Intimate Enemies

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Neither member of the Adams team could ever comprehend this historical transition as anything other than an ominous symptom of moral degeneration. “Jefferson had a party,” Adams observed caustically, “Hamilton had a party, but the commonwealth had none.” If the Adams brand of statesmanship was now an anachronism—and it was—then he wanted the Adams Presidency to serve as a fitting monument to its passing. He could leave office in the knowledge that his discredited policies and singular style had actually worked. As he put it, he had “steered the vessell … into a peaceable and safe port.”

The last major duty of the Adams collaboration was to supervise the transition of the federal government to its permanent location on the Potomac. Though the entire archive of the Executive branch required only seven packing cases, Abigail resented the physical burdens imposed by this final chore, as well as the cold and cavernous and still unfinished rooms of the presidential mansion. For several weeks it was not at all clear whether Jefferson would become the next occupant, because the final tally of the electoral vote had produced a tie between him and Burr. Rumors circulated that Adams intended to step down from office in order to permit Jefferson, still his Vice President, to succeed him. Adams let out the word that Jefferson was clearly the voters’ choice and the superior man, that Burr was “like a balloon, filled with inflammable air.” In the end the crisis passed when, on the thirty-sixth ballot, the House voted Jefferson into office.

Despite all the accumulated bitterness of the past eight years, and despite the political wounds Jefferson had inflicted over the past four years on the Adams Presidency, Abigail insisted that her husband invite their “former friend” for cake and tea before she departed for Quincy a few weeks before the inauguration ceremony. No record of the conversation exists, though Jefferson had already apprised Madison that he knew the Adamses well enough to expect “dispositions liberal and accommodating.” On March 4, 1801, the day of his inauguration, however, Jefferson did not have Adams by his side as he rode down a stump-infested Pennsylvania Avenue to the yet unfinished Capitol. Rather than lend his presence to the occasion, Adams had taken the four-o’clock stage out of town that morning in order to rejoin Abigail. Apart from a brief note wishing him well, Adams did not exchange another word with Jefferson for twelve years.

Abigail managed to have the last word on the thoroughly modern and wholly partisan political world that Jefferson’s Presidency inaugurated. In 1804, after he attempted to open a correspondence with her and, so he hoped, with her husband, Abigail cut him short with a one-sentence rejection: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” It was a fitting epitaph for the Adams Presidency.