Arguably the most fascinating friendship in early America was between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Partners in declaring independence, the pair would become like brothers while on assignment in Europe. But the strain of political discord and partisan strife would first stretch and finally break the bonds first forged in Philadelphia. Only after both men were retired to their beloved homes, Adams at Peacefield in Quincy, MA, and Jefferson at Monticello in Charlottesville, VA, would the friendship be renewed. But a decade would pass in which the men did not meet nor correspond with each other. There was, however, a brief correspondence that passed between those locations in those silent years involving Thomas Jefferson and an Adams – Abigail, wife of the second president.
Unbeknownst to her husband, Abigail Adams initiated a correspondence with Jefferson in 1804 after the death of the Virginian’s youngest daughter Mary, often called Polly. Back when the Adamses had been stationed in England and Jefferson in France (John was the American minister to Great Britain and Jefferson minister to France), Jefferson had sent to Virginia for his daughter who had been living with relatives. Very reluctant to leave the familiar for the foreign, Polly actually had to be tricked to board the boat that would transport her to Europe. Arriving in England, Jefferson had arranged for Abigail to pick up and care for Polly until she could be reunited with him. During their short time together Abigail and Polly grew close.
It was undoubtedly difficult for Abigail to write to Jefferson, then president of the U.S. From the time that her husband and Jefferson took their places in the Washington administration, Abigail had become one of Jefferson’s most bitter critics – especially during John’s presidency (1797-1801). From time to time she lamented their “lost” friend, doubted his sanity, and decried his perceived atheism. In truth, Abigail played a significant role in ending the friendship between her husband and the sage of Monticello.
May 20, 1804
Had you been no other than the private inhabitant of Monticello, I should e’re this time addrest you, with that sympathy, which a recent event has awakened in my Bosom. But reasons of various kinds withheld my pen, until the powerful feelings of my heart, have burst through the restraint, and called upon me to shed the tear of sorrow over the departed remains, of your beloved and deserving daughter, an event which I most sincerely mourn. The attachment which I formed for her, when you committed her to my care: upon her arrival in a foreign land: has remained with me to this hour, and the recent account of her death, which I read in a late paper, brought fresh to my remembrance the strong sensibility she discovered, tho but a child of nine years of age at having been separated from her Friends and country, and brought, as she expressed it, “to a strange land amongst strangers.” The tender scene of her separation from me, rose to my recollection, when she clung around my neck and wet my Bosom with her tears, saying, “O! now I have learnt to Love you, why will they tear me from you?”
It has been some time since that I conceived of any event in this Life, which could call forth, feelings of mutual sympathy. But I know how closely entwined around a parents heart, are those chords which bind the filial to the parental Bosom, and when snapped asunder, how agonizing the pangs of separation.
I have tasted the bitter cup, and bow with reverence, and humility before the great dispenser of it, without whose permission, and over-ruling providence, not a sparrow falls to the ground. That you may derive comfort and consolation in this day of your sorrow and affliction, from that only source calculated to heal the wounded heart – a firm belief in the Being: perfections and attributes of God, is the sincere and ardent wish of her, who once took pleasure in subscribing Herself your Friend[i]
Thomas Jefferson was, no doubt, surprised to find a letter postmarked Quincy in his usual large stack of mail. The sentiments expressed in Abigail’s letter were probably most welcome under the circumstances. He wasted little time in drafting a reply. He would have been better served by waiting a bit and writing a more measured letter. Surely the last line of Abigail’s letter, in which she said that she had “once took pleasure” in being a friend, should have warned him that all was not yet well.[ii]
In his reply, Jefferson noted the “affectionate sentiments” expressed by Abigail and recalled the “kindnesses” she had shown to Polly. “I can assure you with truth,” the grieving father wrote, “they had made an indelible impression on her mind.” Having expressed his appreciation for her sympathy, Jefferson had fulfilled his responsibility and might have ended the correspondence with a brief, but cordial reply. But he clearly had something else in mind; something larger.[iii]
Jefferson wrote that he was “thankful for the occasion furnished me of expressing my regret that circumstances should have arisen which have seemed to draw a line of separation between us.” Later in the letter the president expanded the scope of his regret to include Abigail’s mate. “Mr. Adams’s friendship and mine began at an earlier date,” Jefferson wrote, “and accompanied us thro’ long and important scenes.” Again, if the Virginian had ended his reply to Abigail here, in hopes of perhaps opening the door to reconciliation with John, the goal might have been achieved. Instead, he lapsed into territory sure to put Mrs. Adams, and her husband, on the defensive.[iv]
Recalling the early days of his presidency, Jefferson vented, “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.” Here the president was referring to the so-called “midnight judges.” Passed by the outgoing Congress with a Federalist majority, the Judiciary Act of 1801 was an effort to pack the Federal courts with Federalist judges. Adams had signed appointments to those posts into the last hours of his administration.[v]
While Jefferson made it clear that he was frustrated not just at Abigail’s husband, still he felt that it “left something for friendship to forgive.” The president “forgave it cordially, and returned to the same state of esteem and respect for him which had so long subsisted.” Feeling himself “unbosomed” by his candor, Jefferson tendered to the Adamses, “health, tranquility and long life,” and hoped that his old friends would receive his sentiments with magnanimity.[vi]
Jefferson’s letter drew quite a different response from the one he had hoped. From the opening lines of her reply, there is little doubt that Abigail felt honor bound to protect her husband. “Your letter of June 13th came duly to hand; if it had contained no other sentiments and opinions than those which my letter of condolence could have excited…our correspondence would have been terminated here: but you have been pleased to enter upon some subjects which call for a reply.”[vii]
Abigail quickly addressed the matter of appointments before quickly moving on to her (and John’s) grievances. “The Constitution empowers the president to fill up offices as they become vacant. It was in the exercise of this power that appointments were made,” she wrote, “and characters selected whom Mr. Adams considered, as men faithful to the Constitution and where he personally knew them such as were capable of fulfilling their duty to their country.” In carrying out his duties as he understood them, President Adams was not thinking about giving offense to anyone. But Abigail did not stop there. She added a stinger. “…the different political opinions which have so unhappily dividing our Country, must have given rise to the idea, that personal unkindness was intended.” Abigail explained, “You will please to recollect Sir, that at the time the appointments were made, there was not any certainty that the presidency would devolve upon you.”[viii]
It is clear that Abigail’s dander was up. As her letter progresses, you can sense her anger and frustration. As Jefferson had felt “unbosomed,” so too did Abigail. She next addressed Jefferson’s tenure in office. “I have never felt any enmity towards you Sir for being elected president of the United States.” She wrote, “But the instruments made use of, and the means which were practiced to effect a change, have my utter abhorrence and detestation, for they were the blackest calumny, and foulest falsehoods…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 viewed you in” – the pardon and remission of the fine of James Callendar.[ix] A “wretch who was suffering the just punishment of the law due to his crimes…the basest libel, the lowest and vilest Slander, which malice could invent.” It was, Abigail concluded, “This Sir I considered as a personal injury. This was the Sword that cut asunder the Gordian knot, which could not be untied by all the efforts of party Spirit, by rivalship by Jealousy or any other malignant fiend.”[x]
Abigail also disclosed that she harbored yet another grievance against her old friend. “There is one other act of your administration,” she wrote, “which I considered as personally unkind, and which your own mind will readily suggest to you, but as it neither affected character, or reputation, I forbear to state it.” This cryptic statement suggests that she is inviting Jefferson to continue the correspondence, if only to probe into this allegation, should his mind not “suggest” to him the cause.[xi]
To ensure that Jefferson understood the nature of the correspondence, Abigail felt obligated to conclude the letter with the observation that “This letter is written in confidence – no eye but my own has seen what has passed.” Which meant, of course, that her husband John was not privy to its contents. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” she lamented before signing her name to the missive.[xii]
Aware now that he had pricked the famous Adams pride, Jefferson made haste to try to correct misconceptions and to salve old wounds. Addressing first the Callendar issue, Jefferson maintained that “My charities to him were no more meant as encouragements to his scurrilities than those I give to the beggar at my door are meant as rewards for the vices of his life.” He no more showed approbation to Callendar than John Adams had for “Porcupine, Fenno, or Russell, who published volumes against me.” As for liberating Callendar, Jefferson made clear that he had pardoned everyone that had been prosecuted under the Sedition Law. Everyone. He had seemed the act unconstitutional and had sought to alleviate the suffering of those punished, regardless of what any of them had written.[xiii]
As for Abigail’s allegation of an unkind act that “your own mind will readily suggest,” Jefferson responded, “I declare on my honor, Madam, I have not the least conception what act is alluded to. I never did a single one with an unkind intention.” Adams would have to make plain what it was that had caused her to believe he had acted with malice.[xiv]
Thomas Jefferson must have sighed with relief when he read the letter from Abigail dated August 18, 1804. “Your statement respecting Callendar,” Mrs. Adams wrote, “and your motives for liberating him, wear a different aspect as explained by you, from the impression which they had made, not only upon my mind, but upon the minds of all those, whom I ever heard speak upon the subject. With regard to the act under which he was punished, different persons entertain different opinions respecting it.”[xv]
The “personal resentment” that Abigail harbored and now revealed, was in regards to her son John Quincy Adams (left). After his return from diplomatic duties in Europe, young Adams had been appointed a district judge. “As soon as congress gave the appointments to the president you removed him,” Abigail contended.[xvi]
In a letter written in September, 1804, Jefferson deduced that John Quincy must have been a “Commissioner of Bankruptcy” in Boston. But he quickly stated, “I declare to you on my honor that this is the first knowledge I have ever had that he was so…Had I known that your son [held one of those posts], it would have been a real pleasure to me to have preferred him to some who were named in Boston.”[xvii]
It is not hard to see that if Jefferson’s goal was to overcome misunderstandings and perhaps reopen a correspondence with Mr. Adams, he probably should have explained his innocence in the case of John Quincy and closed his letter diplomatically and awaited a reply from Quincy. Instead, he decided that what Abigail needed was a lecture on the Constitution. Moreover, the lecture began very pedantically, “You seem to think it devolved on the judges to decide on the validity of the sedition law. But nothing in the Constitution has given them a right to decide for the executive…”[xviii]
Abigail Adams had grown weary of the correspondence with president, though it had admittedly cleared up a few matters. But the ideological differences remained and apparently could not be overcome. In a letter dated October 25, 1804, Abigail made it clear where Jefferson stood in her eyes. “Having once entertained for you a respect and esteem, founded upon the Character of an affectionate parent, a kind Master, a candid and benevolent friend, I could not suffer the different political opinions to obliterate them from my mind, and I felt the truth of the observation,” she wrote, “that the heart is long, very long in receiving the conviction that is forced upon it by reason. Affection still lingers in the Bosom, even after esteem has taken its flight.” Ouch.
Abigail did at least seem to clear Jefferson of the charge that he knowingly dismissed her eldest son from his job in Boston. “I am pleased to find that, which respected my son, all together unfounded.” However, she followed it up with a lecture of her own. “Sir may I be permitted to pause, and ask you whether in your ardent zeal, and desire to rectify the mistakes and abuses as you may consider them, of the former administrations, you are not led into measures still more fatal to the Constitution, and more derogatory to your honor, and independence of character? Pardon me Sir if I say that I fear you are.”[xix]
It was time to close up what had only been intended as an expression of condolence. It was quite clear that the disagreements over political matters were not going to be solved. “I will not Sir any further intrude upon your time,” Abigail wrote, “but close this correspondence, by my sincere wishes, that you may be directed to that path which may terminate in the prosperity and happiness of the people over whom you are placed, by administering the government with a just and impartial hand. Be assured Sir that no one will more rejoice in your success than…Abigail Adams.”[xx]
When Abigail ended her brief correspondence with Jefferson it is hard to tell if she really intended it to be forever. Perhaps she concluded that while Jefferson was still active politically, there would be little they could say to each other profitably. We do know that she must have grown uncomfortable that such an exchange of letters with the president was without the knowledge of her husband. In the letter book copy of the correspondence, in the Adams Papers, appears this notation: “Quincy. November 19th, 1804. The whole of this correspondence was begun and conducted without my knowledge or suspicion. Last evening and this morning at the desire of Mrs. Adams I read the whole. I have no remarks to make upon it at this time and in this place. J. Adams.”[xxi]
It was not until January 1st, 1812, that a correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was resumed, when Adams – out of the blue – decided to pen a letter to the Virginian who was then retired at Monticello. From that time until shortly before the death of both men in 1826, the friendship long severed had been rekindled.
At the end of a letter of John Adams’ to Thomas Jefferson, July 15th, 1813, appeared the following: “I have been looking for some time for a space in my good husband’s letters to add the regards of an old Friend, which are still cherished and preserved through all the changes and vicissitudes which have taken place since we first became acquainted, and will I trust remain as long as…A. Adams.”[xxii]
[i] Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of No. Carolina Press, 1959), 268-269.
[ix] James Callendar was convicted of slander of the president and Federalist leaders under the new Sedition Law in 1800 and was imprisoned for nine months and fined $200. Upon assuming the presidency, Jefferson pardoned Callendar and remitted the fine.
Allison, John Murray. Adams and Jefferson: The Story of a Friendship. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.
Cappon, Lester J. The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. Chapel Hill, NC: University of No. Carolina Press, 1959.
Peterson, Merrill D. Thomas Jefferson & The New Nation: A Biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.