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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
Silence had, in fact, become Jefferson’s official position on the subject. After making several bold proposals for the end of the slave trade and the gradual abolition of slavery early in his career, he had remained mute since the 1780s. “I have most carefully avoided every public act or manifestation on that subject,” he wrote to George Logan in 1805, promising that “should an occasion ever occur in which I can interpose with decisive effect, I shall certainly know & do my duty with promptitude & zeal.” In the meantime, he observed, “it would only be disarming myself of influence to be taking small means.”
But the propitious moment never arrived. In 1814 Edward Coles, the staunch Jeffersonian and fellow slaveowner who endorsed emancipation, begged the Sage of Monticello to break his silence, claiming that “this difficult task could be more successfully performed by the reverend father of our political and Social blessings than by any other succeeding Statesman.” By then, however, Jefferson pleaded age. “No, I have outlived the generation with which mutual labors and perils begat mutual confidence and influence,” he explained. Ending slavery was a glorious cause, he acknowledged, but had been passed on to “those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation.”
As much as he insisted that American society should not be divided into classes, Jefferson thought that American history should be separated into generations. In other contexts his belief that there were discrete generational units that came into the world and went out together had extremely radical implications, for it led him to the conclusion that one generation could not make laws for the next. “No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law,” he had claimed, because to do so would defy the Jeffersonian principle that “the earth always belongs to the living generation.” Or as he put it to Adams, “When we have lived our generation out, we should not wish to encroach upon another.”
On the issue of slavery, however, Jefferson’s belief in the generational sovereignty served the conservative purpose of justifying, indeed requiring, silence and passivity from the Revolutionary generation on the most ominous problem facing the new nation. “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [i.e., slaves] are to be free,” he announced in his autobiography, written in 1821. But it was equally obvious that emancipation would require a revolution in public opinion that Jefferson felt was a long way off, the work of the next generation or perhaps an even more distant cohort of American leaders several ages away.
Adams agreed with Jefferson that slavery constituted the most nearly intractable problem faced by the Revolutionary generation. “The Subject is vast and ominous,” he noted in 1817. “More than fifty years has it attracted my thoughts and given me much anxiety. A Folio Volume would not contain my Lucubrations on this Subject. And at the End of it, I should leave my reader and myself as much at a loss, what to do with it, as at the Beginning.” However, Adams did not agree with—for that matter, he did not comprehend at all—Jefferson’s belief in generational sovereignty. For Adams, history was not a dead burden of accumulated weight that each generation was free to toss aside; it was a motley combination of mishaps and successes, ignorance and wisdom, from which future leaders should learn. The problem with slavery, Adams acknowledged, was that it constituted the one subject on which he, Jefferson, and the rather remarkable generation of leaders they symbolized had little wisdom to offer.
Just what Adams thought that limited wisdom was became clear in the national debate over the extension of slavery into Missouri, which prompted different reactions from the two patriarchs that were so loaded with emotion and implication that each man chose to avoid mentioning his thoughts to the other. Adams saw the issue as clear-cut. “Negro Slavery is an evil of Colossal magnitude,” he wrote to William Tudor, “and I am therefore utterly averse to the admission of Slavery into the Missouri Territory.” He thought that the constitutional question—whether the federal or the state legislature had the power to make the decision—was of merely secondary importance. He hoped that “the Legislature of Missouri, or the [Territorial] Convention, may have the Wisdom to prohibit Slavery of their own accord,” but whether or not they did, the federal government had established its right to rule for the territories when it approved the Louisiana Purchase. “I think the Southern gentlemen who thought it [the Louisiana Purchase] constitutional,” he explained to his daughter-in-law, “ought not to think it unconstitutional in Congress to restrain the extension of Slavery in that territory.” The primary issue for Adams was the moral imperative against slavery and, even more telling, his clear sense that the Revolutionary generation had never intended that the evil institution spread beyond the South. (This was eventually the position that Lincoln took in the 1850s.) In 1820 Adams was alerting several of his correspondents, though not Jefferson, that “we must settle the question of slavery’s extension now, otherwise it will stamp our National Character and lay a Foundation for Calamities, if not disunion.”