Magazine | November 13, 2017, Issue

In the Beginning

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, by Gordon S. Wood (Penguin, 512 pp., $35)

Gordon Wood is one of America’s premier historians and a national treasure. Winner of the Pulitzer as well as the Bancroft Prize, he is a rare scholar who writes with a combination of insight, academic depth, and accessible prose. In his latest book, penned at the summit of his career, Wood now sets his sights on the relationship of two of America’s most remarkable and fascinating statesmen, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

The story is enthralling. These two men of the Revolution couldn’t have been more different. Few, even among the Founders, brought such a unique blend of prodigious vitality and formidable intellect to American life as did Jefferson. He lived on a little mountain high atop an inhospitable wilderness rise; it was his “hermitage” or retreat — he called it Monticello. His dinner parties reverberated like Greek colloquia, and inside his walls percolated the ideas that helped forge a country and change the world. He was an aristocrat by birth, yet by temperament he was a populist. Where other Founders were skeptical of their fellow man, Jefferson, as Wood shows us, would one day become — despite being a lifelong slaveholder — democracy’s champion.

In contrast, Adams was a skeptic of popular rule and feared that political revolution would beget “social disorder” and (in Wood’s phrasing) ”less appreciation of virtue.” He clung to a more elitist view of government, as much akin to big-state monarchy as to democracy. But he and Jefferson worked closely in crafting the Declaration of Independence and served together in shepherding the crucial diplomatic effort that put France on the side of the Americans in the Revolutionary War. As Adams poignantly put it, he did this with “his old friend.”

Who was the greater influence of the two? This question lies at the heart of Wood’s book. Jefferson, a feast of a man, was sui generis. Wood writes that he “had the most spacious and encyclopedic mind of any of his fellow Americans.” A product of Virginia, he was a natural philosopher who walked around in tattered yellow slippers, loved to think about meteorology, was fascinated by machines, and assiduously studied birds, flowers, and, of course, architecture. And he loved to sing.

However, as Wood points out, Adams cast his own long shadow. A product of Massachusetts, he was an amalgam of steely drive and relentless ambition. In contrast to Jefferson, Adams was raised modestly, and life was hardscrabble from the start; he was irascible and haunted by volcanic opinions and vanities. Yet we also learn that there was a soft component to him: In a delicious little tidbit, we see that Adams was actually “far more sensuous” than Jefferson, at least when it came to an interest in art — so much so that, when he went to Paris, he was “overwhelmed” by the French gardens, statues, and paintings.

Wood rightly does not romanticize the revolutionary era. He points out that the colonial societies of Virginia and Massachusetts had strong hierarchies in which everyone could be located in the “Great Chain of Being.” He also shows how America, a nation born in a daring act of rebellion and secession, was still in a politically fluid situation in its infancy. At the helm were Adams and Jefferson. Their combined résumés were unparalleled: Jefferson was America’s minister to France, its first secretary of state, its second vice president, and its president for two terms. Adams was a drafter of the Massachusetts constitution, a delegate to the Continental Congress, a commissioner to France, a minister to Great Britain, the first vice president, and the second president.

As Wood reminds us, Jefferson was a slaveholder who indicted the institution of slavery, once famously remarking, “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go”; yet he was more interested in the evils that slavery inflicted on the manners of slaveholders than the ones it inflicted on the slaves. For his part, Adams thought abolition had to come gradually.

Wood also surprises. History has bequeathed Jefferson to us as the visionary, but when it came to the early years of the republic, it was Adams who was arguably the more prescient: He knew that the United States, still a marginal nation far away from civilized Europe, “was destined to be the greatest power on earth.”

Then came the French Revolution. The intimate relationship between Adams and Jefferson, forged at the nation’s birth, dramatically changed over the course of the upheaval in France. When events took a murderous turn during the 1790s — corpses swinging from lamps, mutilated bodies dragged through streets, the execution of the king, and the guillotine working overtime in the Terror — Adams lamented that Americans were blind toward the bloodthirsty mayhem. Jefferson couldn’t have seen it more differently: His reaction was at first studied indifference to the tumult, and even sympathy. Not content to stop there, Jefferson shocked and horrified his old friend Adams when he dramatically insisted that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Ultimately, the French Revolution would lead to the rupture of their friendship.

The difference between Jefferson and Adams stretched beyond substance to temperament. Where the Virginian defined the dignified manner of a country squire, Adams was often wild with anger. For better or worse, Adams always told you what he thought; not so with Jefferson, who invariably had surrogates, such as James Madison, do his bidding in political battle.

While Adams celebrated the greatness of the English constitution, thereby risking his reputation, Jefferson stressed America’s “exceptionalism.” Jefferson steadfastly cheered on French radicalism, believing that with the eradication of monarchy, war itself would be abolished. Meanwhile, Adams as vice president rode to the Senate each day in an elaborate carriage flanked by four servants and driven by six horses, and dressed as if he were a European monarch, complete with a small sword and a powdered wig when he presided over the Senate’s meetings. Southern senators began mocking Adams as “his rotundity.”

Wood’s hand is deft when he talks about politics. When George Washington stepped down after two terms in office, the United States had its first truly contested presidential election, pitting the Federalists, led by Adams, against the Republicans, led by Jefferson. Alongside these two former friends, Wood portrays a dazzling cast of secondary characters: Thomas Paine, Oliver Wolcott, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.

The Adams administration was dominated by talk of the French Revolution. The Federalists remained ardently against the revolution, while the Republicans continued to see it as a sign of hope for democracy. In 1798, the country was nearly coming apart, with members of the two parties often literally coming to blows. Wood talks about the real possibility of a French invasion of America — Napoleon himself once openly threatened the United States — and characterizes it as perhaps the most frightening moment in American history, “something most historians have not appreciated.” This resulted in what Adams called “the half war” with France, in which American naval vessels were attacked by French ships.

The election of 1800 split Jefferson and Adams even further. Adams became a first in American history: a presidential loser. On the day of Jefferson’s inauguration, a depressed Adams left Washington before sunrise. He said that if he could do it all over again, he would be “a shoemaker.”

As president, Jefferson was determined to get rid of all the monarchical paraphernalia, replacing the formality of Washington and Adams with Republican simplicity. A little-appreciated aspect of his thought was his desire to create a smaller centralized government, resembling that of the old Articles of Confederation — as opposed to the European-type bureaucratic state that Federalists sought to build.

In 1812, after an eleven-year break in the two men’s friendship, their mutual friend Benjamin Rush helped facilitate their reconciliation. Their extensive lifelong correspondence amounted to some 300 letters. They talked about “aristocracy,” “Mr. Madison’s war,” and such modern topics as female education and feminism (Adams was more permissive about women in politics than was Jefferson). By the early 1820s, Jefferson’s relationship with Adams was increasingly meaningful to him: He was befuddled by the world around him, a world he had done so much to create but that was rapidly changing. He feared the proliferation of paper money, the growth of banks, and the ubiquity of stock markets. Adams shared many of these sentiments.

Wood concludes that Jefferson is more remembered than Adams. Why? Because Adams clung to the antidemocratic view that all men were born decidedly unequal, while Jefferson was a lifelong proponent of equality, which is the essence of the American experiment.

If Adams and Jefferson were bound together in life, they were also bound together in death. Wood renders the scene touchingly. On July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after signing the Declaration of Independence, the 90-year-old Adams passed away, exclaiming in his last words, “Jefferson lives!” In truth, Jefferson, 83, had passed away at Monticello five hours earlier.

These two great statesmen often sparred over a crucial question: Who would be able to write an accurate history of the Revolution? In this magnificent book, Gordon Wood has continued his invaluable work on that task.

– Mr. Winik, the historian-in-residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of The Great Upheaval and 1944.

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