A story of friendship
It is easy in retrospect to assume determined outcomes. The luxury of hindsight allows for us to summon notions of Providence, fixed teleological outcomes - the sorts of ideas that allow us to forget the past and make the same mistakes in the future. Indeed, much of history was a thorough peddling in such determinist (if not fatalist) ideas. But reality shows chance and contingency to be the twin pillars upon which outcomes are built. America’s founding fathers, although they also spoke of Providence, knew this to be the case as well. As on a broad scale with a nation, so the same applies to relationships. Thankfully, the story of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson survives to illustrate this beautiful truth.
The final years leading to the Declaration of Independence were combustible. Revolution was in the air. Great Britain was exceedingly dismissive (although increasingly watchful and sometimes worried) of the fledgling colonies and their grievances. A series of “acts,” including the infamous Stamp Act and Coercive Acts, were levied against the American colonies. Britain made it clear that taxes could be imposed – and that ultimate rule came from across the channel – without any sort of representation of the colonies in Parliament. A series of now-famous altercations occurred (Boston Massacre in 1770; Tea Party in 1773) setting the tone for a much larger clash to follow. Although members of the Continental Congress used the providential phrase, “the Cause,” when referencing the incendiary state of affairs and their historical role in them, the full and successful separation of America from Britain was anything but a fait accompli.
Consider the imperious British Navy and its prodigious reputation for total sea power. The motherland also possessed vast amounts of wealth due to its overseas colonies, as well as the nascent industrial revolution then taking off. Really, what were these colonists thinking? Most of the men involved, although pragmatists generally, felt a novel sense of history unfolding at that specific moment. The deck was stacked unwaveringly against them. There were some notable “reconciliationists,” like John Dickenson, who argued for a continued moderate response to the Crown. There was vigorous debate, but in the end the die was cast. Washington and his army of farmers got lucky time and again against their better-prepared betters. They outmaneuvered General Howe and others, by stroke of good fortune more so than skill. Moreover, the Continental Army and Continental Congress were not in contact in real time. The political sequence of events was taking place out-of-sync with skirmishes on the ground. This was an ill-managed recipe.
In the end (and to move the story forward), we all know how the war closed. The British would revisit this loss in the War of 1812 (and not the Canadians, as was recently indicated by President Trump on the matter of who torched the White House), but eventually would become half of the strong and formidable Western Alliance with the United States. Two of the primary characters in this saga – to become elder American statesmen – provide a heartwarming story of bowed, but ultimately unbroken, friendship. It is a story to remember as we celebrate the holiday.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson hold high positions in the pantheon of American History. They are true celebrities, the original innovators at ground zero. Of course, true students of the history find the public obsession with them a bit trite. Many other important figures – men and women - were integral parts of the revolution. Most of them shared political values, imbibing the political philosophy of Locke, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. They were students of the Glorious Revolution in England, dewy-eyed about the real possibility of self-government – establishing the world’s first true secular republic. The devil, as it turns out, is in the details.
Most with a passing knowledge of early American history know that Adams and Jefferson were friends. However, the two had a conflicted relationship. At times, their disagreements turned sour and even biting. In the early-to-mid 70’s they were young superstars-to-be (Jefferson the younger), and as their careers flowered they became best of friends. But this was no ordinary time. Building a government in real time, including a working constitution and solid safeguards against government overreach (Bill of Rights), can impose daunting pressures. Adams watched the events unfolding in France with horror, while Jefferson was enamored with it. Adams was criticized as a monarchist, someone for whom a centralized and active government was ideal. Conversely, Jefferson was criticized as a radical Jacobin, someone for whom minimalist and decentralized government was ideal. There was truth to both of these claims. Their views of government, however, were far less divisive and different than they perceived them to be.
Adams enjoyed an illustrious career, serving in many capacities, including President of the United States. As did Jefferson. They both served as figureheads to opposing political parties (something Washington vehemently warned against): Adams the Federalist Party and Jefferson the Anti-Federalists, or Democratic-Republicans (sometimes just called “Jeffersonians”). The election of 1800 was a bitter one. Invective flew from all sides. (Abigail Adams was saddened by this, and subsequently angry with Jefferson - her dear friend as well). Jefferson won the election, succeeding Adams, becoming the third President of the United States. Adams receded into retirement, a life of farm work punctuated by acrid ruminations and denunciations on how the country was being handled (as well as grooming his son, John Quincy, for a life in politics). After Jefferson retired to Monticello upon the completion of an eventful two-term presidency, he also fell into a comfortable life of leisurely armchair philosophizing. A decade had passed with no contact between the two. But in 1811, due to the efforts of their mutual friend, Dr. Rush, they resumed their dormant friendship through letters.
This epistolary relationship is now famous. These letters constitute some of the most beautiful expositions of the men’s attitudes and beliefs about government, political philosophy, family, and much else besides. They never saw each other again. The best part of the story, though, comes at the end of their full lives. In one of the most bizarre and heartwarming bits of history ever to come true - and in this case the truth really is stranger than fiction – both men died within hours of each other. The date was July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of The Declaration of Independence. You can’t make this stuff up. The beginning of a flowering friendship began in the misty stages of the early Republic, times when bold men debated and discussed and came together for a larger cause. How fitting that they perish on the anniversary of that date, the date that they did so much to inspire the world, the blueprint of a free society – the last best hope on earth. Jefferson died a few hours earlier than Adams. Unaware of this, Adams’ last words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He certainly did. And so did Adams. Now, we tell the story to new generations. What is our hope?
My recounting this story isn’t to lionize Adams or Jefferson – or even America – while ignoring their many faults and flaws. It isn’t to dismiss the problems with 18th century political philosophy or the grotesque contradictions in the American experiment. Rather, this story serves to point out two things. The first is that nothing is written in stone. We make ourselves, and the truly hard work of sorting it out is an ongoing process. Being visionary and pragmatic are opposite sides of the same coin. The second point is about lasting friendships and differences of opinion. True friendships are built on judicious and fair disagreements, and the honesty to make them clearly known. If the disagreements become ugly, just remember this: if it’s worth a letter, it might be worth salvaging after all. Bonds can bow and bruise without breaking. This is a quintessential example.
Perhaps one day we can rise above national identification barriers, reach out and develop strong bonds with those across the world, a sort of global brotherhood. An interesting thought on a national independence day. Well…one revolution at a time.