Archive for July, 2019

Men of July 4: Adams and Jefferson

July 4, 2019

Comrades in the struggle to found the American nation, then bitter foes in the nasty and brutal election campaign of 1800, and finally dear friends and eloquent correspondents in their long retirement years, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson deserve all of the praise and honor that history has conferred upon them.

This is not to say that they were models of perfection. Each had glaring personal flaws and quirks; each made mistakes in the wielding of power in his respective and various roles. Both men died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  James Monroe, the fifth president, also died on that date in 1831.

Jefferson is credited with writing the Declaration; noted for his ability with words, he did write the first draft.  But it was then edited by a committee comprising Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston.

Adams was a skilled writer as well; he could have done a good job with the first draft too. While he later groused about the political mileage that Jefferson got from his reputation as the Declaration’s author – wondering, in 1805, if there was “ever a coup de théâtre that had so great an effect as Jefferson’s penmanship of the Declaration of Independence” – he also knew that it was important for the 13 colonies to have a Virginian be a visible leader of the breakaway from King George. Support from the rich, agrarian South was critical, and the South was rife with loyalist slave-owners for whom life was just fine the way it was.

So, what were these two gentlemen really like? What did they think, and feel, about themselves and their lives, after they had retired from public life? The following excerpts from letters they exchanged in 1812 tell us a good deal. (And would that letter-writing still hold as important a place in society now; we would all be better off and, I dare say, a little more civilized.)

Jefferson to Adams

Monticello, January 21, 1812

Dear Sir,

[your letter] carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ahead ever threatening to overwhelm us, we knew not how, we rode through the storm with heart and hand, and made a happy port.  Still we did not expect to be without rubs and difficulties – and we have had them.

[after noting several issues that led to the War of 1812, he continues] And I believe we shall continue to grow, to multiply and prosper until we exhibit an association, powerful, and wise, and happy beyond what has yet been seen by men.

As for France and England, with all their preeminence in science, the one is a den of robbers, the other of pirates. And if science produces no better fruits than tyranny, murder, rapine, and the destitution of national morality, I would rather wish our country be ignorant, honest, and estimable as our neighboring savages are.

But whither is senile garrulity leading me? Into politics, of which I have taken final 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.

[after talking about his own health and his pleasure in his grandchildren, he concludes] I should have the pleasure of knowing that in the race of life you do not keep, in its physical decline, the same distance ahead of me that you have done in political honors and achievements. No circumstances have lessened the interest I feel in these particulars respecting yourself; none have suspended for one moment my sincere esteem for you; and I now salute you with unchanged affections and respect.

Adams to Jefferson

Quincy, February 1, 1812

Dear Sir,

Your life and mine for almost half a century have been nearly all of a piece, resembling in the whole, mine in the Gulf Stream, chased by three British frigates, in a hurricane from the northeast and a hideous tempest of thunder and lightning, which cracked our mainmast, struck three and twenty men on deck, wounded four, and killed one. I do not remember that my feelings in those three days were very different from what they have been for fifty years.

What an exchange have you made? Of newspapers for Newton? Rising from the lower deep of the lowest deep of dullness and bathos to the contemplation of the heavens and the heavens of heavens. Oh that I had devoted to Newton and fellows that time which I fear has been wasted on Plato and Aristotle, Bacon, Acherly, Bolingbroke, De Lolme, Harrington, Sidney, Hobbes, Plato Redivivus, Marchmont, Nedham, with twenty others upon subjects which mankind is determined never to understand, and those who do understand them are resolved never to practice, or countenance.

Your memoranda of the past, your sense of the present, and your prospect for the future seem to be well founded as far as I can see.  But the latter, i.e., the prospect for the future, will depend upon the Union: how is that Union to be preserved? Concordia res parvae crescent, Discordia maximae dilabuntur. [Small matters thrive with concord, great things fall apart through discord.] I will not at present point out the precise days and months when, nor the names of the men by whom this Union has been put in jeopardy. Your recollection can be at no more loss than mine.

“…But conquerors to now so easily disappear, battles and victories are irresistible by human nature. When a man is once acknowledged by the people in the army and the country as the author of a victory, there is no longer any question. Had Hamilton or Burr obtained a recent victory, neither you nor Jay nor I should have stood any chance against them or either of them more than a swallow or a sparrow.

I have read Thucydides and Tacitus, so often and at such distant period of my life that, elegant and profound and enchanting as is their style, I am weary of them. When I read them I seem only to be reading the history of my own times and my own life. I am heartily weary of both, i.e., of recollecting the history of both: for I am not weary of living. Whatever a peevish patriarch might say, I have never yet seen the day in which I could say I have had no pleasure, or that I have had more pain than pleasure.

[After telling of his daily activities and his family, he concludes] I cordially reciprocate your professions of esteem and respect. Madam sends her kind regards to your daughter and your grandchildren, as well as to yourself.

P.S. I forgot to remark your preference to savage over civilized life. I have something to say upon that subject. If I am in error, you can set me right, but by all I know of one or the other I would rather be the poorest man in France or England, with sound health of body and mind, than the proudest king, sachem or warrior of any tribe of savages in America.

And Now This Editorial Comment

In my opinion, Thomas Jefferson is one of the “great” presidents, but I think that history has been a little too kind to him and much too dismissive of Adams.  T.J. was undoubtedly more personally appealing, more clever, and certainly more snake-in-the-grass politically adept than the grouchy, curmudgeonly, and more highly-principled Adams.   David McCullough’s biography of Adams has done something to rectify that imbalance.

But whatever…would you not like to sit down with these two men, perhaps at the Colonial Inn in Concord or the Michie Tavern in Charlottesville, over beers brewed by their pal Samuel Adams, and just listen to what they have to say? I can think of no better activity for the Fourth of July.