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Friends At Twilight
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson stood together in America’s perilous dawn, but politics soon drove them apart. Then in their last years the two old enemies began a remarkable correspondence that is both testimony to the power of friendship and an eloquent summary of the dialogue that went on within the Revolutionary generation—and that continues within our own.
May/june 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 3
Jefferson said that he admired everything about Adams except his politics. This was like claiming the pope was reliable on all but religion.
To most of their contemporaries they were America’s odd couple. John Adams was short, plump, passionate to the point of frenzy. Thomas Jefferson was tall, lean, serenely enigmatic. True, they had served together in the Continental Congress during the blossom days of the American Revolution. But throughout the remainder of their distinguished public careers, as Adams himself acknowledged, they had “look’d at the world through different ends of the telescope.”
Adams had remained a loyal Federalist, serving as Vice President under George Washington for eight years, then a single term as President. Jefferson had broken with the Federalists after a term as Secretary of State, then opposed Adams for the Presidency, losing narrowly in 1796 and then winning the bitterly contested election of 1800. In the fierce and sometimes scatological political squabbles of the 1790s, the two men found themselves on opposite sides time and time again. Whether it was Hamilton’s finance program, America’s posture toward the French Revolution, the Jay Treaty with Britain, or the proper relationship between federal and state governments, Adams and Jefferson could be counted on to disagree. Their political convictions, like their personal styles and physical appearances, seemed always to fall on different sides of the American political equation.
Nevertheless, there remained an abiding affinity between the two men, a mysterious personal chemistry that seemed to defy logic. Although Adams had been heard to denounce Jefferson in 1797 as “a mind soured … and eaten to a honeycomb with ambition,” Abigail Adams told friends that Jefferson was “the only person with whom my companion could associate with perfect freedom and reserve.”
During the eight years of Jefferson’s Presidency, Adams spent his retirement at Quincy, Massachusetts, reliving the old political battles in his memory and rocking back and forth between resentment against and affection for his successor. Jefferson was a “shadow man,” he told friends; his character was “like the great rivers, whose bottoms we cannot see and make no noise.” Yes, he and Jefferson had once been close friends, but then Jefferson had “supported and salaried almost every villain he could find who had been an enemy to me.” When Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician and Revolutionary gadfly, wrote to say that he had just woken from a dream in which the Sage of Monticello and the Sage of Quincy were reunited, Adams told him to “take a Nap and dream for my instruction and Edification the character of Jefferson and his administration,” a dream that he predicted would be an unrelieved nightmare.
But chinks in the Adams armor began to open up in 1809. No, he harbored “no Resentment or Animosity against the Gentleman. …” How could he hold a grudge against Jefferson, adding jokingly that Jefferson was “always but a Boy to me. … I am bold to say that I was his Preceptor on Politicks and taught him every thing that has been good and solid in his whole Political Conduct.” How could one resent a disciple? And what was it that had caused a break between them? As far as he could remember, “the only Flit between Jefferson and me … was occasioned by a Motion for Congress to sit on Saturday.” Or was the source of the trouble an argument about hairstyles, he preferring them curled and Jefferson straight? Or was it the other way around? In this jocular mood Adams let it be known that he was open to an entreaty.
In 1811 Adams was visited at Quincy by Edward Coles, a Virginian close to Jefferson. In the course of the conversation Adams claimed that his long-standing political disagreements with Jefferson had never destroyed his affection for the man. “I always loved Jefferson,” he told Coles, “and still love him.” When news of this exchange reached Monticello, as Adams knew it would, Jefferson responded heartily, if a bit less affectionately. “This is enough for me,” he wrote Benjamin Rush, adding that he “knew him [Adams] to be always an honest man, often a great one, but sometimes incorrect and precipitate in his judgments.” The major caveat, however, came at the end, when Jefferson told Rush that he had always defended Adams’s character to others, “with the single exception as to his political opinions.” This was like claiming that the pope was usually reliable, except when he declared himself on matters of faith and morals. That was how it stood at the close of the year, the two former friends sniffing around the edges of a possible reconciliation like wary old dogs.
In the end it was Adams who made the move. The first letter went out from Quincy to Monticello on January 1, 1812, timing that suggests Adams had decided to revive the relationship as one of his resolutions for the new year. It was a short and cordial note, relaying family news and referring to “two pieces of Homespun” that he had sent along as a gift by separate packet.