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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
News of the nearly simultaneous death of America’s two most eminent elder statesmen seeped out to the world over the next few weeks, and nearly every commentator described it as an act of divine providence. Amid all the plans for memorial services honoring the paired patriarchs, one of the few sour notes came from Horace Binney, the old Philadelphia Federalist, who despised Jefferson and recalled the long-standing political differences between the two men. “The most extraordinary feature of their history is that of a joint or consociated celebration,” Binney noted. “Their tempers and dispositions toward one another would at one time have made a very tolerable salad … [and] it never entered into my conception … to admit one and the same apotheosis.”
Actually the notion that Adams and Jefferson represented opposing impulses in the life of the early Republic that blended together like the oil and vinegar of “a very tolerable salad” was one of the dominant themes in the eulogies. Adams was “the bold and eloquent debater … big with the fate of empires” while Jefferson was the skilled writer who “embodied the principles of liberty in the language of inspiration.” Adams represented the vigorous values of Rome; Jefferson the deep serenities of Greece. Adams was a noble descendant of the original Puritan settlers of New England; Jefferson could trace his ancestry back to the Cavalier dynasty of Virginia. The correspondence between the Sage of Quincy and the Sage of Monticello—and these titles were now recognized as semiofficial designations—even revealed compensating differences between the writing styles of the two patriarchs; Adams’s prose was “plain, nervous and emphatic, and striking with a kind of epigrammatic force,” while Jefferson’s “light and flowing with easy and careless melody.” In short, Adams and Jefferson represented a kind of matched pair of minds and dispositions that allowed the infant Republic to meet diverse challenges because “whatsoever quality appeared deficient in the one, was to be found in the character or talents of the other.” Finally, an important emphasis for several of the eulogists was the claim that both the New Englander and the Virginian embraced a truly national vision and that “the two great chieftains of the North and South” thereby served as telling symbols of the need to defy sectional divisions.
One could already detect the sectional bias that their lives allegedly warned against in some of the funeral orations. The eulogist in Charleston, South Carolina, ignored Adams completely, while New England’s memorialists accorded him decisive primacy as the one true father of the Revolution. Nevertheless, taken together, the testimonials delivered throughout the summer and fall of 1826 reflected a clear consensus that the two recently departed sages had made roughly equal contributions to the shaping of American history and deserved to be remembered as they had lived—even more remarkably as they had died—as equal partners in the grand, unfolding saga of America’s experiment with republicanism. There would be other heroes, of course, and Daniel Webster’s bombastic testimonial before four thousand Bostonians at Faneuil Hall suggested that he had hopes of being one of them. But nothing quite like this brilliant pair of compatible opposites was likely ever again to appear on the national scene.
Adams and Jefferson became the supreme embodiment of the American dialogue: Adams was the words and Jefferson the music of the ongoing pageant begun in 1776; Adams the “is,” Jefferson the “ought” of American politics. Not only were the respective reputations of Monticello and Quincy able to bask in the reflected glory of the other, but their differences defined the proper limits of posterity’s debate over the original intentions of the founding generation.