May/june 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 3
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.
To most of their contemporaries they were America’s odd couple. John Adams was short, plump, passionate to the point of frenzy. Thomas Jefferson was tall, lean, serenely enigmatic. True, they had served together in the Continental Congress during the blossom days of the American Revolution. But throughout the remainder of their distinguished public careers, as Adams himself acknowledged, they had “look’d at the world through different ends of the telescope.”
Adams had remained a loyal Federalist, serving as Vice President under George Washington for eight years, then a single term as President. Jefferson had broken with the Federalists after a term as Secretary of State, then opposed Adams for the Presidency, losing narrowly in 1796 and then winning the bitterly contested election of 1800. In the fierce and sometimes scatological political squabbles of the 1790s, the two men found themselves on opposite sides time and time again. Whether it was Hamilton’s finance program, America’s posture toward the French Revolution, the Jay Treaty with Britain, or the proper relationship between federal and state governments, Adams and Jefferson could be counted on to disagree. Their political convictions, like their personal styles and physical appearances, seemed always to fall on different sides of the American political equation.
Nevertheless, there remained an abiding affinity between the two men, a mysterious personal chemistry that seemed to defy logic. Although Adams had been heard to denounce Jefferson in 1797 as “a mind soured … and eaten to a honeycomb with ambition,” Abigail Adams told friends that Jefferson was “the only person with whom my companion could associate with perfect freedom and reserve.”
During the eight years of Jefferson’s Presidency, Adams spent his retirement at Quincy, Massachusetts, reliving the old political battles in his memory and rocking back and forth between resentment against and affection for his successor. Jefferson was a “shadow man,” he told friends; his character was “like the great rivers, whose bottoms we cannot see and make no noise.” Yes, he and Jefferson had once been close friends, but then Jefferson had “supported and salaried almost every villain he could find who had been an enemy to me.” When Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician and Revolutionary gadfly, wrote to say that he had just woken from a dream in which the Sage of Monticello and the Sage of Quincy were reunited, Adams told him to “take a Nap and dream for my instruction and Edification the character of Jefferson and his administration,” a dream that he predicted would be an unrelieved nightmare.
But chinks in the Adams armor began to open up in 1809. No, he harbored “no Resentment or Animosity against the Gentleman. …” How could he hold a grudge against Jefferson, adding jokingly that Jefferson was “always but a Boy to me. … I am bold to say that I was his Preceptor on Politicks and taught him every thing that has been good and solid in his whole Political Conduct.” How could one resent a disciple? And what was it that had caused a break between them? As far as he could remember, “the only Flit between Jefferson and me … was occasioned by a Motion for Congress to sit on Saturday.” Or was the source of the trouble an argument about hairstyles, he preferring them curled and Jefferson straight? Or was it the other way around? In this jocular mood Adams let it be known that he was open to an entreaty.
In 1811 Adams was visited at Quincy by Edward Coles, a Virginian close to Jefferson. In the course of the conversation Adams claimed that his long-standing political disagreements with Jefferson had never destroyed his affection for the man. “I always loved Jefferson,” he told Coles, “and still love him.” When news of this exchange reached Monticello, as Adams knew it would, Jefferson responded heartily, if a bit less affectionately. “This is enough for me,” he wrote Benjamin Rush, adding that he “knew him [Adams] to be always an honest man, often a great one, but sometimes incorrect and precipitate in his judgments.” The major caveat, however, came at the end, when Jefferson told Rush that he had always defended Adams’s character to others, “with the single exception as to his political opinions.” This was like claiming that the pope was usually reliable, except when he declared himself on matters of faith and morals. That was how it stood at the close of the year, the two former friends sniffing around the edges of a possible reconciliation like wary old dogs.
In the end it was Adams who made the move. The first letter went out from Quincy to Monticello on January 1, 1812, timing that suggests Adams had decided to revive the relationship as one of his resolutions for the new year. It was a short and cordial note, relaying family news and referring to “two pieces of Homespun” that he had sent along as a gift by separate packet.
There was a discernible awkwardness as well as a slight stumble at the start of the correspondence. Jefferson presumed, quite plausibly, that the “two pieces of Homespun” Adams was sending referred to domestically produced clothing, a nice symbol of the ongoing American embargo of European goods that also recalled the colonial response to British taxation policies in the 1760s, a fitting reminder of the good old days when Adams and Jefferson first joined the movement for American independence. And so Jefferson responded with a lengthy letter on domestic manufacturing, only to discover afterward that Adams had intended the homespun reference as a metaphor. His gift turned out to be a copy of his son John Quincy Adams’s two-volume work Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory . The exchange had begun on the same note that the friendship had foundered on, an elemental misunderstanding.
It quickly recovered, as both men demonstrated that they required no instruction in rhetoric from John Quincy or anyone else. “And so we have gone on,” wrote Jefferson in his lyrical style, “and so we shall go on, puzzled and prospering beyond example in the history of man.” The “puzzled and prospering” phrase was pure Jefferson, a melodic and alliterative choice of words conveying the paradoxical character of America’s march toward its destiny. Not to be outdone, Adams shot back with an alliteration of his own. “Whatever a peevish Patriarch might say, I have never seen the day in which I could say I had no Pleasure; or that I have had more Pain than Pleasure.”
Beyond their calculated eloquence, the early letters are careful, diplomatic, eager to avoid the political controversies. “But whither is senile garrulity leading me?” asked Jefferson rhetorically. “Into politics, of which I have taken leave. I think little of them, and say less. I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.” Quite conscious of Adams’s irritability and volcanic temperament, Jefferson felt compelled to wonder whether “in the race of life, you do not keep, in its physical decline, the same distance ahead of me which you have done in political honors and achievements.” This gracious gesture prompted a gracious response from Quincy. Jefferson had taken the lead on all counts, Adams acknowledged; Adams was leading only in the sense that he would be first to the grave.
Later Adams took refuge in one of the recurrent motifs that both men used as a safe haven throughout the correspondence—the dwindling list of survivors of the Declaration of Independence: “I may rationally hope to be the first to depart; and as you are the youngest and the most energetic in mind and body, you may therefore rationally hope to be the last to take your flight.” Like the last person to retire from the hearth in the evening, Adams noted, Jefferson would be the final one “to set up and rake the ashes over the coals …”
But if Jefferson thought the reference to Thucydides and Tacitus would keep the dialogue a safe distance from politics, Adams reminded him that even the classics, especially those particular authors, spoke directly to his own pessimism. “I have read Thucydides and Tacitus, —o often, and at such distant Periods of my Life,” he recalled, “that elegant, profound and enchanting is their Style, I am weary of them”; their descriptions of Athens and Greece in decline he found reminiscent of “my own Times and my own Life.” Then he apologized for this outbreak of self-pity, joking that “My Senectutal Loquacity has more than retaliated your ‘Senile Garrulity.’”
A mutual sense of the fragility of their newly recovered friendship explains in part the initial politeness and obvious care with which each man composed his thoughts and arranged his words. Their trust was newly won and incomplete—nor, for that matter, would it ever be total. For example, when Adams asked Jefferson to assist in obtaining a judgeship for Samuel Malcolm, the former private secretary to Adams, Jefferson promised he would try—and then wrote President Madison to say Malcolm was “a strong federalist” and therefore an inappropriate choice. Later he wrote Adams to express regret at failing to place Malcolm, claiming his request to the President had arrived too late.
Adams was guilty of similar acts of duplicity. In 1819 he reported reading a copy of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, a document purportedly drafted by a group of citizens in North Carolina in May of 1775 and containing language similar to Jefferson’s later version of the Declaration. Jefferson responded immediately, contesting the authenticity of the document, which seemed to cast doubts on the originality of his own famous draft. Adams promptly reassured Jefferson that he believed “the Mecklenburg Resolutions are a fiction” and that it had always seemed “utterly incredible that they should be genuine.” Meanwhile, however, he was telling other friends just the opposite. “I could as soon believe that the dozen flowers of Hydrangia now before my Eyes were the work of chance,” he snickered, “as that the Mecklenburg Resolutions and Mr. Jefferson’s declaration were not derived one from the 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.
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.”
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 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.
Meanwhile, down at Monticello the other great patriarch was receiving the same kinds of requests. Jefferson was also too old and infirm to leave his mountaintop, but he, more than Adams, sensed that this might be the last occasion to register his personal stamp on the public understanding of just what the American Revolution had meant. His most eloquent reply was sent to the committee responsible for the Independence Day ceremonies in Washington. Although his intestinal disorder had become nearly incapacitating, and despite the pessimism that had overtaken him, Jefferson worked over the draft of his reply with great care, correcting and revising with the same attention to detail that he had brought to the original draft of the Declaration, producing one of his most inspired and inspiring renditions of the Jeffersonian message.
After gracefully excusing himself from the ceremonies at the nation’s capital, he regretted his absence from “the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election … between submission and the sword”; then he offered his distilled understanding of just what the band of worthies had done: “May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others late, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.… All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others; for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”
Both the language and the theme were vintage Jefferson and were immediately recognized as such when read aloud before the distinguished gathering in Washington on the Fourth. The fresh, vigorous statement contrasted sharply with Adams’s more cautious message. For Jefferson the American Revolution was the opening shot in a global struggle for liberation from all forms of oppression, a struggle whose final victory was foreordained. Jefferson’s formulation held that something wonderful and elemental had already happened , that the individual energies released by America into the world during the preceding fifty years would run their predestined course regardless of human foibles. Now that the American Revolution had propelled the country into its role as the global model for what he called “self government,” the fate of the American political experiment was no longer in doubt or even in human hands.
The Adams formulation suggested exactly the opposite. He emphasized the precarious and fragile character of the American experiment in republican government, challenging subsequent generations of Americans to meet the inevitable threats to national survival with the same realistic rationality that his and Jefferson’s generation had managed to muster at the very beginning. The destiny of the new nation was contingent upon wise and skillful leadership if it hoped to avoid the same fate of all other republics.
Whatever superiority Adams’s version may have had as an accurate expression of his generation’s best wisdom about America’s prospects, the rhetorical superiority of Jefferson’s was obvious. Anyone poised to assess their relative appeal to posterity would have been forced to conclude that Adams’s chances were just as problematic as his diagnosis of America’s future.
But before the historic reputations of the two patriarchs could diverge, their lives were joined one final time. On the evening of July 3 Jefferson, whose health had been declining since February, fell into unconsciousness. He awoke momentarily that night and uttered his last discernible words: “Is it the Fourth?” As midnight approached, his family, which had gathered around his bedside for the deathwatch, offered a prayer for “a few minutes of prolonged life.” As if in response, life lingered in him until the next morning, and he died at twenty minutes past noon on July 4.
Meanwhile, Adams rose at his customarily early hour, wishing to keep his routine despite the special distinction of the day, and asked to be placed in his favorite reading chair in the study. Around midmorning, however, he began to falter, and family members moved him back to his bedroom. He lapsed into unconsciousness at almost the exact moment that Jefferson died. The end then came quickly, at about five-thirty in the afternoon of July 4. He awakened for a brief moment, indicated his awareness that death was near, and, with obvious effort, spoke his last words: “Thomas Jefferson survives.”
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.