In 1796, America had its first contested presidential election. It still seemed necessary that the next president would have to be someone who played a key role in 1776 and 1789. The four people who stood out were George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson; because Washington had already served and Franklin was dead, this left the final two. Adams and Jefferson were opposites. Adams was a short, candid, vigorous New Englander who was always talking and loved to argue; Jefferson was tall, elegant, mysterious, and disliked disagreement. Yet despite these differences, the Revolution had made them a unit.
While Ellis unequivocally asserts that conflict was a productive part of political life in the Revolutionary era, not all the Founding Fathers would have agreed with him. As this passage shows, Jefferson and Adams had completely opposing views on this matter. Whereas Adams relished debate, Jefferson was highly disturbed by it.
Jefferson was “an unofficial member of the Adams family,” and Abigail Adams commented on the unique relationship between Jefferson and John Adams. While their political differences remained, they were “soulmates,” part of the brotherhood joined together by their involvement in 1776. Theirs was “the greatest collaboration” in a time of many great collaborations.
Ellis’ almost flamboyant language here speaks to the very special relationship between Jefferson and Adams—one that far exceeded the political realm and was a much deeper, more profound connection.
John Adams was born in Braintree, south of Boston, in 1725. He attended Harvard, which his father—who was a farmer and shoemaker—hoped would help him become a minister. After working as a teacher and apprentice lawyer, Adams married Abigail. His leading role opposing the Stamp Act shot him to prominence, and in the Continental Congress Adams was nicknamed “the Atlas of independence.” He played a vital role in setting the Revolution in motion, helped to secure French allegiance, and in the midst of all this wrote the Massachusetts Constitution “almost single-handedly.”
While hardly born in poverty like, for example, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams’ rise from fairly humble beginnings to Founding Father shows the unique possibility that America and the revolutionary moment provided. Luck, talent, and commitment to the American Revolution allowed Adams to become one of the great political leaders of his era.
John Adams was also key in arranging the postwar peace treaty and securing loans for America from Dutch bankers. He served as the first American minister in England’s Court of St. James, and during this time also wrote a three-volume work of political philosophy. Upon his return to America, he was elected as the country’s first vice president. He found this post, despite its superficial prestige, to be frustratingly insignificant. Adams was extremely close to power but personally had almost no power at all. He found this particularly infuriating considering how important he had been during the Revolution.
Adams may have had a sensitive ego, but serving as George Washington’s second-in-command is also not a job that anyone who wishes to exert influence or authority would likely enjoy. Washington was a man of singular vision and power, and thus the position of vice president rendered Adams fairly impotent.
John Adams loyally supported all of Washington’s key initiatives, but was privately perturbed by the fact that he was never consulted about them. He was further humiliated by an incident in which the Senate discussed how members of Congress should address the president. Adams suggested “His Majesty” or “His Highness,” assuming no one would question his “revolutionary credentials.” However, those present—including Jefferson—viciously mocked him. His subsequent writing about the monarchy intensified people’s suspicions that he was secretly a monarchist.
The incident of Adams being mocked and accused of being a monarchist conveys an important lesson about reputation. Adams assumed that no one could doubt his commitment to the anti-monarchical cause considering the role he played in the Revolution. However, he was ultimately judged by his actions in the present, not by his behavior in the past.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson first fell out when Jefferson wrote a blurb for The Rights of Man which mentioned “the political heresies” of the Davila essays that Adams penned. Adams was furious, but after Jefferson assured him that their friendship was above political differences, Adams agreed. Despite being on opposite sides of the Federalist/Republican rift, the two remained cordial, although Adams privately admitted to Abigail that their friendship was barely surviving.
This passage makes clear that the origins of Adams and Jefferson’s fallout was squarely political. They found themselves on opposite sides of an ideological disagreement, and although they theoretically remained friends, in reality it was difficult for them to do so. At the same time, at this point their conflict did not yet have a strong personal element.
In the end, Jefferson’s support for the now brutally violent French Revolution led John Adams to deem him a dangerous idealist. When Jefferson resigned from his role as Secretary of State in 1793, Adams told Abigail that Jefferson’s mind was “poisoned” and predicted that his retirement would not last long. He suspected that Jefferson was eyeing the presidency.
Adams’ opinion about Jefferson’s idealism may have been subjective, but his prophecy about the presidency was correct. Here, the competitive aspect of their conflict becomes more apparent.
Jefferson also had a close relationship with Madison, who tended to behave in a subordinate way to the older and more experienced Jefferson. The two had none of the clashes of Jefferson’s collaboration with John Adams. When Jefferson retired to Monticello in 1794, Madison sent him letters keeping him abreast of the political drama in Philadelphia. Even long after everyone knew that Jefferson was going to run for president, he claimed to have no idea that a campaign supporting him existed. Meanwhile, now that Jefferson and Adams’ friendship had become tense, Abigail was Adams’ closest collaborator. Even when they disagreed, Adams expressed gratitude for Abigail’s insight and intelligence.
Of all the close personal-political collaborations depicted in the book, none is more intimate than that between John and Abigail Adams. Although Abigail did not receive formal education and was, as a woman, considered unsuitable for political office at the time, John nonetheless trusted her to be his closest confidant and collaborator. The fact that they were married only strengthened their political “alliance.”
John Adams claimed that he wanted to stay out of the presidential race, yet guiltily admitted that he was also tempted by the whole thing. Abigail gently assured him that he had earned the position of president, yet as the election came closer, she correctly anticipated that Jefferson had the upper hand. Still, she confidently dismissed any worries. When the votes began to be counted in December, Adams was unsurprised that New England supported him and the South supported Jefferson. Yet he was furious that, thanks to Hamilton’s support, a Federalist called Thomas Pinckney from South Carolina had a chance of winning. Adams declared Pinckney a “nobody” and said he would refuse to serve as his vice president.
Again, it becomes clear that Adams was somewhat egotistical and sensitive. Although his relationship with Jefferson had become strained, he nonetheless respected Jefferson as a key member of the revolutionary generation who had the credentials (if not, in Adams’ mind, the proper ideological framework) to be president. For Adams, serving under someone who was not a major participant in the country’s founding would have been a personal insult.
On December 30, it was revealed that John Adams had narrowly beaten Jefferson 71 to 68, with Pinckney a close third and Aaron Burr a distant fourth. Jefferson had predicted this exact result and wrote a letter of congratulations to the jubilant Adams in which he claimed that he’d never wanted to president in the first place. He said he would be happy to serve as vice president, claiming to be Adams’ natural “junior.” Adams and Jefferson faced a daunting task in succeeding Washington. It would arguably be one they could only meet only by working closely as a team.
Despite Jefferson’s self-effacement in claiming to be Adams’ natural “junior,” this passage also suggests that he had a somewhat sensitive ego too. His claim that he never wanted to be president seems more like an effort to heal his pride than a representation of the truth (particularly considering that he did eventually go on to serve as president).
For John Adams, a close personal relationship could trump ideological differences; many of his closest friends were Republicans. Around this time, Adams developed a bipartisan plan to send either Jefferson or Madison to France to negotiate a Jay Treaty-style deal. As partisanship grew ever more intense, the question was whether Adams and Jefferson would stand together—even if this meant being perceived as betraying their respective parties. Jefferson wrote a letter promising to “renew the old partnership,” but instead of sending it straight to Adams he passed it by Madison first. Madison insisted that Jefferson must choose between his leadership of the Republican party and his friendship with Adams.
This passage explores different kinds of loyalty and how these come into conflict with one another. To some, loyalty to one’s friends—especially across political differences—is the most important type of loyalty, demonstrating significant moral virtue. For others, however, willingness to be friends with people of opposite political persuasions is highly suspect. As America’s partisan culture was still developing, Jefferson was forced to choose between party and friendship.
Madison advised that, instead of sending the letter, Jefferson leak certain parts of it to mutual friends (and Madison had in fact already done this, ensuring the letter reached John Adams). Eventually, Jefferson chose to avoid collaborating with Adams’ bipartisan strategy, but framed this decision as more of a personal than political choice. Adams did not learn of this decision until March 1797, when he and Jefferson had dinner with Washington in Philadelphia. Shortly after, Jefferson was sworn in as vice president—but not as Adam’s partner.
Looking at this moment from the present, it is extremely difficult to imagine a president and vice president serving together from two opposing parties—let alone working together in a bipartisan arrangement. Although this wasn’t what ended up happening, the fact that it was even possible shows how much has changed since 1797.
The problems John Adams inherited as president—along with the difficulty of filling Washington’s shoes—arguably meant that his presidency was doomed from the start. When Adams came into office, the US was in the midst of an “undeclared war” against the French. Adams chose the “only realistic” option of trying to resolve the matter with the French diplomatically, and building the US Navy in case that didn’t work out. Meanwhile, a different kind of war raged at home, between Federalists and Republicans. It was a scene of “political chaos.” Adams reacted by ignoring his whole cabinet, confiding only in Abigail.
Just as Ellis emphasizes the importance of studying events in their proper historical context, so too must we evaluate political choices and careers in the context of the available options. Ellis argues that it would basically have been impossible for Adams to have a successful presidency; the problems he inherited were too great, the precedents too few, and in comparison with Washington, anyone would look like a poor leader.
Early on in his presidency, John Adams controversially sent Elbridge Gerry, a personal friend who was both a Republican and a fanatical supporter of the French Revolution, to France for the treaty negotiation. Adams also appointed his son, John Quincy Adams, as American minister to Prussia, despite John Quincy’s own worries that this would look nepotistic. While contentious, both decisions ended up paying off. Abigail, meanwhile, kept a close eye on the press and reported what she read to her husband.
Just like his predecessor, Adams made controversial decisions based on his own, singular vision (or, to put it more accurately, his and Abigail’s vision) that was unpopular at the time but ultimately proved advantageous. Again, this shows the benefit of having such a singular vision in a chaotic political climate.
There is “considerable evidence” to suggest that Abigail’s advice was pivotal in persuading John Adams to make the biggest mistake of his presidential career: supporting the Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts disenfranchised foreign-born settlers (most of them French) and made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous and malicious writings against the Government.” Adams’ support for this legislation was somewhat reluctant, but Abigail’s was enthusiastic. The most successful decision Adams made as president came in 1799, when he sent another peace delegation to France. Although this horrified many of Adams’ own cabinet, it successfully ended the war with France.
Regardless of whether one considers Abigail’s support for the Alien and Sedition Acts as an ethical and ideological failure, it was certainly a misreading of the post-Revolutionary political climate. In this historical moment, many were (rightfully) fearful about authoritarianism, political suppression, and xenophobia. The Alien and Sedition Acts blatantly stoked each of these fears; it is unsurprising that it was wildly unpopular.
John Adams’ decision to send another delegation alienated him from the Federalist party. He likely did it in part to undermine Hamilton’s goal of leading troops into battle against the French. He had also received information from John Quincy Adams that the French would react well to another delegation. Finally, Adams was also fond of taking singular action that revealed his own strength of mind in the face of other influences, particularly partisan loyalty. He deeply believed that what was best in the long term often clashed with what was politically strategic in the present.
This passage establishes parallels between Adams and his predecessor, Washington. Both men were suspicious of partisanship and resolutely confident in their own beliefs—even if these beliefs conflicted with the public tide of opinion at the time. Overall the book suggests that these are admirable qualities, although they can also cause conflict and prevent collaboration.
Madison was a staunch critic of John Adams, even going so far as to claim that Adams wanted war with France—a claim Jefferson came to believe also. When Jefferson defended Adams’ “revolutionary principles,” Madison replied that Adams was a monarchist and thus “a traitor.” Despite knowing better than to believe all this slander, Jefferson embraced it, along with a host of other Republican rumors about Adams. In 1798, Jefferson even commissioned a “notorious scandalmonger” to write a book about Adams. The book, The Prospect Before Us, was full of slander about the president.
Jefferson’s commission of the libelous book is a surprisingly petty move from a man otherwise described as reticent, elegant, and fearful of conflict. Perhaps the reason behind this out-of-character move is Jefferson’s susceptibility to the paranoid mindset generated by his antifederalist “conspiracy theory.” This led him to believe rumors about Adams against his better judgment.
When the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed, Jefferson feared he would be personally targeted. At this point, Jefferson truly believed that the Federalists had engineered a traitorous and destructive takeover of the government. During this time, Jefferson and Madison wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions together. They argued against the Alien and Sedition Acts and in favor of states’ rights. Whereas Jefferson originally attacked the authority of the federal government, Madison chose the more diplomatic route of appealing to the rights laid out in the Constitution.
Madison’s approach of appealing to the Constitution rather than directly attacking his political enemies shows the enormous benefit that the Constitution provided. Without such a foundation, the American government might have torn itself apart in the midst of the chaos of the early years of the republic. The Constitution at least provided some stability and a sense of ethical, nonintrusive authority.
In the end, the Alien and Sedition Acts proved so self-destructive to the Federalists that the Republicans only needed to sit back and watch as their enemies imploded. Alarmed by the Alien Act, Irish and German immigrants began flocking to the Republican party. Although John Adams’ second peace delegation had been a success, news of this success arrived too late to help him in the upcoming presidential election. When Napoleon declared himself military dictator, Jefferson reversed his long-held habit of emphasizing the similarities between France and America. Now, he insisted that the two nations were very different. He also suddenly switched to an isolationist position.
This passage suggests that the relief of knowing that the Federalist cause was self-destructing allowed Jefferson to let go of some of his more delusional beliefs at the time. There was no longer any need to discount evidence in order to have the world conform to the “conspiracy theory” he had devised. As a result, his political position became better informed and more reasonable.
Although John Adams did better in the election than many expected, he still lost to Jefferson and Burr. Just before the election, Hamilton published a pamphlet accusing Adams of being unfit for office. Adams was surprisingly unbothered by this, correctly predicting that it would harm Hamilton’s reputation more than his own. Both Hamilton and the Federalist party itself were permanently damaged in this period. So too was Adams’ belief in a way of conducting politics above partisanship.
This passage shows that many people lost in the 1800 presidential election—not just Adams. Overall, this was a turning point at which it became clear that the Federalist project was dying. At the same time, partisanship was also on the rise. These two facts together heralded a watershed moment in American politics.
John Adams was dismayed by this turn of events, yet he at least left the presidency satisfied that he was able to achieve peace with France. When Jefferson took office as president, Abigail demanded that Adams invite Jefferson to tea and cake. Adams did so, but after that point he and Jefferson did not speak for twelve years.
This is the final moment at which Jefferson and Adams made an effort to make their friendship at least seem alive, even if in reality it had died long ago.