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Founding Frenemies

By: Michael M. Rosen
February 5, 2018

“It is one of the blessings of old friends,” Ralph Waldo Emerson quipped, “that you can afford to be stupid with them.” Truer words couldn't be spoken of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson's peculiar friendship. The founding titans began as warm companions, endured a brutal and very public falling-out (largely driven by mutual stupidity), and, almost miraculously, grew friendlier as they grew older. Yet as Gordon Wood's revelatory and enchanting summation of their evolving relationship, Friends Divided, shows, the pair’s post-presidential reconciliation was mostly superficial.

“Despite all that the two patriot leaders shared and experienced together—and the many things they have in common are impressive,” Wood, a Brown University history professor and revered scholar of the Revolution, writes,

they remained divided in almost every fundamental way: in temperament, in their ideas of government, in their assumptions about human nature, in their notions of society, in their attitude toward religion, in their conception of America, indeed, in every single thing that mattered.

Temperamentally, the pair were virtual opposites. Adams wore his emotions on his sleeve;  Jefferson possessed “serenity of spirit.” The second president could be genteel, thoughtful, and jovial, but was also “high-strung,” “irascible,” and “excitable.”  The third president was calm, quiet, and self-confident.

Jefferson, to-the-manor-born, wore his Virginian aristocracy lightly; middle-class Adams obsessed about social hierarchies and gawked at displays of grandeur. Though both decried the ruling class, Jefferson “confidently criticized his peers from a position of intellectual and cultural superiority,” while Adams did so “ambivalently and from a position of social inferiority.” Their respective views on aristocracy deeply infuse their writings.

Their marital and early career trajectories also differed. Adams wed Abigail, who proved his intellectual equal; Jefferson’s marriage was short-lived and his dalliances many. Adams rose to prominence as the most accomplished lawyer in Massachusetts; Jefferson tolerated but never fully embraced the law. Both wrote eloquently in the 1770’s about independence, Adams most notably in his Novanglus essays, Jefferson in A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Wood finds Adams’s prose more “bloated” than Jefferson's “concise and succinct writing,” which earned the latter the privilege of drafting the Declaration of Independence.

The men were close throughout the 1780’s, including during overlapping diplomatic posts in London and Paris. Their intellectual and personal “estrangement” began in 1789 with the French Revolution, over which they disagreed vigorously. It intensified the following year when both entered the Washington administration, where Adams’s evolving pro-monarchical arguments favoring the English constitution clashed with Jefferson’s more radical republicanism.

Their rift hardened into partisanship, as pro-British Federalists steered by Adams collided intellectually and electorally with pro-French Democratic-Republicans led by Jefferson. The discord climaxed during Adams’s lone term as president. Haunted by the specter of war with France, the Federalists enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts, prompting Republicans, including Jefferson (then Adams’s vice president), to seek nullification of the controversial measures through state legislatures.

After Jefferson defeated Adams in the rancorous 1800 election, however, the old friends commenced a tortuous reconciliation, partly thanks to Benjamin Rush’s delicate, determined efforts. Scores of letters spanning hundreds of pages bear testimony to this rapprochement, which struggled initially to withstand Adams’s needles, jibes, and japes. Without Jefferson’s “patience and courtesy and willingness to put up with numerous affronts and provocations,” Wood contends, “the correspondence could easily have been terminated.”

Their writings cover a stunning variety of topics, from aristocracy and history, to slavery and faith, to death and art. Throughout, their personalities and idiosyncrasies—Adams alternately insecure and bombastic, Jefferson subtle and dispassionate—permeate their prose and inform their every debate.

During the denouement of their legendary lives—which, remarkably, would end on the exact same day, precisely 50 years after the colonies had achieved their independence—“the two friends seemed to reverse their outlooks on the world.” Jefferson grew uneasy with the modernizing mercantile economy, fearful of the federal power's increasing centralization, irritated at his persistent debts, and protective of his legacy as the Declaration's author. Meanwhile, Adams serenely celebrated his golden years by joining local committees, enjoying the adulation of his Massachusetts brethren and his son's election as president, and waxing optimistic about America’s future.

While numerous biographies of Jefferson and Adams dot the colonial history landscape, Friends Divided is among the very few to focus on the relationship between these founding frenemies. And though Wood occasionally wanders farther afield than necessary to compare and contrast the philosophical differences between the two, he masterfully and grippingly recounts the rise and fall and rise again of a most peculiar relationship between two giants who were warm, cold, and stupid toward each other in the most Emersonian sense.