By Gordon S. Wood
We all know that the two Revolutionaries, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, died on the same day, July 4, 1826, 50 years after 1776, on the jubilee celebration of the Declaration of Independence. This marvelous coincidence, which the nation took to be providential, has forever linked the two men in our national consciousness.
But our celebrations of the two patriots have differed greatly.
Jefferson has largely dominated America’s historical memory. Indeed, no figure in our past has embodied so much of our heritage and so many of our hopes. Most Americans think of Jefferson much as our first professional biographer, James Parton, did. “If Jefferson was wrong,” wrote Parton in 1874, “America is wrong. If America is right, Jefferson was right.”
No one says that about John Adams. Indeed, until recently few Americans paid much attention to Adams, and even now the two men command very different degrees of affection and attention as Founders. While Jefferson has hundreds, if not thousands, of books devoted to every aspect of his wide-ranging life, Adams has had relatively few works written about him, with many of these focused on his apparently archaic political theory.
Jefferson’s mountaintop home has become a World Heritage Site visited every year by hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world. By contrast, Adams’ modest home in Quincy, Massachusetts, maintained by the National Park Service, is hard to get to and receives only a small fraction of visitors when compared with Monticello. Jefferson has a huge memorial dedicated to him located on the Tidal Basin just off the Mall in the nation’s capital. Adams has no such monument in Washington
No American could have predicted in 1776 that the reputations of Adams and Jefferson would so diverge. Indeed, at the time of independence, Adams was the more well-known of the two. No one had contributed more to the movement for independence than Adams. Jefferson admired Adams and shared his passion for American independence, and the two Revolutionaries became good friends. During their missions abroad in the 1780s, their friendship was enriched and deepened.
Then the French Revolution and partisan politics of the 1790s strained their relationship. Vice President Adams succeeded Washington as president in 1796, with Jefferson elected as vice president. Adams assumed that he, like Washington, would be re-elected to a second term. When, after a very bitter campaign in 1800, Jefferson defeated him for the presidency, Adams was humiliated, and the break between the former friends seemed irreparable.
Actually, it is amazing that they became friends. Although they agreed on the significance of the American Revolution, they were very different from each other. Indeed, they were different 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 attitudes toward religion, in their conceptions of America — in every single thing that mattered. Of course, what they did have in common was a deep and abiding hatred of Alexander Hamilton.
In addition to their physical difference — a veritable Mutt and Jeff beside each other — they had very different temperaments. Jefferson possessed a dignity that Adams lacked. For many, Jefferson was the model of an 18th-century gentleman — learned and genteel and possessing perfect self-control and serenity of spirit.
By contrast, Adams was high-strung and irascible. He had no serenity of spirit whatsoever, and to his great regret, he lacked what he called “the gift of silence,” something possessed by both Jefferson and Washington.
Jefferson hated personal confrontations and greatly valued politeness, treating even his enemies with grace and courtesy. Jefferson’s extreme politeness — his acute sensitivity to the feelings of others and his keen desire not to offend — was the secret of much of his success in life. But since his polite and good-humored behavior to people could never be an accurate expression of his real feelings, he was always open to accusations of duplicity and deceit, of being two-faced.
Adams was the opposite. He was excitable and had little of Jefferson’s sense of restraint. He had a sharp sarcastic tongue, and he used it often, sometimes in the presence of the recipient of his derision. Adams was not preoccupied with politeness and hiding his feelings. “He was,” as his physician friend Dr. Benjamin Rush said, “a stranger to dissimulation” — the very characteristic Jefferson was often accused of having. Because Adams never quite learned to tailor his remarks to his audience in the way Jefferson did, he lacked Jefferson’s suave and expert political skills.
The two men had even more fundamental differences. Jefferson was an aristocratic Virginia planter, a well-connected slaveholder, a “patriarch,” as he called himself, reared in a hierarchical slaveholding society. He inherited from his father and his father-in-law sufficient land and slaves to make him by the early 1770s one of the wealthiest planters in Virginia. Although there was no one in America who knew more about more things than Jefferson, it was not his obvious intelligence and learning but his wealth and social eminence that lay behind his rapid political rise.
By contrast, Adams was middling-born in a Massachusetts society that was far more egalitarian than any society in the South. Adams had few connections outside of his town of Braintree, and his rise was due almost exclusively to his intelligence and learning and his hard work as a lawyer. By the early 1770s he had become the busiest lawyer in the Colony of Massachusetts and reasonably well-off. But he never became one of the wealthiest members of Massachusetts society, something that always rankled him.
But even more important were their political differences.
Jefferson was a radical 18th-century-style liberal. But in his attitude toward government, he did not resemble a modern liberal. Convinced that people were naturally sociable if only the government did not interfere, he believed in the least government possible. This was the progressive position at the time, shared by Thomas Paine, William Godwin and other Anglo-American radicals.
Instead of the strong modern and integrated fiscal-military state that Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists wanted to create, Jefferson preferred a national government that resembled the Articles of Confederation, which presumably had been scrapped in Philadelphia in 1787. Under Jefferson’s administration only the delivery of the mail reminded people that they had a federal government at all.
Because he had a magnanimous view of human nature, Jefferson, like other radicals at the time, believed that society could virtually run by itself. He believed literally in what he wrote in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal (in his case only all white men) and that the obvious differences among individuals were due to the effects of the environment.
In other words, nurture, not nature, was all-important to Jefferson and to most other enlightened Americans. Consequently, like most Americans today, he put an enormous emphasis on education.
Jefferson thought the educated American electorate would choose as its leaders only natural aristocrats, virtuous and talented men like himself. He was optimistic and believed that the world was getting better, becoming freer and more democratic, and that the new republic of the United States had a special role to play in fulfilling that future. America, he said, was “a chosen country” and “the world’s best hope.”
It was Jefferson who created the idea of American exceptionalism. Despising monarchy, he became a true believer in the republican revolutions that he hoped would spread everywhere in the world. His support for the French Revolution was unbounded and was worth all the bloodshed and lives lost in its name. If only an Adam and Eve were left alive in every country, but left free, he wrote in 1793, it would be better than it is now.
The Federalist John Adams was very different. He was a conservative, but anything but a Ronald Reagan-type conservative. He had a sour and cynical view of human nature. He was pessimistic about the future and a severe critic of the Jeffersonian conception of American exceptionalism. Adams said over and over that America was no different from other countries. Americans were just as vicious, just as sinful, just as corrupt as other nations; there was, he said, no special providence for the United States.
Indeed, Adams was the ultimate realist, committed to “stubborn facts.” He challenged every American dream and myth, especially the belief that all men are created equal. He believed that we were all born unequal and that education could not do much about the inherent differences among people. He didn’t know about genes and DNA, but he certainly was convinced that nature, not nurture, was what mattered most. He recalled visiting a foundlings’ hospital in France and, observing babies who were only 4 days old, was struck by the great inequalities among them. Some were ugly, others beautiful; some were stupid, others smart. “They were all born to equal rights,” he said, “but to very different fortunes; to very different [degrees of] success and influence in life.”
Society, Adams said, would always be inherently unequal, and, unlike Jefferson, he believed that the aristocrats who would inevitably rise to the top in republican America would not necessarily be the best and wisest men. They were more apt to be the richest, the most attractive, the most ambitious and the wiliest.
Adams did not disparage big government as Jefferson did, but he did fear the unrestrained power of government. In perhaps the most profound statement he ever made, and surely his greatest contribution to American constitutionalism, he declared that power “must never be trusted without a check.”
Adams had little confidence in democracy and in the virtue of the American people. Consequently, he thought that sooner or later America’s elections would become so partisan and so corrupt that we would have to turn to having officeholders serve for life. Eventually, he said, we would have to follow the example of England and make the president and the Senate hereditary.
Despite these obvious differences between the two political opponents, however, there were bonds of friendship that ultimately made their reconciliation possible. In 1812, as Adams’ partisan passions faded, their earlier friendship was painstakingly restored, almost entirely through the efforts of Dr. Benjamin Rush.
Over the next 14 years, Adams and Jefferson exchanged over 150 letters, with Adams writing nearly two times as many as Jefferson. Jefferson made the reconciliation work. His characteristic courtesy and politeness, his aversion to any sort of confrontation, saved the relationship. Jefferson had the temperament to tolerate Adams’ facetious and teasing manner. In 1815, with the Bourbons back on the throne of France, Adams couldn’t help ribbing Jefferson: What do you think of the French Revolution now, Mr. Jefferson? Jefferson, polite as always, suffered all this razzing in good humor.
The two men valued their correspondence too much to endanger their reconciliation, and thus they tended to avoid controversial topics, especially slavery. But Adams always knew that the relationship was an unequal one; he always knew that he would never have the acclaim from his fellow Americans that Jefferson had and would continue to have.
Adams may have been honest and realistic, telling us Americans what we needed to know, truths about ourselves that are difficult, if not impossible, to bear. But however true, however correct or in accord with “stubborn facts” Adams’ ideas and statements may have been, they were incapable of inspiring and sustaining the United States, or any nation for that matter.
Since the traditional meaning of the term “nation” was a people with a common ancestry, Adams, along with many others, doubted whether America could ever be a real nation. In America, he said, there was nothing like “the patria of the Romans, the Fatherland of the Dutch, or the Patrie of the French.” All he saw in America was an appalling diversity of religious denominations and ethnicities. In 1813 he counted at least 19 different religious sects in the country.
“We are such a Hotch potch of people,” he concluded, “such an omnium gatherum of English, Irish, German, Dutch, Sweedes, French, &c. that it is difficult to give a name to the Country, characteristic of the people.”
By contrast, Jefferson’s ideas and statements could inspire and nourish the diverse peoples of the United States. By the early 19th century, the Declaration of Independence authored by Jefferson had taken on a sacred significance, something not anticipated in 1776 by either Jefferson or Adams. Adams was beside himself with jealousy. If he had known in 1776 how important the Declaration would become, he would have written it himself.
Abraham Lincoln especially knew how important that Declaration had become. When he said “all honor to Jefferson,” he paid homage to the one Founder who he knew could explain why the breakup of the Union could not be allowed. Lincoln knew what the Revolution had been about and what it implied not just for Americans but for all humanity — because Jefferson had told him so.
Half the American people, Lincoln said in 1858, had no direct blood connection to the Founders of the nation. These German, Irish, French and Scandinavian citizens either had come from Europe themselves or their ancestors had, and they had settled in America. And, amazingly, they found “themselves our equals in all things.” Although these immigrants may have had no actual connection in blood with the Revolutionary generation that could make them feel part of the rest of the nation, they had, said Lincoln, “that old Declaration of Independence” with its expression of the moral principle of equality to draw upon. This moral principle, which was “applicable to all men and all times,” made all these different peoples one with the Founders, “as though they were blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.”
Since now the whole world is in the United States, nothing but Jefferson’s ideals can turn such an assortment of different individuals into the “one people” that the Declaration says we are. To be an American is not to be someone but to believe in something. And that something is what Jefferson declared.
That’s why we honor Jefferson and not Adams.
Gordon S. Wood is a Pulitzer-Prize–winning historian who has served as a trustee for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which awarded him its highest honor, the Churchill Bell. His latest book is Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, upon which this article is based. As part of his visit as a Revolutionary in Residence, Wood will moderate “Friends Divided: A ‘Revolutionary in Residence’ Conversation” with President Jefferson and Young Thomas Jefferson on Saturday, October 5, 2019. The younger and elder Nation Builder will reflect on his friendship and bitter rivalry with John Adams. Book signing to follow.