Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson
Penguin Press, 2017, 512pp., $35
Richard Aldous: Hello and welcome. My guest this week on The American Interest Podcast is Gordon Wood, professor of history at Brown and author of a new book, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Gordon, welcome to the show.
Gordon Wood: Delighted to be here.
RA: Congratulations on the new book. Why Adams and Jefferson?
GW: Well, I had just finished editing three volumes of writings of John Adams for the Library of America. I was going to write something on Adams, because he fascinates me, but my editor said, “Well, why don’t you compare him to Jefferson?” The idea struck me as wise, and I’m glad I followed his advice, because I think by pitting the two men against each other you understand each of them much better.
RA: It does seem that in many ways the clue is in the title. These two were great friends, nevertheless, the arguments and the division between them in some ways cut right to the chase of what the American Revolution and the early Republic was actually about.
GW: Right. Well, they favored the Revolution, they were both radicals, but they divide on almost every other issue you can think of—on human nature, on the nature of society, on religion, on the conception of American exceptionalism. They differ on every single major issue, but they were friends. The only thing that united them was their deep and abiding hatred of Alexander Hamilton, which gave them something in common.
RA: I was very struck that, when you’re setting the scene at the beginning of the book, those differences extended even to the personal circumstances surrounding them. For example, you talk about how Jefferson sets himself up at Monticello, that he’s separate, that he’s reserved; whereas Adams you describe on his farmstead, living snugly in the community.
GW: Adams’s Massachusetts was a fairly egalitarian society, as compared to Virginia, which was a slave society of very rich planters with 40 percent of the population enslaved. The two societies are very, very different, and that’s borne out in the two men themselves. Adams’s background was middling, whereas Jefferson was born into wealth—his father left him many slaves and land, and his father-in-law left him more land and more slaves, so by the early 1770s he’s one of the wealthiest Virginians. That’s not Adams, whose wealth came mostly from his law practice. He was very successful, but he was certainly not one of the richest people in Massachusetts.
RA: That does seem to have longstanding consequences. Jefferson always had about him this kind of effortless ease that suggests his background; whereas Adams was a scrapper, and very often that leads to him having to make enemies in order to get on.
GW: That’s right, and there was this paradox where, in Virginia at the time, the leadership of the Republican party—which was the popular party and the ancestor of the present-day Democratic party—was led by slave-holding planters who never lost an election in their lives. They had no fear of democracy, because democracy had always been good to them. Whereas in Massachusetts, which was relatively egalitarian, the Federalist party had its base, and the Federalists were hierarchical and fearing of democracy. There’s something of a paradox in that, but I think it’s explicable given the circumstances of each of the different societies.
RA: Is that one of the reasons why Adams seems so much more of a visceral kind of a character? You talk about even their differences in the outset of the Revolution. That for Jefferson, the Revolution and any hatred of Great Britain was not really personal, it was primarily intellectual; but that for Adams it was very personal, as symbolized by the governor Thomas Hutchinson.
GW: That’s exactly right. Jefferson knew his enemies personally, and actually was close friends with the governor of Virginia. He played violin with him and had dinner parties with him. He had none of this sense of personal animosity that Adams had towards the British establishment.
RA: What about the early part of the relationship? Later on, Jefferson described himself as being in every way Adams’s junior, so there did seem to have been this quasi-disciple sort of a relationship early on during the Revolutionary years.
GW: I think that’s true. Jefferson came late to the Continental Congress. He missed the first Continental Congress in 1774, and he came in the fall of ’75 to the second Continental Congress. He was eight years younger than Adams. Adams had already been taking the lead in pushing for independence, and so when Jefferson arrived I think he saw himself as Adams’s protégé. He really deferred to Adams, which Adams loved, and in fact this was one of the reasons Adams took to him. There was an eight year difference, but I think it was more than that—Jefferson really did respect Adams for his leadership in pushing for the Revolution, and that continued. Jefferson continued to defer to him, even when they go abroad to Europe, and that, I think, gave Adams confidence in dealing with Jefferson. Adams respected Jefferson, but he also felt that he was his senior in some way, although eight years doesn’t seem a lot to scholars looking back.
RA: It seems that in those early years, the seeds of later resentments were sown: Adams did a lot of the grunt work during the lead-up to Declaration of Independence, and then in swanned Jefferson with his wonderful sense of style who took all the glory.
GW: That’s right. Adams was on about 24 committees, and he was chair of many of them, and so he probably was happy that Jefferson, this young squirt who just arrived, was assigned the task of writing the Declaration, of drafting it. Of course, neither of them had any idea in 1776 of how important the authorship of the Declaration would become. Later, Adams was deeply jealous of the acclaim that Jefferson received and the celebration of him as the author. If Adams had known that—if he could have foreseen that—he would’ve drafted it himself, but he simply passed what seemed to be a mundane task on to this junior man who wrote very well. Jefferson had a reputation for graceful prose and so it seemed natural, but in retrospect this was a terrible mistake for Adams. He rued the day that he did that.
RA: We think of Jefferson as the great stylist but one of the things that you bring out very nicely in the book is that Adams was, in his own way, a wonderful writer. His pen portraits in particular were very witty and colorful, and he really did give us a sense of events and circumstances.
GW: Right. What he entered into his diary—his observations and letters to intimate friends—could be really colorful. But when he came to write for the public—his defense of the Constitutions and his theoretical works—his writings were really turgid and heavy. He was much better when he was talking to himself in his diary or writing to a very close friend. Then, he could be facetious and humorous and colorful, but he didn’t have a great pen when it comes to public documents. They were too heavy and he just simply was unable to have that charm that he had in a private letter.
RA: You mentioned the time when they were both abroad representing America. The two families really were incredibly close, there. You talk about how, for example, they were sometimes looking after each other’s children. In many ways this seemed to be the happiest time for the two men, when they were still on the crest of a wave and their intellectual differences had yet to emerge.
GW: That’s right. Jefferson was, of course, a widower. He had his daughters there, but he became a member of the Adams family. As you say, he would take John Quincy, Adams’s eldest son, to a symphony, or to a museum. He became a member of the family, and I think he experienced family life in a way that he couldn’t have if he had been alone just with his daughters. It wouldn’t have been the same. He actually flirted with Abigail—he bought her presents. When she went off to London with her husband to be minister to England, he corresponded with her and flirted with her. He said at one point, “I was going to buy a little a little statue of Venus for your dining room, but I realized that two Venuses in the dining room would be too much.” I think it was a sign of how intimate their relationship was, which makes the break all the sadder.
RA: Although the break would go on to be political—both sectional and party-political—it was also, at a fundamental level, intellectual. You bring out how this divide was in particular about the nature of the people, the character of the people, and what representation should and could be.
GW: Right, Adams was cynical, and had a sour view of human nature. Jefferson was the inveterate optimist. He was an 18th century liberal, which in those days meant minimal government. The fear of government is what drove liberals like Thomas Paine or William Godwin. They were fearful of government, and were very different from, in American terms, the modern liberal. Of course, the big issue they differed on was the French Revolution. Adams, from the beginning, took Edmund Burke’s stand and condemned Paine, and felt that this French revolution was disaster—that it would go nowhere.
Jefferson was the true believer, and a true radical. At one point during the terror in France his successor as minister and protégé wrote to him and said, “Mr. Jefferson, many of your former aristocratic friends are losing their heads in the guillotine, by the thousands.” Jefferson passed it off, and said, “Well, that’s what you have to expect from a revolution. If only an Adam and Eve were left alive and left free, it would be worth it.” That kind of statement is what lead Conor Cruise O’Brien—the Irish historian and journalist who studied and wrote a book in about Jefferson—to say he’s the Pol Pot of the 18th century (Pol Pot being of course the Cambodian leader who killed millions of people on behalf of the communist cause). Now, Jefferson would never have implemented that, but he believed that. That’s how he thought about the Republican cause.
Adams, of course, would have none of it. Adams did not believe America had any special character or quality. In his mind, Americans were just as vicious, just as sinful, and just as corrupt as other people. Adams took on almost every American myth, and every American dream, including the notion that all men are created equal. Jefferson articulated that notion, and it’s widely accepted. I still think that is the basis for the American creed, and it means that all the differences that occur come from experience. For Jefferson, it’s all nurture, not nature, but for Adams it’s all nature, not nurture. Adams says to Jefferson, “I went to a foundling home in France and I saw babies four days old, and they were all unequal. Some were smart, some were dumb, some were beautiful, and some were ugly. It’s right there from birth and you can’t do anything about it.” That’s taking on the American dream, and the American myth.
RA: You talk at the end of the book about how Jefferson himself actually began to have doubts about these ideas—about the essential sociability of man and that idea society will sustain itself. As the Republic develops, particularly in the midst of Jacksonian democracy, Jefferson himself did start to wonder whether perhaps some of his ideas were flawed.
GW: Right, I think because of Jefferson’s fear about what’s happening with slavery—the Missouri crisis of 1819-20 was terrifying to him—he became very defensive about the South. Some of his language was indistinguishable from the southern fire-eaters of the 1840s and ’50s. He was really frightened about what the federal government might do about slavery. This was a sad moment for him. Everything seemed to be going awry, and he lost some of his confidence that he had earlier on. Of course, all of these founders who lived into the early 19th century died disillusioned with what they had wrought. The politics of the early republic were much too democratic, much too wild, much too corrupt.
Adams was, personally, happy. Though he had some problems with his children, he got to see his son John Quincy become president of the United States in 1824, two years before he died. On the slavery issue, which they both realize is the threat to the union, I think Adams felt that he was, as we say, on the right side of history. He could see that it was doomed—that sooner or later it would disappear—and that gave him a feeling of confidence that he hadn’t had earlier. So there was a kind of reversal of status, in a way, although Adams always realizes that he’s never going to be in Jefferson’s celebrity league.
At one point Adams asked Jefferson how many letters he got in a year. Jefferson responded “Oh, 2,000 and something.” Adams was taken aback, because only received 200 and something, so he knew that he was never going to be in Jefferson’s league. Jefferson was an intellectual superstar, and an enlightenment superstar. He was corresponding with the czar of Russia, with Alexander Humboldt, with world figures. Adams was much more parochial in his correspondence.
RA: That’s one of the things that Lin-Manuel Miranda got so right in the musical Hamilton: this sense that Jefferson was something of a rock star, not just in America but literally around the world.
GW: That’s right. It seems platonic, as you had an intellectual who’s president of the United States. That really made Adams jealous. He just knew that he wasn’t in that league.
RA: Do you think that the mood about Jefferson is changing today? There are debates about slavery, and the recent conversation about the misuse of power and sexual harassment, and so on—do those affect our view of him? For example, one of the moments that really brought me up short that I didn’t know about was his attitude towards Haiti and Toussaint Louverture, and specifically the moment when, as president, he sided with France to reinstate slavery and wouldn’t recognize the new Republic of Haiti.
GW: Jefferson is in for a bad time now. If you judge him as a man, he was deeply flawed because he was on the wrong side of the issue of slavery. As a young man, he took a very courageous stand, because very few people in Virginia were calling for the end of slavery. He did, as a young man, take that kind of stand. But by the time he was an old man he threw up his hands and said it would have to be left to the future somehow, but he himself was unwilling to do anything. That will hurt him with historians. I think his words, however, transcend his personality and his actions. “All men are created equal.” Even though he didn’t believe it, in terms of black Africans, those words have resonated and been picked up by subsequent people, including Abraham Lincoln, and have been used quite effectively to drive almost every progressive movement in American history. Jefferson’s words transcend him, and somehow that gives him something, although he himself was deeply flawed.
RA: As I got towards the end of the book, I felt that much of what Adams was saying seemed very much to speak to our time. For example, his very famous saying about facts being stubborn things, and his famous constitutional contribution about never grant power without a check. These seem to be things that are very relevant to 21st century America.
GW: I think that’s true. He made important contributions to American constitutionalism. Separation of powers was really his creation. But his view of human nature was so cynical and so sour that it’s hard to have him be a spokesman for the nation, so to speak, in the way Jefferson is. Adams was just too realistic, if you will. But I find that people that I talk with like Adams, even though he was saying things that really run counter to the American myth, or to the American creed. So maybe that says something about where America is right now, and where it’s going.
RA: It’s difficult to think of another American president who effectively said exceptionalism was nonsense.
GW: That’s right. I know of no other American president who would’ve dared say that, or has dared say it. He was, in that respect, unique. He took it on right at the outset—there is no special providence for the United States, we’re not a special people. At one point President Obama tried to say that, “well, every nation’s special.” But by the time he was into his second term, he had fallen into the usual notion that we have a special responsibility and that we are exceptional—and not exceptional in the way other nations are. He really fell into line with other presidents, indistinguishable from Ronald Reagan in that respect. But Adams was different, and never admitted that we had a special role to play.
That’s what has given Jefferson the importance in our history, through Lincoln, of course, who said “all honor to Jefferson.” He made Jefferson a central figure in the founding.
RA: Here in the United States, the founding fathers are revered, and this is an important point, isn’t it? Because, as Tocqueville says, the success of democracy does actually depend in part on the quality of the people who get elected. When you read the correspondence between Jefferson and Adams, particularly at the end of their life, you see that they really were an astonishing pair, weren’t they?
GW: Oh yes, yes. I mean, very learned. They knew Latin and Greek and read in Latin and Greek. They were extraordinarily intellectual, and were deep readers. We have not had presidents like that ever since, really. Nobody has had quite the intellectual equipment that they had.
RA: And it’s clear that there is this cynicism with Adams, but at the heart of everything, he was effectively a realist.
GW: Yes, oh yes. I suppose cynicism and realism may go together. Maybe that says something about me, but I do think that’s true. When we talk about “all men are created equal”—Jefferson didn’t know about DNA or genes, but I think we’re going to find more and more evidence that we’re not created equal, we’re created unequal. But it’s very important for Americans to believe that everyone is created equal and that the differences are due to experience. Therefore, education becomes very, very compelling for Americans. Adams came to doubt that, saying something along the lines of “well, education’s important, but it’s not really going to make much difference.” That’s too realistic for most Americans. We cling to this belief that education is crucial. I think that’s wise, because education is important, but Adams was really calling it as it is in a way that’s kind of terrifying.
RA: Finally, I wonder about lessons for today. Many people have drawn comparisons between our times and the age of Jackson, so I wonder what do Jefferson and Adams have to say to us today?
GW: Well I think that that’s a good point, because people were deeply disillusioned back then. Both Adams and Jefferson felt that the world was going to hell in a hand basket by the 1820s. Of course, they were frightened of the break up of the union, with good reason, but they were also frightened by democracy—it was much too populist. They were worried about all these banks issuing paper money. It was a wild time in the economy, both in the north and in the south, and it was scary to many people. Then someone like Martin Van Buren came along, who was the first president who got elected who hadn’t done anything. He had never made a great speech, he hadn’t won any battles, he hadn’t done anything, but he was a superb politician. And he said, “well, these old men, these founders, were aristocrats. They didn’t like democracy.” There was a moment there where the founders weren’t all that keen.
And it was Lincoln who came in and said, “no, no, they founders were important.” He was the one who reversed that. Through the antebellum period, when people referred to the founders, they meant the people who settled in the 17th century—John Smith, William Bradford, and William Penn, those were the founders. It was Lincoln who turned things around and made the Revolutionary leaders the founding fathers, so that’s how we think of them now.
Still, there was a period there where the founders really weren’t in line with the democracy that had developed. It was a wild democratic period. Some of the people getting elected—they weren’t like Donald Trump, for example, but they were not the first class intellects that they had in the Revolutionary era. You had many people who were just plain politicians.
RA: The book is Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. It’s written by my guest, Gordon Wood, and published by Penguin Press. It really is such a delight to read, and could hardly be more timely. But for now, Gordon, congratulations again, and thanks for joining us on The American Interest Podcast.
GW: Thank you, my pleasure.