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The Extraordinary 50-Year Friendship and Rivalry of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

The story of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams is one of the most captivating and consequential relationships in American history. Friends, rivals, and fellow architects of a new nation, their interactions over half a century tell the tumultuous tale of the United States‘ founding and early growth. Through their unique bond, personalities, and eventual reconciliation, we gain a richer understanding of the men themselves and the twisting path of the country they helped create.

Contrasting Origins and Kindred Spirits

Jefferson and Adams were born into strikingly different worlds that shaped them in contrasting ways. Jefferson was a Southern aristocrat, inheriting 5,000 acres and dozens of slaves from his father at age 21. Tall and talented, he was an intellectual polymath, excelling as an architect, violinist, philosopher, and political thinker.

Adams, on the other hand, was a scrappy, middle-class New Englander who watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from his farm. He was brilliant but blunt, a passionate orator and fierce debater. What he lacked in Jefferson‘s physical grace he made up for in ambition, determination, and a devotion to the law.

Despite their disparate origins and styles, Jefferson and Adams discovered a deep kinship when they first met as delegates to the Continental Congress in 1775. Brought together by a shared commitment to American independence and government by the people, they worked closely together on the committee tasked with drafting the Declaration of Independence.

In a decision that would echo through history, Adams persuaded the committee to tap Jefferson as the document‘s primary author. He later explained his rationale: "You can write ten times better than I can." It was an act of generous deference that Jefferson never forgot.

Forged in Philadelphia: The Declaration and a Friendship Takes Root

Jefferson and Adams at work on the Declaration of Independence

That summer of 1776 in sweltering Philadelphia, laboring together over the Declaration, a deep bond was forged between Jefferson and Adams through their intensive collaboration. As a Virginian and New Englander, their perspectives were complementary, and they found that their minds met on the most fundamental principles of self-government and liberty.

During long sessions at City Tavern and their rented lodgings on High Street, the two men engaged in impassioned discourse on Enlightenment philosophy, political theory, and classical history. Jefferson, the better traveled and well-read of the two, enthralled Adams with tales of his time studying under George Wythe, the great Williamsburg lawyer.

In turn, Adams regaled Jefferson with his courtroom exploits and fiery views on British tyranny. United in purpose and passion, they toiled to craft a document that would forever alter the course of world events. From preamble to conclusion, the Declaration was a work of joint genius – Adams‘ fierce convictions and pocketbook of English liberties married with Jefferson‘s soaring prose and vision of fundamental human equality.

"We Must be Contented to Hope": Trials and Triumph in Europe

In the 1780s, with the Revolutionary War won, Jefferson and Adams found themselves partnered in a new diplomatic arena as ambassadors in Europe. Jefferson was dispatched to Paris, the refined capital of an absolutist monarchy, while Adams took up his post in London, the bustling heart of a constitutional empire. Though separated by the English Channel, they grew closer than ever through their constant stream of letters at this time.

For Jefferson, still grieving the loss of his wife Martha in 1782, the correspondence and company of the Adams family was an immense comfort. "When I come to Europe, I must be contented to hope for the day when we can be all together," Jefferson wrote to Abigail Adams. "This will be the great day of my life." He cherished his visits to the Adams‘ London home, delighting in Abigail‘s wit and John‘s encyclopedic knowledge of history and law.

Jefferson and Adams embrace upon reuniting in London

Their letters from this period reveal not just their continued political strategizing on behalf of their fledgling nation, but also an increasingly intimate friendship. They exchanged reading recommendations, relayed amusing anecdotes from their time in the courts of Europe, and shared their wistful hopes for retirement on the "tranquil banks of the Rappahannock or Potomac."

It was also during the 1780s that subtle seeds of their later political differences began to sprout. Jefferson became ever more enthralled with French culture and the Enlightenment spirit of reform, while Adams grew warier of the excesses of European high society. In long letters, they debated the nature of aristocracy, the perils of centralized power, and the role of reason in statecraft.

Despite these emerging disagreements, their mutual respect and affection stayed strong. "I do not believe that friendship has its origin in the moral principles upon which ours is founded," Adams wrote to Jefferson in 1788. "But there is a friendship which results from natural sympathy; and this, I think, exists in greater perfection between you and me than any other instance of it I have known."

"You are Afraid of the One—I, of the Few": Ratification and the Rise of Rival Factions

Political cartoon depicting Jefferson-Adams rivalry

The 1790s saw the Jefferson-Adams friendship stretched to the breaking point as the politics of the young republic grew increasingly polarized. Under President George Washington, two rival factions crystallized: the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, who favored a strong central government, close ties to Britain, and conservative fiscal policies; and the Democratic-Republicans, championed by Jefferson and James Madison, who envisioned a more decentralized agrarian democracy allied with revolutionary France.

As Jefferson put it in a 1791 letter to Adams: "You are afraid of the one—I, of the few." Where Adams saw the need for a robust federal state to check the passions of the masses, Jefferson feared a slide back toward monarchy and centralised tyranny.

Their differences burst into the open with the heated debate over ratification of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Adams argued vehemently for a more powerful executive branch, while Jefferson advocated tirelessly for stronger protections of individual liberties and limitations on federal authority.

The 1796 election, in which Jefferson challenged Adams for the presidency, brought their rivalry to a bitter head. Jefferson acidly referred to his former friend as a "monocrat" with aristocratic pretensions. Adams attacked Jefferson‘s character and cast doubts on his patriotism due to his francophilia in the midst of the Quasi-War with France. When the electoral dust settled, Adams claimed a razor-thin victory with 71 votes to Jefferson‘s 68.

"The Revolution of 1800": Tumult and Transition

As Adams‘ vice president, Jefferson was a thorn in the side of the administration, organising opposition to Federalist legislation and preparing for another White House run. The XYZ Affair and Quasi-War with France further enflamed the political divide, with the Federalists portraying Jefferson as a radical in league with the French Jacobins.

In this charged atmosphere, Adams signed the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, a set of laws that empowered his government to deport foreigners and prosecute critics of the president. Jefferson saw the Acts as a tyrannical overreach, a view he publicized in his anonymous Kentucky Resolutions.

Their conflict culminated in the election of 1800, which Jefferson dubbed the "Revolution of 1800." In a reversal of fortunes, Jefferson topped Adams with 73 electoral votes, against 65 for the incumbent. Apoplectic, Adams proceeded to appoint a slew of "midnight judges" and other Jefferson foes to federal posts before leaving office.

The House of Representatives, still controlled by Federalists bitter at Jefferson‘s victory, dragged out the final selection process through dozens of deadlocked ballots. Ironically, it was Hamilton, Jefferson‘s arch-enemy but a man who now detested Adams, who ultimately tipped the scales in Jefferson‘s favor.

It was a devastating defeat for Adams, who promptly decamped Washington without attending his rival‘s inauguration. The once inseparable duo exchanged not a word for the next 12 years. As Adams wrote in one of his final presidential letters: "There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other."

"To turn this discord into harmony": Reconciliation and Revival

It was Benjamin Rush, the eminent Philadelphia physician and a mutual friend of both Jefferson and Adams, who took it upon himself to repair the fractured relationship. Starting in 1808, Rush reached out to both men, imploring them to reconnect.

"You must not die before you have explained yourself to each other, and to the world, concerning your political opinions and conduct," Rush wrote to Adams. To Jefferson, he emphasized the importance of the "republican cause" and the need for its greatest champions to reconcile in their twilight years.

Softened by age and the pleas of an old friend, Adams sent a tentative olive branch letter to Jefferson on January 1, 1812. "You and I ought not to die before We have explained ourselves to each other," he wrote, echoing Rush.

Jefferson eagerly reciprocated, and so began a remarkable correspondence that would span 14 years and 158 letters. They quickly fell back into their old rhythm of erudite conversation, swapping stories and ideas with the ease of a relationship restored.

Adams and Jefferson letters in old age

Their letters from 1812 to 1826 are among the most poignant and illuminating documents of the founding generation. With honesty, humor, and occasional hints of nostalgia, they reflected on their storied lives and the unfinished business of the nation they served.

Some excerpts capture the renewed warmth between the formerly estranged friends:

"I have thus, my Dear Sir, opened myself to you without reserve, which I have long wished an opportunity to do; and without knowing how it will be received, I feel relief from being unbosomed. And I submit to you to do with it what to you shall seem best." – Adams to Jefferson, July 13, 1813

"I am indeed an Antient, and have experienced many of the Vicissitudes of human life: but I have found through the whole of it, that the Sun of Virtue and happiness breaks through and dissipates all clouds. Let us rejoice in the blessings we have shared, and in the benevolent prospects we see before us." – Jefferson to Adams, August 10, 1815

In their waning years, Jefferson grappled with family tragedies and financial woes at Monticello, while Adams enjoyed domestic tranquillity with his beloved wife Abigail at their Peacefield estate in Quincy. But both took solace in their revived comity and joint legacy.

As Adams wrote in one of his final letters: "Let us do our duty, which is to do as we would be done by; and that, one would think, could not be difficult, if we honestly aim at it."

"Thomas Jefferson survives": History and Chance Collide

On July 4, 1826, in a stunning cosmic coincidence, both Jefferson and Adams died – exactly 50 years to the day after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence they had crafted together. At his home in Quincy, 90-year-old Adams‘ last words were reported to be: "Thomas Jefferson survives." Unbeknownst to him, Jefferson had passed away a few hours earlier at Monticello at the age of 83.

The nation was stunned by the news of their same-day deaths and took it as a divine sign of their inextricable bond. In eulogies and remembrances, Americans celebrated Jefferson and Adams as indispensable partners who steered the country to independence. "Their fame is safe," rhapsodized one Philadelphia newspaper. "History and tradition will hand down their names in political fellowship forever."

In the end, it is this idea of "political fellowship" between Jefferson and Adams that endures – a testament to the possibilities of friendship and forgiveness against the backdrop of partisanship and division. These two giants of the American experiment, so different in temperament and worldview yet united in their commitment to human liberty, embody the eternal tensions and promise of the nation they helped found.

Their 50-year journey from collaborators to rivals to reconciled friends mirrors America‘s own halting progress towards "a more perfect union." In navigating the tricky boundaries between individual liberty and common purpose, state and federal power, ideological purity and pragmatic compromise, Jefferson and Adams traced the outlines of the most fundamental debates of our democracy – debates that still resound today.

To study the lives of Jefferson and Adams is thus to grapple with the essential nature of the American idea itself – an ongoing experiment in self-government, rife with setbacks and breakthroughs, conflicts and resolutions. Through their successes and failures, their agreements and arguments, their competition and comity, we can find both cautionary lessons and inspiring models for how to forge ahead as a nation.

In the spirit of their famous correspondence, we must keep grappling with the questions they posed, the challenges they identified, and the hopes they nurtured for America. And in our own political friendships and rivalries, we can look to Jefferson and Adams to light the way – two patriots who, despite all their differences and disputes, never stopped believing in the world they had the audacity to declare into being together on that sweltering day in 1776.