the political divide: the Democratic Republicans favored France, believing the French Revolution would spread around the globe and reshape the world, and make France the ascendant power in Europe.  The Federalists favored England, believing (correctly) the French Revolution would end badly, resulting in the violent death of countless thousands, and ultimately reshape Europe, with England in ascendancy.  Jefferson's Democratic Republicans distrusted centralized government, opposed banks, public finance, liquid capital, and favored state's rights and an agrarian economy.  The Federalists favored a strong central government, a thriving merchant class, a National bank, and liquid capital.

When Washington retired at the close of his second term, John Adams had the satisfaction of being chosen by his party as Washington's successor. Despite narrowly edging out Thomas Jefferson in the 1796 election, Adams now had the right to make his own decisions as the nation's second president.

With war raging between England and France, much of Adam's term was consumed with issues of foreign affairs and with the effort to protect American interests while staying out of the conflict.  Most worrisome were the increasing number of French attacks on American merchant ships doing business with the British.  Adam's initial attempt to solve the problem through negotiation failed, as French diplomats demanded a substantial bribe before they would even discuss the issue, a proposition that Adams firmly rejected.  (The crisis became known as the XYZ Affair, because the French diplomats were never publicly identified, going by the initials of X, Y, and Z).

While much of the nation spoiled for war in the face of provocations, Adams responded by rebuilding the largely moribund U.S. Army, and commissioned the construction of six frigates--including the USS Constitution--capable of countering the French ships.  Meanwhile, the party wars raged ever worse, with each party spreading propaganda in the newspapers they controlled.  No one's reputation was spared during such political craziness, not even George Washington's.

Until the emergence of Napoleon as dictator, the French government was a mishmash coalition of ever-shifting political factions inherently incapable of coherence or direction.  From the French perspective--and the same could be said of the English perspective--the infant American republic was at most a minor distraction.  In short, the fundamental conditions essential for resolving the central problem of the Adams presidency did not exist.

Unfortunately for Adams, his pursuit of a treaty with France infuriated many of his Federalist allies, who heavily favored the British.  At the same time, Adams was confronted with hostile opposition from Jefferson and the Democratic Republicans over the Alien and Sedition Acts, which gave the executive branch sweeping powers to deport so-called enemy aliens as well as arrest anyone determined to be authors of sedition against the U.S. government.

While Adams intended the Alien and Sedition Acts to be temporary, and only necessary in a nation preparing for war, and while the primary provision had expiration dates attached to them, they were viewed by many Americans as a grievous misuse of executive power.  To make matters worse, the Democratic Republicans were accusing Adams for having designs on transforming the American democracy into a monarchy, yes, that John Adams wanted to be king!


The 1800 presidential election (which pitted incumbent John Adams against Thomas Jefferson), was one of the bitterest and most acrimonious presidential elections in U.S. history, with outrageous accusations being leveled from both sides.  It did not help that Adams found campaigning in public to be personally distasteful, and he certainly did not approve of party politics, finding them to be dishonest and a dangerous threat to democracy.  He was also hurt by his own party, who were  less than enthusiastic in supporting him.  That, and the rising support of Jefferson and the Democratic Republicans, resulted in an embarrassing and bitter loss on elections day, for John Adams.

The final vote tally, showed Thomas Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr tied with 73 electoral votes, while Adams trailed with 65 electoral votes.

  To break the tie, the House of Representatives was called upon to cast the deciding vote.  Thanks to an assist from Alexander Hamilton (who hated Aaron Burr even more than he despised Thomas Jefferson), Thomas Jefferson was elected as the nation's third president.

Adams was so upset with the results that, on inauguration day, he skipped the ceremony, and departed the Capital before dawn.  All communication between Adams and Jefferson ceased.  It wouldn't be for another 12 years before the two resumed communication.  By that time, Jefferson had been out of office four years, and, like Adams, had been roundly condemned, especially for his last four years in office (incredibly, his first term would go down as one of the most successful in American history, capped off by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, that doubled the size of the American Republic).  His second term, on the other hand, proved to be a series of domestic blunders and foreign policy failures, capped off by the infamous Embargo Act of 1807, which devastated the nation's economy, while failing to avert the looming war with England.

At the time, Adams said: "He must know that he leaves the government infinitely worse than when he found it . . . I have no resentment against him, although he had honored and salaried almost every villain he could find who has been an enemy to me."

All the while Benjamin Rush of Virginia, a mutual friend of both men, tried to convince Adams and Jefferson to patch up their political differences and renew their old friendship, while they still enjoyed good health.

Adams insisted that he was not going to be the one to make the first move, not only because he felt betrayed by his friend, but because each annual Fourth of July celebration was a reminder, that it was not he, but Thomas Jefferson whose patriotism was being celebrated.

  As Adams remembered it, Jefferson had played only a minor role in the Continental Convention.  While he, John Adams, was delivering the fiery speeches that eventually moved their reluctant colleagues to make a decisive break with England, Thomas Jefferson had lingered in the background. "During the whole time I sat with him in Congress," said Adams, "I never heard him utter three sentences together."  Now, however, the symbolic significance of the Declaration of Independence was looming large in the public's mind, blotting out the messier but more historically correct version of the story, transforming Jefferson from a secondary character to the star player in the drama.

For this reason, Adams would confide to Rush:  "Mausoleums, statue monuments will never be erected to me.  Panegyrical romances will never be written, no flattering orations spoken, to transmit me to posterity in brilliant colors."  The irony of it all, was that while Jefferson would tell people what they wanted to hear, Adams now acknowledged that his own destiny had been just the opposite: to tell them what they needed to know. These very personality traits reveal Thomas Jefferson's need to be liked, while John Adams could not have cared less about what anyone thought of him.

Rush was patient with hearing him out, and persistent in insisting that Adams reach out and contact his old friend. "I consider you and him as the North and South of the American Revolution.  Some talked, some wrote, and some fought to promote and establish it, but you and Mr. Jefferson thought for all of us.


As it turned out, it was John Adams who made the first move.  It's a good thing he did, because it resulted in an exchange of 158 letters over14 years, letters that revealed a great deal about two of the brightest minds of the American Revolution. The very monument that John Adams thought he'd lost, was, in fact, the body of these letters (most of which he'd written), letters that reveal Adam's remarkable intellect, his true faith in the experiment that is our democratic government, his wicked sense of humor, his  penchant for clever word play, and his brutal honesty.     

They also reveal Adams' reverence and love for his old friend and fellow revolutionary, Thomas Jefferson.  What Adams reveals of himself is that, while his bark could be ferocious, at his core he was a gentle, decent man, who possessed a heart of gold.  This revelation also reveals the secret of his happy marriage with Abigail, his friend, confidant, and intellectual equal; she adored him for what the public never saw: his thoughtfulness, love, and kindness.

What Adams wanted from Jefferson, was for the Virginian to speak honestly and admit that he had purposely damaged Adam's political reputation, in order to advance his own political ambitions.  It took several letters, over several years, and much humous needling, but Jefferson finally dropped his guard and admitted that he never believed the accusations he had leveled at John Adams. Never for a moment, did he believe Adams actually wanted to be king.

The letters are something of a polemic, as the two argued about their place in history, and many of the great issues of their day, of who had been right and who had been wrong.  The letters also reveal the two had a good deal in common, and much unfinished business between them, and a clear recognition on both sides that they had come to fundamentally different conclusions about what the American Revolution meant.  Adams believed that Jefferson's version of the story, while misguided, was destined to dominate the history books (not true).  The resumption of his correspondence with Jefferson afforded Adams the opportunity to challenge the Jeffersonian version and to do so in the form of a written record virtually certain to become a major historic document on its own.  "You and I ought not to die," Adams wrote, "before we have explained ourselves to each other."  According to one historian, "both men knew they were sending their letters to posterity as much as to each other."


They both anticipated, albeit from decidedly different points of view, the looming sectional crisis between North and South.  "I fear that there will be a greater difficulties to preserve our Union," Adams warned, "then you and I, our Fathers, Brothers, Disciples, and Sons have had to form it." Jefferson agreed, a sectional war was coming, but neither of them could do much to stop it.

Here were two of the unequivocally American patriarchs, declaring that their respective understanding of the Revolution's legacy concerning slavery were fundamentally different.  Jefferson's version led directly to the state's rights claim of John Calhoun, that, in 1860, would be adopted by the Confederacy.  Adams' version led directly to the "house divided" position of Abraham Lincoln, and to the Federal government's power over Southern state's rights, established by the Union victory in the Civil War.

While the two never could agree on how to cope with the pending cataclysm, Adams, with his usual insight, summed up the issue accurately, "Slavery in this Country I have seen hanging over it like a black cloud for half a century . . . I might probably say I had seen Armies of Negroes marching and counter-marching in the air, shining in Armor.  I have been so terrified with this Phenomenon that I constantly said in former times to the Southern Gentlemen, I cannot comprehend this object; I must leave it to you.  I will vote for forcing no measure against your judgements."

The vicissitudes of aging slowly began to crowd out the more controversial topics.  "Crippled wrists and fingers make writing slow and laborious," complained Jefferson.  "But while writing to you, I lose some of these things, in the recollection of ancient times, when youth and health made happiness out of everything.  I forget for awhile the hoary winter of age when we can think of nothing but how to keep ourselves warm and how to get rid of our heavy hours until the friendly hand of death shall rid us of all at once."

Adams recalled, "I look back with rapture of those golden days when Virginia and Massachusetts lived and acted together like a band of brothers.  While I breathe I shall be your friend."


On the evening of July 3, 1826, Jefferson fell into a coma.  His last discernible words, uttered to his family, indicated he was hoping to time his exit in a dramatic fashion:  "Is it the Fourth?"  It was not, but he lingered on in a semiconscious condition until the afternoon of the Fourth of July.  That same morning, Adams collapsed in his favorite reading chair.  He lapsed into unconsciousness at almost the exact same moment Jefferson died.  The end came quickly, at about five-thirty that afternoon.  Adams awakened for a brief moment, indicated that nothing more should be done to prolong the inevitable, then, with obvious effort, gave a final salute to his old friend with these words:  "Thomas Jefferson still lives."

# # #

In researching and writing this piece, I am indebted to two books: "Founding Brothers" by Joseph Ellis, and "Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson. and the Founding of the American Republic," by Darren Staff

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