"Adams and Jefferson could hardly have appeared less alike. Adams was eight years older and about five inches shorter, as thoroughgoing a New Englander as Jefferson was a Virginian. Adams had difficulty holding his tongue or his temper; Jefferson was a master of keeping his emotions in check. Yet the two men — and, in time, Abigail, Adams' wonderful wife — were to forge one of the greatest and most complicated alliances in American history."
Jon Meacham, "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power"
I have always been fascinated by the stories in American history, and there may be no more intriguing story in the history of this great nation than the relationship between two of its Founding Fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. For several reasons, their friendship is worth reflecting on as we celebrate the nation's 240th birthday — and observe the 190th anniversary of both Adams' and Jefferson's deaths.
Bearing in mind that political labels of the 21st century are wholly inadequate for describing the politics of 18th– and 19th–century men, they are still useful in enabling those of our time to get an idea where those men might stand on the modern political spectrum. It really isn't that much different from comparing baseball players of different eras — i.e., Babe Ruth vs. Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds. They played in different ballparks against a different caliber of competition. Ruth didn't play as many games in a season as Aaron and Bonds did, nor did he play when there were playoffs other than the World Series (unless two teams were tied atop their league standings at the end of the regular season).
And they didn't play night games during the Bambino's career. They did play quite a few doubleheaders, which were increasingly rare in Aaron's day and virtually nonexistent in Bonds'.
But, anyway ...
I would describe Jefferson as something of a libertarian, perhaps even a bit radical for his day. Adams was more of a strait–laced conservative — and the more emotional of the two.
Now, I must caution the reader that these labels must be seen in the context of the times. We have conservatives and liberals and libertarians today, but the issues are different — and America is different. Today the United States is a superpower. In the 18th century, it was small and fragile. In 1790, there were fewer than 4 million people living in the United States. There are more than 320 million today, and the Census Bureau projects a population of 417 million by 2060.
There is always a lot of rhetoric in modern political campaigns — sometimes it is justified, most of the time it is not — that the times are fraught with peril and disaster will strike if the wrong choices are made. In Adams' and Jefferson's day, that was no exaggeration. They knew the stakes were always high. The threat of attacks from enemies foreign and domestic was as constant a fact of life in 18th–century America as it is in 21st–century Israel.
From the time they met at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1775 until they were driven apart by the politics of George Washington's first term as president (during which Adams was vice president and Jefferson was secretary of State), Adams and Jefferson worked together frequently — and quite well at that. In 1784, roughly five years before Washington became president, Adams said of Jefferson, "He is an old friend with whom I have often had occasion to labor on many a knotty problem and in whose abilities and steadiness I always found great cause to confide."
For his part, Jefferson said of Adams, "I never felt a diminution of confidence in his integrity and retained a solid affection for him."
The men signed the Declaration of Independence — of which Jefferson was the principal author — 240 years ago today and were allies in nearly everything. But they came to a parting of the ways over the size and scope of the federal government. Adams was a devout believer in a strong, centralized government. Jefferson favored a hands–off approach and a deference to the rights of the states to conduct business as they saw fit.
Adams, who was the nation's first vice president, was elected to succeed Washington in 1796 — at a time when the runnerup in the presidential election became vice president. Jefferson, as Adams' runnerup, became the second vice president and called on the president–elect the day before his inauguration. History professor Fawn Brodie wrote, in "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Biography," that Adams suggested that Jefferson go to France to mend relations between the two countries. That was something that desperately needed to be done, but that, apparently, was not the whole story.
"Had Jefferson been anything but vice president," Brodie wrote, "the offer would have been an act of statesmanship. But Adams, disarmingly tactless as only he could be, betrayed his real feelings in a single sentence. Jefferson reported him as saying 'that it would have been the first wish of his heart to have got me to go there, but that he supposed it was out of the question as it did not seem justifiable for him to send away the person destined to take his place in case of accident to himself nor decent to remove from competition one who was a rival in the public favor.'"
Having been Washington's vice president, Adams was also aware of the threats that were made to the president's life, even in those nascent days of the republic. He may have feared a plot against his life from Jefferson's supporters or perhaps even Jefferson himself.
Four years later, Jefferson defeated Adams for the presidency. They did not switch places, though, as Adams finished third. Aaron Burr became vice president.
After he became president in 1801, Jefferson trimmed the powers and expenditures of the federal government but also was known for acquiring the Louisiana Purchase, more than doubling the size of the United States.
Adams and Jefferson died exactly 50 years after signing the Declaration of Independence, on this day in 1826, having resolved their differences after Jefferson left the presidency in 1809.
As he died, Adams seemed to draw comfort from his belief that Jefferson would survive. What he did not know was that Jefferson had died some five hours earlier.
It is the only time in American history that two former presidents died on the same day. And how much more appropriate could it have been — two old friends who signed the Declaration of Independence dying on the document's 50th anniversary?
It was a uniquely American story.