The fact that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day — July 4, 1826 — has become something of a talisman for Revolutionary War buffs. Some even view it as a sign of divine providence. Eulogists at the time credited Adams with authoring the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780 as well as having been the second US president from 1797 to 1801. Jefferson was praised as the father of the Declaration of Independence and the third president from 1801 to 1809. The public was edified to know that these “twin sons of liberty,” as Senator Samuel Smith of Maryland called them, having first met in 1775 in the Continental Congress, had gone from Revolutionary War collaborators to political rivals to loving friends in their twilight years.
For decades now Gordon S. Wood, the Alva O. Way university professor of history at Brown and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, has been the go-to authority on everything related to the American Revolution. That Wood has written “Friends Divided’’ — a finely-crafted dual biography of Adams and Jefferson — is therefore a hearty cause for celebration. Every page sparkles with literary eloquence, flawless analysis, and dramatically plotted history that contains a lesson for a riven time.
The structural device Wood employs involves systematically juxtaposing the differences between the aristocratic planter Jefferson of Virginia and the self-made lawyer Adams of Massachusetts. Their physical appearances couldn’t have been more different. Jefferson was a towering six-foot-two, fit-as-a-fiddle, with reddish blonde hair and a face full of freckles. Adams, by contrast, was five-foot-seven, stout and plump. Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania lampooned Adams as a walking cartoon, “a Monkey just put into breeches.” While Jefferson was suave, blessed with a serenity of spirit, Adams was a cannonball-in-waiting, explosive when provoked.
After the battle of Yorktown, with American independence a wondrous fact, George Washington was unanimously selected president in 1788 and 1792. In 1796, Washington gave his farewell address, opening the door to Adams or Jefferson succeed to him. The two Revolutionary War figures attacked each other mercilessly throughout the campaign (usually through surrogates). Adams prevailed in that election. But in the 1800 rematch, Jefferson won. As President Jefferson’s stature grew, largely thanks to his Louisiana Purchase accomplishment, Adams, even in defeat, remained the conscience of the Federalists.
Wood never pronounces which Founding Father was more essential. He instead looks at how their divergent philosophical views about the epochal Enlightenment and French Revolution played out, letting readers decide for themselves the righteousness of each argument. Both men believed in the value of rational thought and right to self-governance. Where they differed were in their views of human nature. Under what circumstances, if any, could people be counted on to rise above self-interest and act for a greater good? Were individuals truly created equal?
Jefferson was a moral idealist, “a child of light” in Wood’s phrase. Adams was a cynic, sensing darkness and duplicity all around him, a judgmental Puritan whose saving grace was his irascible humor. Nobody plucked away at the finery of hypocrites and schemers, however, with the common sense élan of Adams. That Jefferson, a storehouse of world knowledge, didn’t really know how to be funny was, in Wood’s estimate, an Achilles heel. But in the end, Jefferson, it seems, has become the more enduring of the two.
One of the surprising heroes of “Friends Divided’’ is Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, whose admiration for both men was boundless. As the War of 1812 commenced, Rush intuited that a full-fledged reconciliation of the “North and South Poles of the American Revolution” — as he labeled Adams and Jefferson — would inspire the nation anew. “[Y]ou and Mr. Jefferson,” Rush flattered Adams, “thought for all of us.” If they now bonded together against the British yet again, Rush believed, it would send a powerful message that the United States was built to last. Rush’s appeal worked. Adams initiated a reconciliation with a willing Jefferson. From 1812 to 1826 the two former presidents wrote 158 wide-ranging letters which Wood expertly mines.
Because Jefferson kept detailed records about meteorology, European vineyards, and North American flora-and-fauna, he remains the lodestar for explorers and scientists. Adams, it seems, is today the darling of professional historians, for he maintained voluminous literate and self-reflective diaries. They’re gifts to scholars of the American Revolution and early Republic.
Sadly, Jefferson was a slave owner, marring the opinion of him held by subsequent generations. His “Notes on the State of Virginia’’ (1785), in our post-Charlottesville climate, reads more like David Duke than the elevated ideas of John Locke. Adams, in the end, might soon become a more sustainable hero than Jefferson. After all, nobody is rallying to hoist down statues of our second president.
Once Jefferson left the presidency, he returned to Monticello. Visitors were steady. On one occasion Jefferson told William Wirt, who was writing “Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry,’’ that Henry, a fellow Virginian, “certainly gave the first impulse to the ball of the Revolution.” When the biography was published in 1817, a brouhaha ensued. New Englanders were incensed that Jefferson intimated that the Revolution began with the battle against the Stamp Act in 1764, led in Virginia by Henry. However, most Bostonians believed the opening salvo occurred three years earlier, when James Otis of Massachusetts opposed search warrants used by royal custom officials.
Adams sided with his home state, writing Benjamin Waterhouse that “it was the wonderful powers of James Otis’s oration that electrified Samuel Adams; who electrified & enlightened John Hancock, when they in combination with the worthies already mentioned, enlightened France, & the rest of the world.” This was no mere academic squabble. At issue was whether the Revolution began in the South or North, with Jefferson and Adams once again pitted against each other.
Somewhat out of character Adams pulled rank, boasting about being a decade older than Jefferson, therefore having more first-hand knowledge about what started the Revolution. Jefferson, he joked, “probably knew more of the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites than he did of what was passing in Boston.” Anxious to ward off a public feud with Adams, Jefferson, determined to protect their well-considered friendship, backed off in an obliging “Who knows?” way.
Their post-presidential relationship faced other challenges. When in 1823 an old letter from 1804 surfaced in which Adams accused Jefferson of being a man of slippery “intrigues,” Adams was sick-hearted. But Jefferson, with lovely forgiveness, dismissed the missive as a “ ‘wicked’ attempt to draw a curtain” between them. Adams, deeply touched, celebrated the overture as “the best letter that ever was written . . . How generous! How noble! How magnanimous!”
By the end of “Friends Divided’’ it’s clear that these two icons knew they were tied at history’s hip. If the American experiment worked they would be lionized for centuries. Having stood together as the clenched fist of the Revolution, they died all-weather American patriots and, in a last great civic act, forged an impenetrable personal alliance based on national unity — a profound love of democracy over tyranny.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson
By Gordon S. Wood
Penguin Press, 502 pp., illustrated, $35
Douglas Brinkley is professor of history at Rice University and author, most recently, of “Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America.’’
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