John Adams returned home to John Quincy Adams looking forward to a peaceful life. However, it was difficult for him to let go of his political grievances and bitterness toward his enemies. Adams was especially resentful of Hamilton and Jefferson. In 1804, Jefferson’s youngest daughter died in childbirth, and Abigail decided to write with her condolences. Jefferson misinterpreted Abigail’s choice to reach out, thinking this meant she and John were ready to resume their friendship. Jefferson replied with a long account of his relationship with John, and said that throughout their ups and downs there was only one time when he found John cruel on a personal level.
Jefferson and Adams clearly carried differing levels of bitterness toward one another. Whereas Adams retired to Quincy filled with bitterness about his political career, Jefferson was now president. Even if he did hold a major grudge against Adams, which did not seem to be the case, Jefferson would have been too occupied with his current role to give it much thought.
This one occasion was John Adams’ decision to appoint Federalists to judgeships after the election, just before Adams left the presidency. Still, Jefferson told Abigail that he forgave Adams. Abigail was furious and sent a passionate reply in which she defended her husband’s actions and condemned Jefferson for decisions such as commissioning the libelous book. In response, Jefferson claimed that both he and Adams had acted badly in their time, but Abigail replied with further condemnations of Jefferson. She accused him of being a “party man,” something Jefferson himself strongly denied.
Jefferson’s misjudgment of this situation again points to the imbalance in his and Adams’ feelings about one another. Jefferson may have been slightly embittered about the judgeships, but he was clearly not deeply affected by this decision. Abigail’s reaction, on the other hand, shows just how furious and hurt both she and John were about Jefferson’s actions.
In reality, Jefferson’s opposition to partisanship, like his condemnation of slavery, was deeply felt yet contradictory to how he often behaved. Jefferson insisted that there was no contradiction between his professed beliefs and his behavior, and “probably came to believe his own lies.” Abigail also accused Jefferson of vilifying her husband, an especially terrible crime considering John Adams and Jefferson had once been such good friends. Jefferson probably assumed that Abigail was sharing all their correspondence with John, but in fact John did not see any of it until months later. At this point, Adams sent a short, tense clarification that he had not been aware of Abigail’s correspondence, and the silence between him and Jefferson lasted another eight years.
Unlike Adams, who believed in voicing political disagreements in the open, Jefferson disliked conflict and even convinced himself that his own contradictory behavior was actually not contradictory at all. It must have been highly disturbing to receive letters from Abigail detailing all his hypocritical and disloyal behavior. It’s no wonder that all communication ceased between the Adams’ and Jefferson for another eight years.
In the meantime, Jefferson had a highly successful first term as president, the crowning achievement of which was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. His second term, however, was disastrous. John Adams claimed not to care about Jefferson, but in reality he was obsessed with him and his own reputation. Adams had a lot of time to stew over his troubles and anxieties as he attempted to write his autobiography at home. When a friend of Adams’ read these efforts, he declared that they were a mess of nonsense. Adams went on to publish autobiographical writing in the Boston Patriot, which was also overlong, incoherent, and full of bitterness.
Although Adams was desperately concerned with his own reputation, he didn’t seem to care about massacring it by publishing writing that revealed him to be sullen, childish, and bitter. In some ways, this denotes an admirable quality in Adams. He spoke openly and honestly, even if this meant further damaging his own image in the public eye.
John Adams also began writing to Benjamin Rush again. The two men produced a surreal correspondence filled with details of their dreams. Reflecting on the legacy of the Revolution, Adams came to realize that the romanticized, oversimplified account of the Revolution belied the messiness of those years. He set about figuring out his own, “deconstructed” version of the Revolution. He clarified that the “heroic portraits” of the revolutionary generation were exaggerated, and made a point of identifying the men’s flaws. This reveals that while Adams did think his deconstructed account was more accurate, he was also motivated to write it out of bitterness.
Ellis’ reference to Adams’ “deconstructed” account of the Revolution suggests that the way Adams thought about history anticipated the historical scholarship that emerged in the late twentieth century under the influence of Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction. This kind of history challenged grand, stable, coherent narratives in favor of contradictory, minor, and partial representations of historical moments.
John Adams at first denied that he had much knowledge or opinion of Jefferson in his letters to Rush. However, he eventually came to talk more about his former friend. As an idealist and someone who denied the contradictions within himself, Jefferson was predisposed to be the perfect character in the romanticized versions of history that Adams rejected. Adams concluded that whereas he himself told the truth, Jefferson “told people what they wanted to hear.”
Jefferson was both a perfect character and perfect creator of the kinds of historical narratives Adams was critiquing. Jefferson smoothed over contradictions in favor of serving a simple, visionary narrative—whether than be a utopian ideal or a conspiracy theory. Adams thought this was highly dangerous.
In 1809, Rush wrote that he’d had a dream in which John Adams and Thomas Jefferson resumed their correspondence, forgave each other of their mistakes, reflected on the Revolution together, and were friends again. The two men then died at almost exactly the same time. Adams replied that Rush’s dream “may be prophecy.” He expressed a desire for the bitterness between him and Jefferson to end, but concluded that Jefferson would have to reach out first. Meanwhile, Rush wrote to Jefferson encouraging him to do so, falsely claiming that Adams was on his deathbed and was desperate to reconcile with his old friend. Still stung from the incident with Abigail, Jefferson refused to comply.
The surreal turn in this chapter underlines the mystical, sacred quality of Adams and Jefferson’s friendship. Rush’s desperation to facilitate resumed communication between the men reveals his belief in the profound importance of their relationship. This was no ordinary friendship, but rather one that had changed the world, and would continue to do so if it were allowed to resume.
This impasse lasted two years. Then, on the first day of 1812, John Adams sent a short, friendly letter to Jefferson, enclosing two pieces of homespun fabric. Rush was thrilled and credited himself for this development. Jefferson sent a long letter in response, enclosing John Quincy Adams’ Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory as gift. This began what is now considered the most important correspondence between two political figures in American history, which lasted from 1812 to 1826. The letters have an “elegiac tone,” as the two friends look back on the events of the Revolution and its aftermath.
Both gifts that the men enclosed had important symbolic meaning. In the Revolutionary era, homespun fabric was worn by American settlers who wanted to boycott British goods, and thus this gift was a reminder of the bond the men formed during the Revolution. Meanwhile, by enclosing a work by John Quincy, Jefferson perhaps indicated an end to the accusations that Adams was nepotistically grooming his son to run the country.
The correspondence revitalized Jefferson and John Adams’ friendship, including the deep trust that had been lost. Strangely, even the part of Rush’s prophecy about the two men dying at the same time came true: they died five hours apart, on the fiftieth anniversary of American Independence. It is clear from reading the letters that Jefferson and Adams imagined them being read by future generations of scholars, leaders, and citizens. The men were “the most accomplished letter writers of the era,” giving their correspondence a special eloquence. Overall, Adams’ letters were more abundant, in part because Jefferson received around 1,200 letters a year (and answered them all).
Although much of the future was unknown and mysterious to them, one extraordinary aspect of the revolutionary generation was their ability to accurately predict certain things that happened in the future. This was true of Rush’s eerie prophecy about Jefferson and Adams’ deaths, and it was also true of Jefferson and Adams’ more abstract prediction that their letters would be read by people living many years in the future.
Whereas Thomas Jefferson was typically elegant and restrained in his writing, John Adams was vigorously argumentative. They mostly avoided topics that would be too contentious. Things got touchy in 1813, when an English scientist published a private letter he’d received from Jefferson years before in which Jefferson implied that Adams was backwards and unmodern. Jefferson attempted to excuse himself to Adams in part by shifting blame to partisanship and the Hamiltonians (who Adams hated). Adams’ response showed that he was riled up by the whole matter.
The episode involving the scientist shows that even when people choose to put the past behind them, there is never a guarantee that it won’t resurface and destroy the peace of the present. At the same time, by this point Adams and Jefferson had regained one another’s trust, and thus one incident was less likely to destroy their renewed friendship.
However, this incident ended up meaning that all the previously unmentionable topics were now out in the open, which ultimately deepened the trust between the friends. When Abigail added her own note to one of John Adams’ letters, this served as confirmation that the friendship between all three was well and truly repaired. It was clear that Jefferson still maintained a romanticized, even melodramatic version of history which did not necessarily reflect reality. Yet because this version was a story, it was destined to become triumphant, beating Adams’ “deconstructed,” partial, contradictory version. Their correspondence at least gave Adams the chance to critique Jefferson’s account.
While Jefferson’s historical narrative may be the one preferred by most people, the advantage of correspondence is that it is a way of capturing disagreement and laying two conflicting accounts of historical events side by side. This is one of the many ways in which the book demonstrates that conflict can be productive.
Between 1813 and 1814, the correspondence focused on the topic of social equality and to what extent governance of the republic should be entrusted to elites. John Adams was fond of asserting that since ancient times, it was elites who tended to shape history, and that this reality was preordained by God, the human condition, and “the Fabric of the Universe.” He argued that it was futile to try and fight this fact. Jefferson responded that there was a hierarchy among men, but that it was not an aristocratic system but one produced by “virtue and talents.” He believed that the aristocratic system of hereditary power that flourished in Europe would not survive in America.
Whereas Jefferson and Adams’ ideological disagreements severely damaged their friendship in the past, once they were both retired they could treat these disagreements as more abstract issues (rather than urgent questions that needed to be addressed through policy). This allowed them to discuss their conflicting ideas in a productive and collaborative rather than dangerous or threatening way.
John Adams responded that there was more continuity between Europe and America than Jefferson was allowing. He held that Jefferson’s hope for “a classless American society” was little more than “a pipe dream.” In a letter to another friend, Adams observed that it was ironic that he, the son of farmer and shoemaker, was being accused of elitism by a wealthy slaveholder who had inherited wealth and power from his wife’s family. Adams never raised this with Jefferson directly.
Adams’ decision not to make this observation explicit to Jefferson suggests that he may have developed more tact in old age. Perhaps he was also aware that his friendship with Jefferson, while revitalized, remained fragile.
The two also argued about the French Revolution. Jefferson admitted that he had been wrong to dismiss the extraordinarily amount of violence that the Revolution caused and even apologized to John Adams about this. The subtext of this message was another apology, as Jefferson had also used the French Revolution to sabotage Adams’ presidency. Adams responded that Jefferson had been led astray by ideology.
Clearly, painful memories between the men remained. Yet at this point in their lives, they could also look at these memories as learning experiences, rather than just unfortunate incidents. Jefferson in particular demonstrates significant growth in this passage.
Neither man predicted the close relationship that England and America would eventually form, although both anticipated that the tensions between the North and South of the US would threaten the unity of the nation. However, in all their correspondence, slavery was scarcely mentioned. The one exception came in their discussion of the Missouri Compromise of 1819. Jefferson suggested that abolition was a problem for the next generation to deal with. John Adams disagreed, saying that slavery needed to be debated immediately. In his correspondence with Jefferson, however, he mostly stayed silent on the topic.
At this point, Jefferson seemed resigned to the fact that slavery would remain an unresolved problem during his lifetime. Adams appeared to view it as a more urgent issue, yet his unwillingness to discuss it with Jefferson again typifies the abdication of responsibility that the revolutionary generation engaged in when it came to the issue of slavery.
In 1819, a document was printed in the newspapers resembling the Declaration of Independence that was supposedly authored by a group of people in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, in May 1775. Jefferson told John Adams that the document was “a fabrication,” and Adams responded that he believed him. However, in letters to others, Adams said the opposite. Adams enjoyed the affair because it supported his “deconstructed” theory of the Revolution, which clashed with the idea that the Declaration of Independence could have been written in one moment by one man.
Adams’ behavior here reads as rather deceitful. At the same time, it seems that by at this point he had learned when to let a contentious topic lie rather than starting an argument that would ultimately be without consequence. Perhaps deep down Adams knew that even though he preferred to believe the Declaration of Independence was a collective effort, in reality it was Jefferson’s work.
In October 1818, Abigail died. Shortly after, Jefferson observed that both he and John Adams had outlived most of their contemporaries. They reminisced about the past together, and spoke warmly about the afterlife as a time when they would reunite with their “band of brothers.” Part of the reason why the genuine friendship between the two men was revived later in life was because they no longer had to “pose” as political partners. Their political differences remained, but in retirement this didn’t really matter. While in 1812 Adams was still furious about the slander Jefferson had spread about him, by 1823 he cheerfully joked about it.
Here, Ellis suggests that it is genuinely difficult to maintain friendships across political divides when people have to work together, but that if this pressure is relieved then such friendship is possible. This subject is certainly up for debate, yet it is clear that in old age, Adams and Jefferson found themselves with more in common than what was dividing them. Their relationship was not without conflict, but was defined by a powerful, almost mystical bond.
As the fiftieth anniversary of American Independence neared, Jefferson was very ill with an intestinal disorder that prevented him from attending the celebration in Washington. In a letter to the committee organizing the ceremony, he repeated his lifelong view that the American Revolution would inspire a global movement of liberation. John Adams, meanwhile, quibbled with organizers, insisting that the Fourth of July was actually not the correct date (and that there was no “correct” date). He was less optimistic about the future of America, which he warned could go in any direction.
Jefferson and Adams’ reactions to the fiftieth anniversary of American Independence humorously represents their differing views on history and how it should be memorialized. Even as an old and sick man, Jefferson remained an optimistic visionary, whereas Adams was argumentative, cynical, and absorbed by detail.
Jefferson’s interpretation of the meaning of the fiftieth anniversary was given power by his and John Adams’ deaths. Late on July 3, 1826, Jefferson went into a coma. His last words were: “Is it the Fourth?” Although it wasn’t at the time, he died on the “magic day.” On the same morning, Adams collapsed in his reading chair, at almost exactly the same moment as his friend died. Adams passed that afternoon. His final words, according to witnesses, were either “Thomas Jefferson survives” or “Thomas Jefferson still lives.”
The story of Jefferson and Adams’ deaths on the Fourth of July is almost too surreal to believe. It lends a poignancy not only to the lives and deaths of these two enormously influential leaders, but also to the friendship they resumed in old age. The details of their deaths suggest that they really were “soulmates,” as Ellis argues earlier in the book.