Poor John Adams.
I think it would be fair to say that John Adams spent the last 25 years of his life feeling sorry for himself. He was a grumpy and vain old man searching for the respect he thought he deserved.
If Adams were to read the highly anticipated new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gordon Wood, the old curmudgeon would be no happier. In fact, the final lines of the book, handed down like a final judgement, would only confirm what Adams believed would be the view of historians forever. “To be an American,” Wood wrote, “is not to be someone, but to believe in something. And that something is what Jefferson declared. That’s why we honor Jefferson and not Adams.”[i]
Ironically, Adams enjoyed his greatest fame by dying. He died on the Fourth of July, 1826 – on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The timing of his going was remarkable. Had circumstance been different, this would have been noticed and Adams would have been eulogized and appreciated anew – at least for a little while.
But the chief author of that famous document – the Declaration of Independence – also died on that same day. Actually, Thomas Jefferson predeceased Adams by a few hours. This meant that Adams would have to share the spotlight with the very man who the Sage of Quincy complained took too much credit to himself over the creation of the Declaration. How typical, I am sure Adams would have thought.
Wood opens his latest work with “The Eulogies” which followed the demise of Adams and Jefferson, thereby signaling the major theme of the book. “Dying on the same day tended to give the two revolutionaries equal standing in the nation’s consciousness,” Wood argues, “but this equality of eminence did not last. In fact, even some of the eulogists suggested that Jefferson possessed something that Adams lacked.”[ii]
Wood is not the first to write about the fascinating friendship between Adams and Jefferson – though it has been awhile. The drama and poignancy of the relationship has a romantic and nostalgic appeal. The value in this new examination lies in Wood’s desire to explain why “Jefferson’s star has remained ascendant while Adams’s seems to have virtually disappeared from the firmament.” That this is true is undeniable, yet Wood ventures further: “No figure in our past has embodied so much of our heritage and so many of our hopes.”[iii]
A dual biography, seen through the prism of the Adams-Jefferson friendship, Friends Divided does not offer anything scholars have not already known about the pair and so treads over familiar ground. But for the reading public in general, the book offers a good read and an interesting juxtaposition of the founder’s lives.
More sympathetic in general to Jefferson, Wood gives credit where it is due in the chapter “Independence.” Here Wood suggests “the Congressional sessions were longer [than those of the First Continental Congress] and the delegates were working harder, with Adams working the hardest of all.” After reviewing the typical grueling schedule of the Congress, Wood notes that “Since each colony had only one vote, some delegates could take time off. Adams was not one of them.” As for the push for independence, “no one did more to move the delegates toward independence. Adams, Jefferson later told Daniel Webster, “was our Colossus on the floor” of Congress.” In short, John Adams’s dedication, leadership, persistence and sometimes eloquence led America to independence. What Jefferson wrote would have meant nothing without what John Adams did. This is something America needs to remember.[iv]
The partisanship of the 1790s drove Adams and Jefferson apart – particularly during Adams’s administration. Passage of the Alien & Sedition Acts seemed to be a pivot-point. The former Jefferson scorned as “worthy of the 8th or 9th century.”[v] But the Sedition Acts – which “made it a crime to “write, print, utter or publish…false, scandalous, and malicious” writings”[vi] – were even more scandalous to the Virginian, who regarded the Federalist-created laws as “an experiment on the America mind to see how far it will bear an avowed violation of the constitution.”[vii] To a friend, Jefferson suggested “a little patience and we shall see the reign of the witches pass over.”[viii]
Adams never forgot the stinging criticism he received because of the Alien & Sedition Acts – nor the rebuke dealt him by the American people in the election of 1800. Years later, when Adams and Jefferson had resumed their friendship after a decade-long hiatus, the old Massachusetts patriot revealed his smoldering resentment in a letter to the Sage of Monticello. “We were then at War with France: French Spies then swarmed in our cities and in the country.” Adams argued, “To check them was the design of this law. Was there ever a government which had not authority to defend itself against spies in its own bosom?”[ix]
The story Wood spins of the reconciliation of Adams and Jefferson is very touching. And in fact, the reconciliation was the result itself of reconciliation – between Adams and Benjamin Rush in 1805 when the former wrote, “you and I ought not to die without saying Goodbye or bidding each other Adieu.”[x] A fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a Philadelphia physician, Rush fell in politically with Jefferson and this was probably the reason his relationship with Adams had been interrupted. When that relationship was mended, Rush was then in correspondence with both the second and third presidents. He then made it his goal to do some further mending.
It took some time for Rush to effect the healing of the rift between Adams and Jefferson, since there were lingering feelings of resentment on both sides. As Wood demonstrates, the pivotal moment came after years of Rush laying the groundwork. A young acquaintance of Jefferson, Edward Coles, had visited Quincy and related a story to Adams that touched him deeply. At that point Adams exclaimed, “I always loved Jefferson, and still love him.”[xi] Relayed to Jefferson by Coles, the Virginian wrote to Rush and related the story. Clearly Jefferson was ready, but he felt Adams needed to offer the olive branch. Into the breach stepped Rush.
In one of the most poignant letters of the early republic, Rush wrote to Adams (and ostensibly to Jefferson), “Fellow laborers in erecting the great fabric of American independence! – fellow sufferers in calumnies and falsehoods of party rage! – fellow heirs of the gratitude and affection of posterity! – and fellow passengers in a stage that must shortly convey you both into the presence of a Judge with whom the forgiveness and love of enemies is the condition of acceptance! – embrace – embrace each other!”[xii]
On New Year’s Day, 1812, Adams penned a short, good-natured letter to Jefferson opening a new era in American letters. The correspondence between Quincy and Charlottesville would go on until shortly before they both departed in 1826. It ranged over subjects both shallow and deep, and did not avoid the difficulties between them. Characteristically, Adams always tackled them head-on and Jefferson would softly counter or avoid the troublesome subject completely.
It had been the goal of both men to live until at least July 4, 1826. This they did barely – Adams nearly blind, long toothless, and mostly unable to walk and Jefferson nearly deaf and suffering ailments innumerable. In his epilogue, Wood, commenting on the legend that Adams’s last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives,” pointed out that he was incorrect and then pronounced, “But in a larger, more meaningful sense Adams turned out to be prophetically correct. In the mind of Americans Jefferson did survive Adams, and he survived him with a powerful significance for the nation that Adams, despite all his revolutionary efforts, all his contributions to American constitutionalism, and all of his realism, could never match.”[xiii]
I always look forward to a new Gordon Wood book. And even if I think this one is a little harsh on Adams, it may be because I don’t want to admit that he is right.
[i] Gordon S. Wood, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 433.
[ii] Wood, Friends Divided, 4.
[iii] Wood, Friends Divided, 5.
[iv] Wood, Friends Divided, 105-106.
[v] Wood, Friends Divided, 309.
[vii] Wood, Friends Divided, 313.
[ix] Wood, Friends Divided, 308-309.
[x] Wood, Friends Divided, 356.
[xi] Wood, Friends Divided, 360.
[xii] Wood, Friends Divided, 361.
[xiii] Wood, Friends Divided, 428.