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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
Adams: We mustn’t die “before We have explained ourselves to each other.”
The special character of the correspondence—the sheer literary quality, the classical references and proses, letters that take on the tone of treatises—followed naturally from the realization that these private letters would have a public audience.
Adams said as much to Jefferson, envisioning the day when “your letters will all be published in volumes … which will be read with delight in future ages.” The Adams obsession with posterity’s judgment, of course, was notorious. Jefferson’s concern was equally powerful but more disguised and controlled. It seems fair to conclude that both men sat down to write with one eye on the paper and the other on posterity.
Adams set the pattern and the pace, writing two letters for every one of Jefferson’s, determining the intellectual agenda of the correspondence so that it accorded with his most passionate preoccupations. “Answer my letters at your Leisure,” he advised Jefferson as it became clear that the stream of words from Quincy was threatening to flood Monticello. “Give yourself no concern,” Adams added, explaining that the correspondence had become for him “a refuge and protection against Ennui.” Jefferson apologized for his failure to keep up, claiming that he received more than twelve hundred letters each year, all of which required answers. Adams replied that he received far fewer but chose not to answer most so that he could focus his allegedly waning energies on Jefferson, whom he called the only person “on this side of Monticello, who can give me any Information upon Subjects that I am now analysing and investigating : if I may be permitted to Use the pompous Words now in fashion.” Adams assured Jefferson that he was writing only “a hundredth part of what I wish to say to you.” And after all, he pleaded to his famous friend, “You and I ought not to die, before We have explained ourselves to each other.”
Even hostile voices from the past could not shake the two men’s resolve to go to their graves as friends. In 1823 several of Adams’s old letters to William Cunningham, a casual friend, were published by Cunningham’s son as part of a campaign to vilify the Adams family and thereby undercut John Quincy’s presidential prospects. These frank and intemperate letters dated from the early years of Adams’s retirement, when he was still reeling from his defeat in the presidential election of 1800 and full of anger at Jefferson. Adams was worried that his old resentments had come back to haunt his newfound serenity with Jefferson. But the response from Monticello was a model of gracious charity: “Be assured, my dear Sir, 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 demanded that the letter be read aloud at the Quincy breakfast table, calling it “the best letter that ever was written … just such a letter as I expected, only … infinitely better expressed.” The whole Cunningham episode merely solidified their friendship, he observed triumphantly, by exposing that “the peevish and fretful effusions of politicians … are not worth remembering, much less of laying to heart.” He concluded his response to Jefferson with a “salute [to] your fire-side with cordial esteem and affection” and signed it “J. A. In the 89 years of his age still too fat to last much longer.”
But one significant subject defied even the seasoned serenity of their latter years. Adams had alluded to slavery in 1816, when he confided to Jefferson that “there will be greater difficulties to preserve our Union, than You and I, our Fathers Brothers Friends Disciples and Sons have had to form it.” Then, in 1819, while Congress was debating the extension of slavery into the newly recognized Territory of Missouri, Adams felt bold enough to broach the subject directly: “The Missouri question I hope will follow the other Waves under the Ship and do no harm,” he wrote, adding that he realized it was “high treason to express a doubt of the perpetual duration of our vast American Empire.” But the sectional conflict over slavery had the potential to “rend this mighty Fabric in twain … [and] produce as many Nations in North America as there are in Europe.” Finally, in 1821, after the Missouri Compromise allowed for slavery in the Western territories, Adams offered his most candid assessment of the national dilemma: “Slavery in this Country I have seen hanging over it like a black cloud for half a century.… I might probably say I had seen Armies of Negroes marching and countermarching in the air, shining in Armour.” Then he reiterated his long-standing position. “I have been so terrified with this Phenomenon,” he explained to Jefferson, “that I constantly said in former times to the Southern Gentlemen, I cannot comprehend the object; I must leave it to you. I will vote for forcing no measure against your judgments.” Jefferson never responded to Adams’s comments, never once mentioned slavery in his letters to Quincy.