How 158 remarkable letters between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams slowly dissolved the hard grudges between two great presidents.
When John Adams was ousted from the presidency in the 1800 election by Thomas Jefferson, he expressed no public bitterness about his defeat: “I am not about to write lamentations or jeremiads over my fate nor panegyrics upon my life and conduct,” Adams told a friend. “You may think me disappointed. I am not. All my life I expected it.” He knew that he was supposed to affect the posture of a world-weary pilgrim who had at last reached the Promised Land that was his Quincy, Mass., farm, where blessedly bucolic rhythms would replace the frenzied and often frantic pace of political life. But he preferred to sound a more irreverent note. He announced that his Quincy estate, initially named Peacefield but now referred to more simply as the Old House, needed a grander title in order to do justice to his new status as an elder statesman. Jefferson had his Monticello, so he must have his “Montezillo,” which he said meant “little mountain,” apparently not realizing that Monticello meant the same thing.
Nonetheless, there were obviously still demons darting about Adams’ bruised psyche, lingering resentments that resisted his best efforts to make them the butt of self-deprecating jokes. His wife, Abigail, spied him working in the fields alongside the hired help one summer day, swinging his scythe in rhythmic strokes, looking like the epitome of the retired statesman in his agrarian paradise. She also reported that he appeared to be talking or mumbling to himself with each swing, though she could not make out the words. If his correspondence at that time is any indication, he was probably cursing Jefferson.
Adams had begun his career as a young lawyer aiming for fame more than fortune. And then history had presented him with the chance to play a major role in leading a revolution and establishing a new nation, a truly remarkable opportunity that came around only once every few centuries. But now, with his work done, he felt that others were being accorded prominent places in the American pantheon while he was dismissed as an erratic, slightly deranged curmudgeon who did not fit comfortably into the proper heroic mold. “How is it that I, poor, ignorant I, must stand before Posterity as differing from all the other great Men of the Age?” he asked.
In the early years of his retirement Adams spent a portion of most days seated at the parlor table amid the buzz of grandchildren, and most nights by the fire alongside Abigail, who was often reading a book while he did battle with his emotions. He released the pent up energies of his tortured soul first in a somewhat pathetic attempt at an autobiography, then in a caustic exchange with his onetime friend Mercy Otis Warren over her less than laudatory depiction of him in her three-volume History of the American Revolution, then in a nearly interminable series of weekly essays for the Boston Patriot. These separate venues were really parts of a single project, namely, to claim his proper place in American history, or, if that proved problematic, to smash other statues currently being enshrined in the American pantheon—especially Thomas Jefferson. He was, to put it charitably, slightly out of control.
Eventually the cloud of despair hanging over Adams began to lift and his letters reflected an emerging recognition of his own foibles and follies and a capacity to laugh at his own eccentricities. The clinching evidence came in 1812, when the patriot and physician Benjamin Rush managed to manipulate him into a correspondence with Jefferson. “I consider you and him,” Rush told Adams, “as the North and South Poles of the American Revolution. Some talked, some wrote, and some fought to promote and establish it, but you and Mr. Jefferson thought for us all.” Moreover, Rush reported that he had a dream in which the two great patriarchs resolved their differences, restored their famous friendship and then “sunk into the grave nearly at the same time.” As it turned out Rush’s dream proved eerily prophetic.
Over the course of 14 years, from 1812 to 1826, Adams and Jefferson exchanged 158 letters, with the flow from Quincy more than double the output from Monticello. Since Adams had made no secret of his animus against Jefferson during the past decade, several friends expressed surprise that he would agree to a reconciliation. But Adams claimed that he could not remember what disagreements he had with Jefferson, except that they had once argued about the proper length of a man’s hair: “It was only as if one sailor had met a brother sailor after twenty-five years absence,” he joked, “and had accosted him, ‘how fare you, Jack?’”
In Adams’ correspondence with Jefferson, especially at the beginning, each man self-consciously assumed the role of philosopher-king: “But wither is senile garrulity leading me?” Jefferson asked rhetorically. “Into politics, of which I have taken final leave. I think little of them and say less. I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid, and I find myself much happier.” Adams responded in the same elegiac manner: “I have read Thucydides and Tacitus, so often, and at such distant periods of my life,” he observed, “that elegant, profound and enchanting is their style, I am weary of them.” Fully aware that their letters would eventually become part of the historical record, both men were posing for posterity.
Posing was a natural act for Jefferson, who regarded argument as a dissonant noise that created static instead of his preferred harmonies. For Adams, on the other hand, argument was the ideal conversation. “You and I ought not to die,” he proposed to Jefferson, “before We have explained ourselves to each other.” A graphic depiction of the correspondence, then, would have Jefferson standing erectly in a stately pose with arms folded across his chest while Adams paced back and forth, periodically pausing to pull on Jefferson’s lapels or poke a finger into his chest. It was the closest thing that history allowed for the two sides of the American Revolution to engage in a dialogue.
After a year of polite foreplay, Adams began to raise more controversial issues. He chided Jefferson for failing to prepare the nation for the War of 1812, most especially in dismantling the American navy, which had always been Adams’ hobbyhorse. Jefferson never responded directly but instead parried the thrust by noting recent American victories against the British fleet on the Great Lakes, graciously observing that “these must be more gratifying to you than most men, as having been an early and constant advocate of wooden walls.” Jefferson was even more conciliatory when it came to their differences over the French Revolution: “Your prophecies…proved truer than mine,” he acknowledged, “and yet fell short of the fact, for instead of a million, the destruction of 8 or 10 millions of human beings has probably been the effect of the convulsions. I did not, in 89 believe they would have lasted so long, nor have cost so much blood.” What’s more, Adams had predicted that Great Britain would win the competition for European supremacy with France, and the recent defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo had proved him right.
This was a huge concession. For Jefferson was not only admitting that his optimistic estimate of events in revolutionary France had proved misguided. He was also acknowledging that on the dominant foreign policy issue of Adams’ presidency, the insistence on neutrality toward France, which Jefferson and the Republicans had used as a political club to beat him out of office, history had vindicated Adams’ policy. Adams recognized the implications of Jefferson’s admission immediately: “I know not what to say of your Letter,” he wrote, “but that is one of the most consolatory I have ever received.”
On two other seminal disagreements, however, Jefferson stood his ground, and the exchange exposed the underlying reasons for the political chasm that had opened between them in the 1790s. Because the correspondence was more like a conversation that bounced off one topic after another without a moderator to reel in extraneous diversions, core differences between the two patriarchs remained somewhat blurry and elliptical. However, with the advantage of hindsight (the historian’s only advantage), two elemental differences emerged more clearly than ever before.
First, in an exchange in the summer of 1813 prompted by Jefferson’s insistence that the distinction between “the few and the many” was an eternal political division, it became clear that the two Founders disagreed about what had, in fact, been founded. Adams believed that the creation of a nation-state at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was the culmination and political fulfillment of “the spirit of ’76.” Jefferson believed that it was a betrayal of that spirit and had created a central government with powers akin to the despotic Parliament and king that he and Adams together had so eloquently and effectively opposed. There were, in effect, two founding moments, one in 1776 and the other in 1787. Adams regarded both as essential; Jefferson regarded only the first as legitimate.
Second, in a nearly simultaneous exchange over the role of “the aristoi” (aristocracies or elites) throughout history, Jefferson argued that the American Revolution had “laid the axe to the root of the Pseudo-aristocracy…founded on wealth and birth without either virtue or talents.” In that sense, the American Revolution represented a clean break with the vestiges of European feudalism and had thereby cleared the ground for a new kind of egalitarian society in the United States based on merit and equality of opportunity. Adams disagreed, arguing that the problem was not European feudalism but human nature itself, which had not undergone any magical transformation in crossing the Atlantic. Jefferson’s vision of a classless American society was, therefore, a romantic pipe dream. “After all,” Adams observed, “as long as property exists, it will accumulate in Individuals and Families and…the Snow ball will grow as it rolls.” Pretending that the new American republic would be immune to the social inequalities of Europe was Jefferson’s seductive version of the grand illusion. And at the political level, elites would always exist here as well as in Europe, and exercise disproportionate influence unless managed by government.
Again, with hindsight as the guide, one could argue that Adams’ position on the first disagreement was vindicated by the Civil War; his position on the second, by the New Deal. But in the crucible of the moment, such prescience was unavailable, and Jefferson’s more optimistic forecast enjoyed a decided rhetorical advantage. The more historically correct conclusion would be that the Adams-Jefferson correspondence had exposed the two conflicting versions of America’s original intentions, each passionately embraced by Founders with unmatched revolutionary credentials.
Although Adams’ recovered friendship with Jefferson eventually became legendary for its symbolic significance, his all-time dearest friend—no one else came close— was Abigail. As their friends, close relatives, even their own children died around them, as the irrevocable aging process and accompanying physical failures made each look into the mirror a moment of horror, as the extended family that surrounded them at Quincy came to resemble a menagerie of wounded animals, Abigail and John remained resolute, infinitely resilient, the invulnerable center that would always hold. If love, like leadership, could never be defined, only recognized when it presented itself in its most ideal form, they embodied it. The long melody played on.
In October 1818, Abigail collapsed with typhoid and probably suffered an accompanying stroke that made it difficult for her to speak. Interestingly, John first reached out to Jefferson, who had lost his own wife many years earlier: “The dear partner of my life for fifty-four years and for many years more as a lover, now lies in extremis, forbidden to speak or be spoken to.” With John at her bedside, Abigail died on October 28. She was 74. The music they had made together for so long finally stopped.
With his lifelong partner gone, Adams waited for the summons to join her and resume their conversation in the hereafter. He had always worried about losing his mind and “dying at the top,” but just the opposite aging process was happening to him: Most of his teeth were now gone, and his “quiverations” made it impossible to hold a pen, so he had to dictate all letters to different grandchildren. He could ride a horse three miles but could not walk without a cane, and stairs had become insurmountable mountains. On the other hand, his mind remained hyperactive, at times almost childlike in its reckless release of innocent energy and endless curiosity.
When rereading Cicero’s De Senectute, the classical handbook for retired statesmen, his mind took flight while contemplating the punctuation: “I have never delighted much in contemplating commas or colons,” he observed, “or in spelling or measuring syllables, but now, while reading Cato, if I look at these little objects, I find my imagination…roaming in the Milky Way.” As his body shriveled, his mind soared.
It was not clear whether Adams ever conquered his demons or simply outlived them. Clinching evidence that all had either been forgiven or forgotten with Jefferson came in 1823. One of Adams’ old letters to a friend, castigating Jefferson for his multiple duplicities, had found its way into print, threatening the recovered friendship with an explosive blast from the past. Jefferson’s response was Monticellian gallantry in its most lyrical form: “Be assured, my dear Sir,” he wrote Adams, “that I am incapable of receiving the slightest impression from the effort now made to plant thorns on the pillow of age, worth, and wisdom, and to sow tares between friends who have been such for nearly half a century. Beseeching you then not to suffer your mind to be disquieted by this wicked attempt to poison its peace, and praying you to throw it by.”
Adams was overjoyed and insisted that the letter be read aloud to the entire extended family at the breakfast table, calling it “the best letter that ever was written.” He promised Jefferson that he would join him in all-out war against “the peevish and fretful effusions of politicians,” then signed off as “J.A. In the 89 year of his age, still too fat to last much longer.”
Both men were also able to share the sense that they had become living statues. Jefferson, for example, entrusted his last letter to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who was traveling to Boston and planned a visit with the Sage of Quincy: “Like other young people,” Jefferson explained, “he wishes to be able, in the winter nights of old age, to recount to those around him what he has learnt of the Heroic age preceding his birth, and which of the Argonauts particularly he was in time to have seen.”
In 1825 the American sculptor John Henri Isaac Browere visited both sages with a proposal to produce “life masks” designed to yield realistic likenesses of their faces and heads, so that subsequent generations could see an accurate rendering of the American icons. The process required pouring several coats of a hot, plasterlike liquid over the head, allowing it to harden, then breaking it off in chunks. “He did not tear my face to pieces,” Adams explained, “though I sometimes thought that he would beat my brains out with a hammer.” The bronze casting that resulted made Adams look like a metallic cadaver clad in a Roman toga, what he himself described as the “life mask” for a corpse.
In June 1823, despite a bad gash on his ankle, Adams walked over a mile to his neighbor Josiah Quincy’s house in order to share company and conversation. He held forth for more than two hours, recalling his negotiation with the ambassador from Tripoli, when he blew smoke rings in a competition to reduce the size of the required ransom of American prisoners, and then proceeded to demonstrate his proficiency by duplicating the feat for Quincy’s guests. He speculated, incorrectly, that John Jay had actually written Washington’s Farewell Address. (It was Hamilton, still the last person that Adams could stoop to honor.) He also surmised that John Dickinson’s opposition to American independence in the Continental Congress was due to the influence of his wife and mother, both devout Quakers and resolute pacifists. “If I had such a mother and such a wife,” Adams concluded, “I believe I should have shot myself.”
His last story was about Judge Edmund Quincy, Josiah’s grandfather, who had once beaten off a robber with his cane. When Adams lifted up his own cane to demonstrate how the old judge defended himself, he accidentally struck and demolished a picture hanging on the wall. Adams began to laugh uncontrollably at his blunder, announcing that he had not had such a good time in months: “If I was to come here once a day,” he declared, “I should live half a year longer.” One of the guests responded that Adams might consider coming “twice in a day, and live a year longer.”
By the summer of 1826, Adams’ physical condition had declined beyond the point where another surge of his indomitable spirit could rescue it. He had already apprised Jefferson that the end was near: “The little strength of mind…that I once possessed appears to be all gone,” he acknowledged, “but while I breathe I shall be your friend. We shall meet again, so wishes and so believes your friend, but if we are disappointed we shall never know it.” He was still hedging his bets on the hereafter, and had come to regard heaven as a putative place where Abigail was waiting. The Christian doctrine of the Beatific Vision struck him as insipid. Gazing upon God was less interesting than embracing Abigail and resuming his arguments with Franklin and Jefferson. That for him was the true paradise. He knew that his powers of thought and speech were diminished, so when a delegation from Quincy visited him on June 30, requesting some statement from the patriarch for the looming Independence Day celebration, he refused to cooperate: “I will give you ‘Independence forever,’” he declared. Asked if he might like to elaborate, he declined: “Not a word.” He had finally learned, at the very end, the gift of silence.
On the morning of July 4, Adams lay in his bed, breathing with difficulty, apparently unable to speak. But when apprised that it was the Fourth, and the 50th anniversary of Independence Day, he lifted his head and, with obvious effort, declared: “It is a great day. It is a good day.”
Late in the afternoon he stirred in response to a severe thunderstorm—subsequently described in eulogies as “the artillery of Heaven”—and was heard to whisper, “Thomas Jefferson survives,” by several bedside observers. But by a coincidence that defied the probabilities of history and even the parameters of fiction, Jefferson had died earlier that afternoon. Both patriarchs, each possessed of indomitable willpower, seemed determined to die on schedule. Adams drew his last breath shortly after 6 o’clock. Witnesses reported that a final clap of thunder sounded at his passing, and then a bright sun broke through the clouds.
Joseph Ellis won a Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (2000).
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.