Gordon Wood, regarded as the foremost historian of the American Revolution, has written a very fine account of the friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Though strained at times, their friendship extended through the turbulence of the War for Independence and through the adoption of the Constitution, went off the rails with the development of American political parties, and was set back on track by the intervention of a mutual friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush. In retirement, they rekindled their friendship, lasting to their deaths on the same day, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826.
This dual biography treats both men fairly, but in the end Wood sides with Jefferson. Though Adams stood with giants like Washington and Franklin as well as with Jefferson and was the foremost advocate of American independence, he is little appreciated today. Few people realize that it was John Adams who swayed the Continental Congress to pick Washington to general the army. And while Jefferson got all the glory (which he cultivated assiduously) as the author of the Declaration of Independence, it was John Adams, again,who convinced him to write it. Somehow, Adams seems always to get the short end of the stick. Even his physical stature was diminutive. In comparison with the stately Washington and Jefferson, both of whom stood well over six feet in height, John Adams cut a poor figure. He once described himself as “looking like a short, thick Archbishop of Canterbury.” Adams correctly predicted that few monuments would be erected in his honor.
Born in 1735 in Braintree, Massachusetts, on a small farm, John Adams lacked the wealth of the Virginia aristocracy. Jefferson and Washington had slaves to turn their soil; Adams turned his own. Owing partly to his humble beginnings, his outlook was down-to-earth and engaging.
Yet Adams’s temperament was poetic. David McCullough noted in his biography of Adams that “he was drawn to Shakespeare and Swift, and likely to carry Cervantes or a volume of English poetry with him on his journeys.” Jefferson, by contrast, was a rationalist, interested in science, more abstract of mind. He took notes and calculations on everything; possibly, one suspects, to distance himself from reality.
Adams loved history, hearkening to the older classical tradition of literature and philosophy. For Jefferson the study of philosophy, literature, art, language—and history—had a pragmatic end. He failed to perceive a spiritual dimension to reality, while John Adams delved into the nature and depths of man. In one of his books of philosophy, he wrote, “man is a riddle to himself.” And from Shakespeare, he took “Something immortal in human nature.”
He loved words for their felicity and beauty. On one occasion, after looking out onto his garden following an ice storm, he wrote,
the icicles on every sprig glowed in all the luster of diamonds. Every tree was a chandelier of cut glass. I have seen a queen of France with 18 millions of livres of diamonds upon her person and I declare that all the charm of her face and figure added to all the glitter of her jewels did not make an impression on me equal to that presented by every shrub. The whole world was glittering with precious stones.
How different from Thomas Jefferson, who, according to Dumas Malone, was “more disposed to date the [blooming of flowers] in his garden rather than to comment on the beauty of a hillside scene.” His imagination “was not of the poetic sort. He was more interested in the rules of accent and measure than in mere felicity of phrase.”
Benjamin Franklin shared Jefferson’s outlook. Franklin, the quintessential man of his time, believed that “the invention of a machine or the improvement of an implement is of more importance than a masterpiece of Raphael.” Adams disagreed. Serving with Franklin on diplomatic mission to France during the American Revolution, Adams spent time in the art galleries of Paris. And while Franklin thought “One schoolmaster is worth a dozen poets,” John Adams told his son John Quincy, “you will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.” Jefferson cautioned his daughter against reading too much poetry.
Though both men risked their lives for an independent America, the American Revolution had profoundly different meanings for Adams and Jefferson. To Adams, it was less a revolution and more a war of independence. For Jefferson, it was a new beginning for mankind.
Jefferson saw the Declaration of Independence as the founding document of the United States. As President, he referred to its signing as “the creation.” Very few in 1776 considered the drafting of the Declaration as either of great importance or a great honor. Rather, the Declaration was understood merely as a justification before the world of the revolt of the American colonies against British rule for the practical purpose of receiving foreign aid. Its high-sounding, elegant prose lifting the cause to the realm of the sublime seemed necessary to unite the continental government. But it was not an incarnational event signalling a break with history and the arrival of a new breed of men, as Jefferson and some other Americans saw it. American independence, after all, was itself dependent on the assistance of European powers.
The Declaration of Independence, considered alone, Adams said, was “to brave the storm in a skiff of paper.” The American Revolution needed anchor in a country and in a government. The real achievement of the War of Independence was not the Declaration but the Constitution, which constructed a functional government in law, not rhetoric. The United States of America came into being in 1789, not 1776.
Wood chides Adams for failing to believe in “American exceptionalism.” In all American history, Wood writes, “no figure has ever so emphatically denied the belief in American exceptionalism.” Adams, the student of history, knew that the United States is not “exceptional”: that nations rise and fall and that civilization itself is subject to decay, as human life itself ends in death. America, Adams said, has “no Patent of Exemption from the common Lot of Humanity.” Wood asserts that “Adams’s ideas . . . were incapable of inspiring and sustaining the United States, or any nation,” but those of “Jefferson, by contrast, could and did . . . ” Notably, Wood himself never defines “American exceptionalism” or suggests how such a thing is even possible. He does recognize that Adams was correct in predicting the bloodshed resulting from the French Revolution and stressing what he called the “stubborn facts” of the reality of human existence. But he also characterizes, several times, Adams’s good sense as “cynical.” (Here I recalled Oscar Wilde’s wonderful observation that “sentimentality is the bank holiday of cynicism.”) Carl Becker, in his book The Declaration of Independence, noted that “Jefferson’s ideas rest precariously on the aspirations and ideals of good men and not sufficiently on the brute concrete facts of the world as it is.”
Jefferson, an abstract visionary, consciously cultivated his own legacy. Houdon captured this in his magnificent bust of the man—the mystical saint of democracy with its benign smile of radiant optimism. Jefferson, rejecting the sense of the sacred common to Christianity and paganism, believed in human redemption in time.
Jefferson’s myth—that man can be made over new—is the national myth of the United States. From his fastness at Monticello, the third president attempted to elevate himself above the tragedy of human existence and to build a refuge against the troubling immensity, the invisible call of eternity.
John Adams is the heresiarch in Jefferson’s religion of secular progress. Retaining a belief in God, he recognized that tragedy is part of our humanity, while never missing the comic element. After his bitter loss of the presidency to Jefferson in 1800, he returned to his farm, which he renamed “Montezillo” (“little hill”), and named his horse “Rocinante” after Don Quixote’s broken-down steed.
Like Sancho Panza, John Adams never received his deserved reward. But still he wrote, “Griefs upon Griefs! Disappointments upon Disappointments! All is Vanity! What then? This is a gay, merry World, notwithstanding.”
[Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, by Gordon S. Wood (New York: Penguin Press) 512 pp., $35.00