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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
There was a discernible awkwardness as well as a slight stumble at the start of the correspondence. Jefferson presumed, quite plausibly, that the “two pieces of Homespun” Adams was sending referred to domestically produced clothing, a nice symbol of the ongoing American embargo of European goods that also recalled the colonial response to British taxation policies in the 1760s, a fitting reminder of the good old days when Adams and Jefferson first joined the movement for American independence. And so Jefferson responded with a lengthy letter on domestic manufacturing, only to discover afterward that Adams had intended the homespun reference as a metaphor. His gift turned out to be a copy of his son John Quincy Adams’s two-volume work Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory . The exchange had begun on the same note that the friendship had foundered on, an elemental misunderstanding.
It quickly recovered, as both men demonstrated that they required no instruction in rhetoric from John Quincy or anyone else. “And so we have gone on,” wrote Jefferson in his lyrical style, “and so we shall go on, puzzled and prospering beyond example in the history of man.” The “puzzled and prospering” phrase was pure Jefferson, a melodic and alliterative choice of words conveying the paradoxical character of America’s march toward its destiny. Not to be outdone, Adams shot back with an alliteration of his own. “Whatever a peevish Patriarch might say, I have never seen the day in which I could say I had no Pleasure; or that I have had more Pain than Pleasure.”
Beyond their calculated eloquence, the early letters are careful, diplomatic, eager to avoid the political controversies. “But whither is senile garrulity leading me?” asked Jefferson rhetorically. “Into politics, of which I have taken 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 the happier.” Quite conscious of Adams’s irritability and volcanic temperament, Jefferson felt compelled to wonder whether “in the race of life, you do not keep, in its physical decline, the same distance ahead of me which you have done in political honors and achievements.” This gracious gesture prompted a gracious response from Quincy. Jefferson had taken the lead on all counts, Adams acknowledged; Adams was leading only in the sense that he would be first to the grave.
Later Adams took refuge in one of the recurrent motifs that both men used as a safe haven throughout the correspondence—the dwindling list of survivors of the Declaration of Independence: “I may rationally hope to be the first to depart; and as you are the youngest and the most energetic in mind and body, you may therefore rationally hope to be the last to take your flight.” Like the last person to retire from the hearth in the evening, Adams noted, Jefferson would be the final one “to set up and rake the ashes over the coals …”
But if Jefferson thought the reference to Thucydides and Tacitus would keep the dialogue a safe distance from politics, Adams reminded him that even the classics, especially those particular authors, spoke directly to his own pessimism. “I have read Thucydides and Tacitus, —o often, and at such distant Periods of my Life,” he recalled, “that elegant, profound and enchanting is their Style, I am weary of them”; their descriptions of Athens and Greece in decline he found reminiscent of “my own Times and my own Life.” Then he apologized for this outbreak of self-pity, joking that “My Senectutal Loquacity has more than retaliated your ‘Senile Garrulity.’”
A mutual sense of the fragility of their newly recovered friendship explains in part the initial politeness and obvious care with which each man composed his thoughts and arranged his words. Their trust was newly won and incomplete—nor, for that matter, would it ever be total. For example, when Adams asked Jefferson to assist in obtaining a judgeship for Samuel Malcolm, the former private secretary to Adams, Jefferson promised he would try—and then wrote President Madison to say Malcolm was “a strong federalist” and therefore an inappropriate choice. Later he wrote Adams to express regret at failing to place Malcolm, claiming his request to the President had arrived too late.
Adams was guilty of similar acts of duplicity. In 1819 he reported reading a copy of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, a document purportedly drafted by a group of citizens in North Carolina in May of 1775 and containing language similar to Jefferson’s later version of the Declaration. Jefferson responded immediately, contesting the authenticity of the document, which seemed to cast doubts on the originality of his own famous draft. Adams promptly reassured Jefferson that he believed “the Mecklenburg Resolutions are a fiction” and that it had always seemed “utterly incredible that they should be genuine.” Meanwhile, however, he was telling other friends just the opposite. “I could as soon believe that the dozen flowers of Hydrangia now before my Eyes were the work of chance,” he snickered, “as that the Mecklenburg Resolutions and Mr. Jefferson’s declaration were not derived one from the other.”