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The Friendship of Thomas Jefferson and John and Abigail Adams

by October 2, 2010 blog

These are extremely partisan times. Democrats and Republicans seem to be unable to work together as they fight to an impasse in Congress over such issues as climate change, gay rights, immigration reform, and health care reform. Tea Party members try to vote out of office any politician who is not sufficiently conservative, while progressives decry the Obama administration for taking too many compromises in the health care reform bill and the stimulus bill. Though these times may seem exceedingly partisan, a look at our history shows that America has always had its partisan conflicts and divisive issues. From the Vietnam War to Civil Rights to Abolition, Americans have always been arguing about one issue or another.

In spite of these many disagreements, history is replete with many friendships of individuals with opposing viewpoints. Liberal Ted Kennedy and conservative Orrin Hatch were best friends in the Senate. Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil would argue during the congressional debates, but would share drinks and exchange jokes afterward. When Reagan was shot, O’Neil visited his bedside and comforted his wife Nancy. Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda were best friends even though Stewart was a conservative Republican and Fonda was an ardent New Deal liberal. The most famous friendship of opposites in American history was the friendship of Thomas Jefferson and John and Abigail Adams.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had met in the Continental Congress as supporters of revolution against England and as members of the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. They grew closer in Europe while serving as ambassadors to France and England, as John and Abigail consoled Jefferson over the loss of his wife. John and Abigail Adams felt Jefferson was part of the family and Abigail felt Thomas Jefferson was “the only person with whom my companion could associate with perfect freedom and reserve.”. Thomas Jefferson found Abigail to be the first woman that he could talk to as an intellectual equal.

With their friendship, there were great differences between the two of them both in personality and in appearance. Joseph Ellis wrote about them in his book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation:

They were an incongruous pair, but everyone seemed to argue that history had made them into a pair. The incongruities leapt out for all to see: Adams, the short, stout, candid-to-a-fault New Englander; Jefferson, the tall, slender, elegantly elusive Virginian; Adams, the highly combustible, ever combative, mile-a-minute talker, whose favorite form of conversation was an argument; Jefferson, the always cool and self-contained enigma, who regarded debate and argument as violations of the natural harmonies he heard inside his own head. The list could go on – the Yankee and the Cavalier, the orator and the writer, the bulldog and the greyhound. They were the odd couple of the American Revolution.
Their political differences became apparent in the 1790s, while serving in George Washington’s cabinet. Jefferson feared the power of the federal government and found himself moving towards the new Republican Party. John and Abigail Adams believed a strong federal government was necessary for the new republic to survive, and leaned towards the philosophy of the Federalist Party. In 1796 and 1800, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were pitted against each other for the Presidency, and the acrimony of the political campaigns caused a lot of resentment on both sides. John and Abigail Adams felt betrayed by Thomas Jefferson, feeling that Jefferson put his political ambitions over their friendship. When Adams was President, Thomas Jefferson secretly hired newspaperman James Callender to defame the Adams’ administration. After Jefferson was inaugurated in 1800, Jefferson and the Adams did not have a civil communication for 12 years.
The one correspondence that occurred during 12 year gap between 1800 and 1812 was a brief correspondence between Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Abigail had written a letter of condolence to Thomas Jefferson on May 20th, 1804 over the death of Jefferson’s daughter Mary Jefferson Eppes. Abigail had great fondness for Mary during their time in Paris, and she reached out to Jefferson in his time of sorrow. In his reply, however, Jefferson caused Abigail great anger by bringing up a political difference that bothered Jefferson. He wrote in a letter dated June 13, 1804:

This consideration was sufficient to keep down all jealousy between us, and to guard our friendship from any disturbance by sentiments of rivalship: and I can say with truth that 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.
This response infuriated Abigail. Abigail wrote back a response in which she defends her husband’s right as President to fill up vacant offices and she brought up the falsehoods that Jefferson paid James Callender to heap upon her husband’s Presidency. Abigail’s fury was shown in this response:
I have never made felt any enmity towards you Sir for being elected president of the United States. But the instruments made use of, and the means which were practised to effect a change, have my utter abhorrence and detestation, for they were the blackest calumny, and foulest falshoods, I had witnessed enough of the anxiety, and solicitude, the envy jealousy and reproach attendant upon the office as well as the high responsibility of the Station, to be perfectly willing to see a transfer of it. And I can truly say, that at the time of Election, I considerd your pretentions much superior to his (Mr. Burr’s), to whom an equal vote was given. Your experience I venture to affirm has convinced you that it is not a station to be envy’d. If you feel yourself a free man, and can act in all cases, according to your own sentiments, opinions and judgment, you can do more than either of your predecessors could, and are awfully responsible to God and your Country for the measures of your Administration. I rely upon the Friendship you still profess for me, and (I am conscious I have done nothing to forfeit it), to excuse the freedom of this discussion to which you have led with an unreserve, which has taken off the Shackles I should otherways have found myself embarassed with, – And now Sir I will freely disclose to you what has severed the bonds of former Friendship, and placed you in a light very different from what I once viewd you in.
A silence resumed between Jefferson and the Adams. A reconciliation occurred between Jefferson and the Adams through the efforts of a mutual friend, Benjamin Rush. Rush corresponded to both men, and push for them to write to each other. Jefferson wrote to Rush that he admired Adams “always an honest man, often a great one, but sometimes incorrect and precipitate in his judgements.” Jefferson was still hurt from his correspondence with Abigail Adams of 1804 and wouldn’t make the first move in writing to either Adams. It took John Adams to finally take the first step when he wrote a letter to Jefferson on January 1, 1812.
At first the correspondence was rather polite, as both persons were trying to feel out how open they were able to be with each other. After a while though, they began to breach some of the subjects that they differed about, to try to understand each others point of view. In a letter that John Adams wrote to Jefferson on July 15, 1813, Adams wrote:

You and I ought to not die, before We have explained ourselves to each other.
In that same letter, Abigail added a note to Jefferson, to let him know that she still considered him a friend in spite of their differences:
I have been looking for some time for a space in my good Husbands Letters to add the regards of an old Friend, which are still cherished and preserved through all the changes and v (ic) issitudes which have taken place since we first became acquainted, and will I trust remain as long as
A. Adams

There were a variety of subjects that they corresponded about in which they disagreed. One subject, which was broached about in Adams’ July 15, 1813 letter, was their differing opinions on the French Revolution. Jefferson believed that the French Revolution was a continuation of the spirit of the American Revolution, and that both revolutions were the start of a wider fight against monarchial tyranny and for freedom. Joseph Ellis wrote in Founding Brothers:
…he saw the French Revolution as the European continuation the spirit of ’76. He acknowledged that the random violence and careening course of the French Revolution were lamentable developments, but he insisted they were merely a passing chapter in the larger story of triumphant global revolution. “I am convinced they (the French) will triumph completely,” he wrote in 1794, “& the consequent disgrace of the invading tyrants is destined, in the order of events, to kindle the wrath of the people of Europe against those who have dared to embroil them in such wickedness, and to bring at length, kings, nobles & priests to the scaffolds which they have been so long deluging with blood.” In one moment of revolutionary euphoria, he dismissed all critics of mass executions in France as blind to the historic issues at stake: “The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of that contest,” he observed in 1793, “and was ever such a prize won with so little blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed I would rather have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than it is now.”
John Adams was deeply troubled by the way the French Revolution had unfolded. Adams was more of a believer of evolutionary social change rather than revolutionary social change, as he thought that the American colonies had the leadership of the merchant class and the Southern gentry as well as established economies that provided a foundation that France and its millions of illiterate and its radical leaders could not provide. He felt that the enthusiasm of people like Jefferson for the French Revolution was based on a naive ideology that didn’t take into account the limitations of human nature. In his letter of July 15, 1813, Adams wrote to Jefferson of his objections to the French Revolution:
The Nations of Europe, appeared to me, when I was among them, from the beginning of 1778 to 1785 i.e. to the commencement of the Troubles in France, to be advancing by slow but sure Steps towards an Amelioration of the condition of Man, in Religion and Government, in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Kowledge, Civilization, and Humanity. The French Revolution I dreaded; because I was sure it would, not only arrest the progress of Improvement, but give it a retrograde course, for at least a Century, if not many Centuries. The French Patriots Appeared to me like young Schollars from a Colledge or Sailors flushed with recent pay or prize money, mounted on wild Horses, lashing and speering, till they would kill the Horses and break their own Necks.
Let me now ask you, very seriously my Friend, Where are now in 1813, the Perfection and perfectability of human Nature? Where is now, the progress of the human Mind? Where is the Amelioration of Society? Where the Augmentation of human Comforts? Where the diminutions of human Pains and Miseries? I know not whether the last day of Dr. Young can exhibit; to a Mind unstaid by Phylosophy and Religion, for I hold there can be no Philosophy without Religion; more terrors than the present State of the World.

When? Where? and how? is the present Chaos to be arranged into Order?

Jefferson and Adams also had very different views on what form a functioning republic should take. Thomas Jefferson was very wary of power being centralized in the Federal government and believed that power should be diffused in the states. He felt that there was in every nation a natural aristocracy of the most talented men that would naturally rise up in a free society, as opposed to the artificial aristocracy of Europe that was created by primogeniture and was thus corrupt and incompetent. Jefferson wrote to John Adams on October 28, 1813:
For I agree with you that there a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. Formerly bodily powers gave place among the aristoi. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, politeness, and other accomplishments, has become but an auxilary ground of distinction. There is an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent it’s ascendency. On the question, What is the best provision, you and I differ; but we differ as rational friends, using the free exercise of our own reason, and mutually indulging it’s errors. You think it best to put the Pseudo-aristoi into a separate chamber of legislation where they may be hindered from doing mischief by their coordinate branches, and where also they may be a protection to wealth against the Agrarian and plundering enterprises of the Majority of the people. I think that to give them power in order to prevent them from doing mischief, is arming them for it, and increasing instead of remedying the evil. For if the coordinate branches can arrest their action, so may they that of the coordinates. Mischief may be done negatively as well as positively. Of this a cabal in the Senate of the U.S. has furnished many proofs. Nor do I believe them necessary to protect the wealthy; because enough of these will find their way into every branch of the legislation to protect themselves. From 15. to 20. legislatures of our own, in action for 30. years past, have proved that no fears of an equalisation of property are to be apprehended from them.
I think the best remedy is exactly that provided by our constitutions, to leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the real good and wise. In some instances, wealth may corrupt and birth blind them; but not in sufficient degree to endanger the society.

As opposed to Jefferson, Adams felt that a strong federal government with a strong executive branch was necessary for the American republic. Adams refuted Jefferson’s distinctions between a natural aristocracy and an artificial aristocracy because he believed that the natural aristocracy was just as vulnerable to the human weaknesses of greed and corruption as the artificial aristocracy that Jefferson described. John Adams felt that human nature was such that the utopian vision that Jefferson had for the American republic was not possible in real life, and that checks and balances were necessary to fight the inevitable corruptions that comes with political power. Adams wrote a reply to Jefferson on November 15, 1813:
Your distinction between natural and artificial Aristocracy does not appear to me well founded. Birth and Wealth are conferred on some Men as imperiously by Nature, as Genius, Strength, or Beauty. The Heir is honours and Riches, and power has often no more merit in procuring these Advantages, than he has in obtaining an handsome face or an elegant figure. When Aristocracies, are established by human Laws and honour Wealth and Power are made hereditary by municipal Laws and Political Institutions, then I acknowledge artificial Aristocracy to commence: but this never commences, till Corruption in Elections becomes dominant and uncontroulable. But this artificial Aristocracy can never last. The everlasting Envys, Jealousies, Rivalries and quarrells among them, their cruel rapacities upon the poor ignorant People their followers, compell these to sett up Caesar, a Demagogue to be a Monarch and master, pour mettre chacun a sa place (to put each one in his place). Here you have the origin of all artificial Aristocracy, which is the origin of all Monarchy. And both artificial Aristocracy, and Monarchy, and civil, military, political and hierarchical Despotism, have all grown out of the natural Aristocracy of ‘Virtues and Talents”. We, to be sure, are far remote from this. Many hundred years must roll away before We shall be corrupted. Our pure, virtuous, public spirited federative REpublick will last for ever, govern the Globe and introduce the perfection of Man, his perfectability being already proved by Price Priestly, Condorcet Rosseau Diderot and Godwin.
…You suppose a difference of Opinion between You and me, on the Subject of Aristocracy. I can find none. I dislike and detest hereditary honours, offices Emoluments established by law. So do you. I am for ex(c)luding legal hereditary distinctions from the U.S. as long as possible. So are you. I only say that Mankind have not yet discovered any remedy against irresistable Corruption in Elections to Offices of great Power and Profit, but making them hereditary.

Both Jefferson and Adams hated the banking industry and the rampant speculation that was creating huge profits for a small group of people. Both men felt that the profits of bankers were inherently immoral because bankers gained those profits by manipulating interest rates without producing an agricultural or an industrial product. Jefferson wanted the banks to be broken up, and believed that unregulated free markets would create an equitable distribution of goods. On January 24, 1814, Jefferson wrote to Adams: