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 seemed to resent the very existence of the debate, as if the eloquent silence he had maintained on the unmentionable subject should become national policy. Although he supported what he called the rights of slaveholders to live in Missouri, his major concern was federal power—the issue Adams considered secondary —which he began to describe as an encroachment on Southern rights reminiscent of British intrusions in the pre-Revolutionary years. “In the gloomiest moments of the Revolutionary War,” he wrote in 1820, “I never had any apprehensions equal to what I feel from this source.” His pronouncements became more pessimistic and morbid, outdoing even Adams at his most apocalyptic. “I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the … sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness,” he warned, “is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it.” Even his beloved University of Virginia, which he had originally conceived as a national center of learning, became for Jefferson a bastion of Southern ways to protect Virginia’s rising generation against the seductive infidelities of Harvard and Yale, where abolitionists, bankers, unscrupulous merchants, and Federalist fanatics acquired their bad manners and destructive ideas.
“I look back with rapture to those golden days,” Adams wrote to him in 1825, “when Virginia and Massachusetts lived and acted together like a band of brothers and I hope it will not be long before they may say redeunt saturnia regna.” But the golden age Adams referred to was gone for Jefferson, blasted into oblivion by sectional politics and what seemed to him a Northern conspiracy to make the unmentionable subject of slavery the dominant topic of the new age. Although Jefferson surely knew that Adams was one of the conspirators, just as he knew that John Quincy embodied the Federalist persuasion that so threatened the survival of the States’ Rights, he sustained his commitment to the correspondence to the end, avoiding the troublesome topics, concealing his mounting bitterness and despair, maintaining pretenses. The friendship symbolized by the correspondence would thus serve as a testimony to posterity about the way it had once been within the generation that he and Adams symbolized.
Adams never knew the depth of the tragedy Jefferson felt.
Adams never knew the depth of the tragedy Jefferson felt or the irony of their shifting circumstances. From 1820 onward Jefferson—America’s most attractive apostle of optimism—was trapped in a spiraling despondency. He had lost the faith that his very name was destined to epitomize and became an example of the paranoia and pessimism that Adams had recently overcome. He was racked by rheumatism and the painful intestinal disorder that would eventually kill him, and his physical condition deteriorated more rapidly than that of his older friend at Quincy. Jefferson’s personal debts continued to mount, for he had never mastered the reconciliation of his expensive tastes with the financial facts of his household economy. His addiction to French wine, like his affinity for French ideas, never came to grips with the more mundane realities. Infirm, insolvent, and depressed that the future he had always trusted had somehow taken a wrong turn, Jefferson lived out his last days amidst two hundred slaves he could not free without encumbering his heirs with even greater debts, without his magnificent library, which he had been forced to sell for cash, on the deteriorating grounds of the once-proud Monticello, which was decaying at the same rapid pace as his own democratic hopes.
As the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence approached, Adams and Jefferson were deluged with requests to attend official celebrations of the national birthday. Both men responded by pleading old age and ill health, offering regrets, then providing self-consciously eloquent testimonials that they knew would be read out loud to the assembled guests. It was an ironic opportunity for Adams, who had spent much of his retirement criticizing the historical significance of the Declaration as anything more than an ornamental epilogue to the real story of the American Revolution. But the annual celebration on July 4 was now too well established to make his criticism sound like anything more than small-minded carping.
Although he received requests to participate in what was being called the “Jubilee of Independence” from as far away as Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, his most resonant reply went to the organizers of the Quincy celebration. After lamenting that his physical condition precluded attendance, Adams defied the customary sentiments and solemnities by declaring, in effect, that the ultimate meaning of the American Revolution was still problematic. He acknowledged that the Revolutionary era had been a “memorable epoch in the annals of the human race,” but he insisted that the jury was still out on its significance. He warned that America was “destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of the political institutions by which they shall in time to come be shaped by the human mind .”
Posterity, in short, would not only judge but would play an active role in shaping the outcome. This was a disconcerting message for patriotic celebrants gathered to dispense praise rather than accept a challenge.