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Jefferson and Adams: Founding Frenemies


As Joseph Ellis wrote in his book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson could be considered “the odd couple of the American Revolution.” They first met as delegates to the Continental Congress in 1775; the following year, Adams would personally select Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence. Profoundly different in physical appearance and demeanor—Jefferson was tall, elegant and philosophical, while Adams was short, stout and prone to vivid outbursts of emotion—the two men nevertheless became close friends.

The friendship grew stronger in the 1780s, when Adams and Jefferson served diplomatic missions to Europe. While living in England and France, both Adams and his wife, Abigail, consoled Jefferson after the loss of his wife, Martha, and grew to consider him almost a part of the family.

Things got more complicated, however, when both men returned to the United States, and the heated debate over the new nation’s government. As secretary of state in George Washington’s cabinet, Jefferson was driven by a fear of a powerful central authority and gravitated toward the new Republican Party. Adams, who as vice president was largely marginalized in Washington’s administration, favored a strong central government to ensure the new nation’s survival, and aligned himself with the Federalist Party.

Jefferson’s enduring support for the French Revolution—even after the execution of King Louis XVI and the dawn of the Reign of Terror—further soured his friendship with Adams. His anger over Washington’s policy of neutrality led Jefferson to resign from the cabinet at the end of 1793 and withdraw to Monticello, his Virginia estate. It was during this period, according to Mark Silk, that Adams took the opportunity to gossip about his former friend in letters to his sons Charles and John Quincy.

Silk, a professor of religion and director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, writes in Smithsonian about two letters written by Adams in January 1794, soon after Jefferson’s return to Monticello. In the first, addressed to Charles, Adams wrote of Jefferson’s supposed retirement from public life, saying that when Washington died or resigned, his former friend expected to be “invited from his conversations with Egeria in the Groves” to take control of the government. In a similar reference the following day, he wrote to John Quincy of Jefferson being “summoned from the familiar society of Egeria” to take the reins of power.

At the time, Silk argues, “conversation” was a euphemism for sexual intercourse, while “familiar” was a synonym for “intimate.” He believes the references to Egeria were Adams’ sly way of referring to Sally Hemings, the slave woman whose longstanding relationship with Jefferson produced (according to DNA evidence) at least one and probably six children between 1790 and 1808. In the early mythology of early Roman history (as chronicled by Livy and Plutarch), Egeria was a divine nymph or goddess who became the lover of Numa, a man chosen by Roman senators as their king after the death of Romulus, Rome’s founder.

Numa was a widower (like Jefferson) and the more philosophical and intellectual successor to a military hero. Silk believes the classical reference, though overlooked by later historians and biographers, would have been clear at the time. A French writer had published a popular novel about Numa in 1786—a year before Hemings, a half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife, accompanied Jefferson’s younger daughter, Mary, to Paris, where Jefferson was serving as a minister. Adams would certainly have known about the young, attractive slave girl in Jefferson’s household, as she and Mary stayed with the Adamses in London after their transatlantic voyage. If Silk’s theory is correct, it would suggest that the rumors of Jefferson’s liaison with Hemings would have been circulating—at least among the political elite—by 1794, long before they were first reported in the press.

READ MORE: How Sally Hemings and Other Enslaved People Secured Precious Pockets of Freedom

True to Adams’ predictions, Jefferson wasted no time in seclusion, emerging after Washington stepped down in 1796 to run for president—against his former friend. After Adams won a narrow victory, he approached Jefferson with the idea of joining forces in a sort of bipartisan administration, despite the opposition of his Federalist cabinet. Jefferson declined, deciding it would not serve him well as leader of the Republican opposition to be drawn into the policy-making process of the administration. His refusal caused a definitive break between the two men during Adams’ presidency. Jefferson and James Madison formed a powerful Republican alliance, while Adams largely ignored his cabinet and relied on Abigail and his family for advice.

The 1800 election still stands as one of the nastiest in history. Jefferson’s supporters accused Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character,” while Adams’ camp called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow.” Jefferson hired a sleazy journalist, James Callendar, to smear Adams in the press, including the (false) story that he wanted to start a war with France. On the day of Jefferson’s inauguration, Adams took the early stagecoach out of Washington to rejoin Abigail in Quincy, and was not present during the ceremony. They would not exchange another word for 12 years.

Meanwhile, after serving jail time under the Sedition Act for his libel of Adams, Callendar demanded a government post in return for his service. When Jefferson failed to come through, Callendar uncovered and published the first public claims about Jefferson and his slave mistress, dubbed “Dusky Sally,” in a series of newspaper articles in 1801. No denial came from the White House, and the story would follow Jefferson for the rest of his career.

A mutual friend and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, deserves credit for reigniting the Adams-Jefferson friendship. Around 1809, as Ellis related in “Founding Brothers,” Rush was simultaneously writing to Adams and Jefferson, suggesting to each man that the other was eager to resume the friendship. Rush told Adams he had dreamed about Adams writing to Jefferson, after which the two giants would renew their friendship through a correspondence. They would discuss their past disputes, and share their profound musings on the meaning of American independence. After that, in Rush’s dream, the two men “sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country.”

READ MORE: How the First 10 U.S. Presidents Helped Shape the Role of the Nation's Top Office

Amazingly, it played out almost just like that. On January 1, 1812, Adams sent a short note to Monticello. Over the next 14 years, he and Jefferson would exchange 158 letters, writing for posterity as much as for each other. Of the two, Adams wrote many more words, and was often the more confrontational and aggressive, while Jefferson maintained his characteristic philosophical calm. By the summer of 1813, the two men had regained a level of trust that allowed them to truly grapple with the two sides of the revolutionary legacy. That July, Adams wrote “You and I ought not to die before We have explained ourselves to each other.”

The famous correspondence touched on Adams’ vilification as a tyrant by Jefferson and his fellow Republicans, the unfairness of which Jefferson acknowledged. The two men also discussed the fallout of the French Revolution, the issue that had initially divided them back in the 1790s. In their later letters, Adams and Jefferson even anticipated the growing sectional tensions between North and South that would eventually result in the Civil War. However, true to the revolutionary generation’s shameful silence on the issue of slavery, they rarely touched on the taboo topic itself.

Even after Adams’ beloved Abigail died in 1818, and the two revolutionary patriarchs grew old and infirm, they continued writing to each other. “Crippled wrists and fingers make writing slow and laborious,” Jefferson wrote in 1823. “But while writing to you, I lose the sense of these things, in the recollection of ancient times, when youth and health made happiness out of every thing.”

Jefferson, who was suffering from an intestinal disorder, fell into a coma on the evening of July 3, 1826. He lingered in semi-consciousness until just after noon on the next day. That same morning, Adams collapsed in his reading chair, lapsing into unconsciousness around the same time Jefferson died. He woke up briefly around 5:30 that evening, and uttered his last words (either “Thomas Jefferson survives” or “Thomas Jefferson still lives,” according to different accounts) before dying. It was July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of Independence Day.

READ MORE: Two Presidents Died on the Same July 4: Coincidence or Something More?


The Story Behind John Adams and Thomas Jefferson’s Awkward Fallout

If John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are discussed in the same breath, it is usually about their twin roles as American founding fathers. But a lesser-known rivalry followed their decades of friendship.

Although the New Englander Adams and the Virginian Jefferson were different in many ways, the two developed a strong relationship based on mutual respect at the 1775 Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

They were both intimately involved in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and traveled to France together in 1784 on diplomatic missions (although Adams was officially posted a short boat ride across the channel in England).

While in Europe, the two even visited Shakespeare’s home and chipped off a piece of his chair as a souvenir, which Adams justified as being “according to the custom.”

So deep was their affection for each other that Jefferson wrote of Adams to James Madison, “I pronounce you will love him if you ever become acquainted with him,” and Adams told Jefferson that “intimate Correspondence with you… is one of the most agreeable Events in my Life.”

But for two such politically significant and passionate men, it is unsurprising that it was politics that finally drew them apart. Adams was the second president of the United States. When Jefferson succeeded Adams as president in 1800, it was the first peaceful transition of power from one political party to another in western history.

But Adams, who disagreed with many policies that he knew Jefferson would pursue as president, left a not-so-friendly parting gift: a raft of last-minute political appointments of officials who would work to undermine Jefferson’s policies. Jefferson wrote that he had been “brooding over it for some little time,” and the two men stopped speaking over it for years.

It wasn’t until after Jefferson vacated the presidency in 1809 that a reconciliation was initiated. A friend of the two men, Dr. Benjamin Rush, felt it would be possible to repair the friendship and unsuccessfully tried for two years to persuade the men to write to one another.

The tipping point came in 1811 when one of Jefferson’s neighbors was visiting Adams in Massachusetts and came back with a bit of overheard information: he had heard Adams say, “I always loved Jefferson, and still love him.”

“This is enough for me,” Jefferson wrote to Dr. Rush. “I only needed this knowledge to revive towards him all of the affections of the most cordial moments of our lives.”

Jefferson and Adams resumed their correspondence, which took on an incredible depth and breadth. The two men still discussed politics, but they also talked about their own aging and their legacies.

Their friendship was so strong that the two men actually died within several hours of each other, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Not knowing that his friend had already died, Adams’ last words were “Jefferson still survives.”


Founders and Frenemies

It was certainly an amazing coincidence: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, American revolutionaries and the second and third presidents of the United States, both died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

The two had first become friends in 1776 at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and their relationship became closer still when both were ministers abroad in the mid-1780s, as Adams and his wife Abigail took the newly widowed Jefferson under their wing. Despite their early friendship, though, the two men “differed in almost every conceivable way,” said historian Gordon Wood, A55, H10.

In his recent book, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (Penguin), Wood can’t help but highlight the contrasts. Adams was from “middling stock,” short and stout, prone to emotional outbursts and reckless honesty, a respecter of religion, and admirer of the English constitution Jefferson was a born aristocrat and slave-holder, tall and lanky, polite to the point of reticence, no respecter of religion, and an admirer of the bloody French Revolution.

The book is not just a study of two men, but also a primer on what divided the country at its founding, and to some extent divides it today: North and South, Federalists who believed in larger role for government and Republicans who wanted to limit it.

Wood, the Alva O. Way University Professor emeritus at Brown University, a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, and former Tufts trustee, had initially planned to write about Adams he had just completed editing three volumes of Adams’ writing for the Library of America. But his editor at Penguin suggested a dual biography of Adams and Jefferson, pitting the two against each other. “I’m glad I did, and I think I learned more about these two men in contrast to one another than if I had worked on either one of them alone,” he said.

Tufts Now recently spoke with Wood about Adams, Jefferson, and the lessons of history.

Tufts Now: Jefferson and Adams seemed more different than alike—how did they become friends?

Gordon Wood: What drew them together was the revolutionary movement. They were both radicals. When Jefferson joined the Continental Congress, where Adams had already been hard at work, they both agreed on opposing the British. Adams had taken the lead on this right from the outset, and Jefferson joined in. In 1774 Jefferson wrote the most radical pamphlet to appear until Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. So Adams took to him right away.

And later, when Jefferson joined Adams abroad as minister in Paris, Jefferson was a widower. John and Abigail took him under their wing, and he became really fascinated by this family, especially by Abigail he flirted with her in their correspondence when John and Abigail moved to London. I think he’d never really experienced a family like the Adamses, and he became part of the family. That was a very important part of the bonding.

What divided them?

They were divided by politics and political partisanship. Adams was a great admirer of the English constitution—and Jefferson, who despised England, was a real radical and an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, which Adams hated. By the 1790s, they didn’t share very much, except for having a common enemy in Alexander Hamilton. The presidential election of 1800, when Adams lost to Jefferson, was devastating to him, and he didn’t easily forget it. He and Jefferson had no contact for a dozen years afterwards.

It took two years of work by a mutual friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, to bring these two men together again in 1812. And from then until their deaths in 1826, they exchanged 158 letters, with Adams writing three to every one of Jefferson’s. Adams never minded writing more letters than Jefferson. He understood that Jefferson had many more correspondents to deal with.

You write that Adams was “no politician and certainly no party leader, and he had very little political sense.” And yet he was a founder of the country, and served as the first vice president and the second president. What explains that contradiction?

Because he was so far ahead of his colleagues in support of the revolution, and the revolution succeeded so well, he became the most famous Northerner in America. So when the electors came to vote in the first election of the president in 1788, it was natural that he would come in second to Washington, especially when the electors wanted to balance the geographical sections. The way the Constitution read at that time the electors voted for two people, and the man who got the most electoral votes got to be president, and second most got to be vice president. And you couldn’t vote for two people from the same state. It couldn’t be Washington and Jefferson, and people inevitably thought of Adams he’d done so much.

There were lots of people who were not happy with Adams even being vice president. Hamilton didn’t trust him, thought he was erratic, unstable he could fly off the handle. And he had once been the friend of Jefferson, whom the Federalists, and especially Hamilton, despised.

Adams spoke his mind he wasn’t like Jefferson, who was very diplomatic.

No one accused Adams of dissimulation. He often resembled Alceste in Moliere’s The Misanthrope. By contrast, Jefferson was often accused of dissimulation. He was obsessed with politeness—gentlemen restrain themselves, hold back what they actually think. When carried too far, this kind of excessive politeness can lead to being thought two-faced.

You say Jefferson was a radical, but he was also an aristocrat, owning large properties and many slaves.

That’s the paradox of the early republic—the leaders of the popular Republican Party come from the most socially conservative, hierarchical, slave-holding areas. The conservative leadership, the Federalists, on the other hand, came from New England, which was by far the most democratic and egalitarian area of the new republic.

The paradox is understandable, because the slaveholding planters in the South didn’t really know what democracy was like they lived in a hierarchical world where they had very little sense of a threat from the common white people, the electorate. Whereas the Federalists were in a much more middling society, which was much more volatile, much more democratic than the society of the South. The conservative leaders were threatened all the time by the possibility of popular unrest. So they were much more suspicious of democracy. And of course Adams is part of that, but he feared aristocrats as much as democrats. He really didn’t trust anyone.

Jefferson was a big supporter of the French Revolution, even though friends he made in France were executed.

Yes, and there’s an extraordinary letter that he wrote in February 1793. He was told by his successor in Paris, William Short, that many of his former aristocratic French friends were being guillotined by the thousands. Jefferson’s reply was extraordinary. Well, he said, this is the nature of revolutions, and people have to expect bloodshed. He almost sounds like the defenders of Stalin in the 1930s. He wrote that if only an Adam and Eve were left alive but left free, it would be worth it.

It’s not that Jefferson would have actually overseen executions, but he was an extreme radical in his thinking. And he really did excuse the thousands of people being guillotined in the French Revolution, because he felt those being executed were only useless aristocratic monarchists who were defending an ancient regime that had to be destroyed to make way for a new enlightened republic. It was worth all the bloodshed. Jefferson was as much an eighteenth-century radical as Thomas Paine.

In the end you laud Jefferson for his ability to inspire Americans with his ideals, and seem to dismiss Adams for his pessimism about human nature.

Frankly, I like Adams I find him more akin to my own sensibility. But Adams can’t be the spokesman for the nation. He’s a realist, he’s cynical and pessimistic, and he opposed America’s sacred myths. He denied the exceptionalism of the United States. We were just as corrupt and sinful as any other nation, he said. He denied the American belief in equality. He thought that all men are created unequal and education could not do much to erase that inequality. He could never be America’s spokesman.

Jefferson’s message, that all men are created equal, has become for most people the most important, the most inspiring, part of the Declaration of Independence, and the source of Jefferson’s fame. Jefferson, like most of the enlightened in the late eighteenth century, believed that the obvious differences between adults was due to their being brought up in differing environments. Nurture, not nature, was what mattered, which was why Jefferson was so keen on public education for every male.

This message of all men being born equal, as many subsequently came to use it—including Abraham Lincoln—is what allows a diverse nation like ours to survive. Lincoln in 1858 thought the society of the United States was very ethnically diverse and could only be held together by Jefferson’s message. Lincoln claimed that those words about equality made all the subsequent immigrants one with the Founders, made them “blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.”

It may be that Adams is more accurate and more realistic about the sources of inequality—that nature, not nurture, is what matters—but certainly that’s not a message that could inspire the people of the United States. But Jefferson could inspire people. Despite being a slaveholder, one who did not believe that black slaves were the equal of whites, Jefferson has become our spokesman. His great words transcend his racism and his other personal weaknesses.

Were Adams and Jefferson hopeful about the future of the country in their later years?

Both men died thinking that the country was going in the wrong direction, and with good reason, as the emerging sectional conflict did end in a civil war. All the revolutionaries who lived into the nineteenth century died disillusioned with what they had wrought. The society was much wilder, more unruly, and more democratic than they had expected.

Are there lessons that we can draw from the lives of Adams and Jefferson?

I think there is a general lesson from history, that much of what happens consists of the unanticipated consequences of purposive action. What’s impressive is the blindness of the participants in the past, their inability to foresee the future and the significance of what they were doing. Jefferson and Adams had no idea, for example, how important the Declaration would become.

History, if it teaches anything, teaches prudence, caution, and wisdom. How can you be sure that what you are going to do will be for the best? It seems to me that history is ultimately a conservative discipline—not in political terms, but in its effect of softening our enthusiasm to change the world overnight.

It gets us off the roller coaster of emotions where we think it is the best of times or the worst of times. It emphasizes the limitations within which people in the past were obliged to act. We see where people in the past have misjudged the future, and we realize that we might not know what the future is either.

Still, we don’t want to have so much prudence that we inhibit action. But that’s not a danger that we Americans are likely to experience. We are not a very history-minded people. America, said President Polk, was the only nation that had its history in the future.


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Walter Staib has made numerous appearances on local and national cooking shows, such as the Today show and the Food Network’s Best Thing I Ever Ate and Iron Chef. He is the host of the Emmy Award winning show A Taste of History, which received the 2012 James Beard Foundation nomination for Best TV Show On Location. The show is a vehicle for Staib to share 18th century cuisine with a growing audience. Currently, he can be seen nationwide for the fourth season on PBS and on national cable on RLTV. The show was awarded three Emmy awards in its first two seasons.


Founders and Frenemies

A new book by Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Gordon Wood, A55, chronicles the intertwined lives and politics of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Official presidential portrait of Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800 John Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1815

J ohn Adams and Thomas Jefferson first became friends in 1776 at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. However, the two men “differed in almost every conceivable way,” said historian Gordon Wood, A55, H10.

In his latest book, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Wood highlights the contrasts. But the book is not just a study of two men. It’s also a primer on what divided the country at its founding, and to some extent divides it today: North and South Federalists, who believed in a larger role for government, and Republicans, who wanted to limit it.

I recently spoke with Wood—the Alva O. Way University Professor emeritus at Brown University, a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, and a former Tufts trustee—about Adams, Jefferson, and the lessons of history.

How did Jefferson and Adams become friends?

What drew them together was the revolutionary movement. They were both radicals. When Jefferson joined the Continental Congress, where Adams had already been hard at work, they both agreed on opposing the British. And later, when Jefferson joined Adams abroad as minister in Paris, Jefferson was a widower, and John and Abigail took him under their wing. He became really fascinated by this family, especially by Abigail. I think he’d never really experienced a family like the Adamses, and he became part of it.

They were divided by politics and political partisanship. Adams was a great admirer of the English constitution—and Jefferson, who despised England, was a real radical and an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, which Adams hated. By the 1790s, they didn’t share very much, except for having a common enemy in Alexander Hamilton. The presidential election of 1800, when Adams lost to Jefferson, was devastating to him, and he didn’t easily forget it. He and Jefferson had no contact for a dozen years afterward. It took two years of work by a mutual friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, to bring these two men together again in 1812. And from then until their deaths in 1826, they exchanged 158 letters.

You say Jefferson was a radical, but he was also an aristocrat.

That’s the paradox of the early republic—the leaders of the popular Republican Party came from the most socially conservative, hierarchical, slaveholding areas. The conservative leadership, the Federalists, on the other hand, came from New England, which was by far the most democratic and egalitarian area of the new republic. The paradox is understandable, because the slaveholding planters in the South didn’t really know what democracy was like. They lived in a hierarchical world where they had very little sense of a threat from common white people, the electorate. Whereas the Federalists were in a much more middling society, which was much more volatile, much more democratic than the society of the South. The conservative leaders were threatened all the time by the possibility of popular unrest. So they were much more suspicious of democracy. And of course Adams was part of that, but he feared aristocrats as much as democrats. He really didn’t trust anyone.

In the end you laud Jefferson for his ability to inspire Americans, and seem to dismiss Adams for his pessimism.

Frankly, I like Adams, I find him more akin to my own sensibility. But Adams can’t be the spokesman for the nation. He was a realist, he was cynical and pessimistic and opposed to America’s sacred myths. He denied the exceptionalism of the United States, and denied the American belief in equality. Jefferson’s message, that all men are created equal, has become the most important part of the Declaration of Independence, and the source of Jefferson’s fame. This message of all men being created equal is what allows a diverse nation like ours to survive. It may be that Adams is more accurate, more realistic, but certainly that’s not a message that could inspire the people of the United States. Jefferson’s great words transcend his racism and his other personal weaknesses.


Founding Fathers' dirty campaign

(Mental Floss ) -- Negative campaigning in America was sired by two lifelong friends, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Back in 1776, the dynamic duo combined powers to help claim America's independence, and they had nothing but love and respect for one another. But by 1800, party politics had so distanced the pair that, for the first and last time in U.S. history, a president found himself running against his vice president.

Despite their bruising campaign, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams became friends again.

Things got ugly fast. Jefferson's camp accused President Adams of having a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

In return, Adams' men called Vice President Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."

As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward. See 8 great campaign slogans »

Even Martha Washington succumbed to the propaganda, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was "one of the most detestable of mankind." Mental Floss: Jefferson: The sensitive writer type

Jefferson hires a hatchet man

Back then, presidential candidates didn't actively campaign. In fact, Adams and Jefferson spent much of the election season at their respective homes in Massachusetts and Virginia.

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But the key difference between the two politicians was that Jefferson hired a hatchet man named James Callendar to do his smearing for him. Adams, on the other hand, considered himself above such tactics. To Jefferson's credit, Callendar proved incredibly effective, convincing many Americans that Adams desperately wanted to attack France. Although the claim was completely untrue, voters bought it, and Jefferson stole the election.

Jefferson paid a price for his dirty campaign tactics, though. Callendar served jail time for the slander he wrote about Adams, and when he emerged from prison in 1801, he felt Jefferson still owed him.

After Jefferson did little to appease him, Callendar broke a story in 1802 that had only been a rumor until then -- that the President was having an affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. In a series of articles, Callendar claimed that Jefferson had lived with Hemings in France and that she had given birth to five of his children.

The story plagued Jefferson for the rest of his career. And although generations of historians shrugged off the story as part of Callendar's propaganda, DNA testing in 1998 showed a link between Hemings' descendents and the Jefferson family.

Just as truth persists, however, so does friendship. Twelve years after the vicious election of 1800, Adams and Jefferson began writing letters to each other and became friends again. They remained pen pals for the rest of their lives and passed away on the same day, July 4, 1826. It was the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Mental Floss: The post-White House lives of presidents

John Quincy Adams gets slapped with elitism

John Adams lived long enough to see his son become president in 1825, but he died before John Quincy Adams lost the presidency to Andrew Jackson in 1828. Fortunately, that meant he didn't have to witness what many historians consider the nastiest contest in American history.

The slurs flew back and forth, with John Quincy Adams being labeled a pimp, and Andrew Jackson's wife getting called a slut.

As the election progressed, editorials in the American newspapers read more like bathroom graffiti than political commentary. One paper reported that "General Jackson's mother was a common prostitute, brought to this country by the British soldiers! She afterward married a mulatto man, with whom she had several children, of which number General Jackson is one!"

What got Americans so fired up? For one thing, many voters felt John Quincy Adams should never have been president in the first place. During the election of 1824, Jackson had won the popular vote but not the electoral vote, so the election was decided by the House of Representatives. Henry Clay, one of the other candidates running for president, threw his support behind Adams. To return the favor, Adams promptly made him secretary of state. Jackson's supporters labeled it "The Corrupt Bargain" and spent the next four years calling Adams a usurper. Mental Floss: 5 secrets left off the White House tour

Beyond getting the short end of the electoral stick, Andrew Jackson managed to connect with voters via his background -- which couldn't have been more different than Adams'.

By the time John Quincy was 15, he'd traveled extensively in Europe, mastered several languages, and worked as a translator in the court of Catherine the Great.

Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson had none of those privileges. By 15, he'd been kidnapped and beaten by British soldiers, orphaned, and left to fend for himself on the streets of South Carolina.

Adams was a Harvard-educated diplomat from a prominent New England family. Jackson was a humble war hero from the rural South who'd never learned to spell. He was the first presidential candidate in American history to really sell himself as a man of the people, and the people loved him for it.

Having been denied their candidate in 1824, the masses were up in arms for Jackson four years later. And though his lack of education and political experience terrified many Adams supporters, that argument didn't hold water for the throngs who lined up to cast their votes for "Old Hickory." Ever since Jackson's decisive victory, no presidential candidate has dared take a step toward the White House without first holding hands with the common man.

But losing the 1828 election may have been the best thing to happen to John Quincy Adams. After sulking home to Massachusetts, Adams pulled himself together and ran for Congress, launching an epic phase of his career.


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For as long as there have been friends, there have been frenemies.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are perhaps America’s most famous pair of feuding friends. Their storied relationship began in 1775 and ended abruptly on July 4, 1826, when the two ex-presidents died within hours of each other — on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Historians believe Adams’ last words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives,” muttered in his dying breaths before typhoid overcame him. Jefferson had actually passed away several hours earlier, so Adams’ proclamation was incorrect.

Whether or not Adams’ mention of Jefferson arose out of spite, bitterness, love or camaraderie, historians will never know. But what is clear is that the men held a mix of respect and contempt for each other and maintained an on-again off-again relationship for five decades.

Many at the time saw their Independence Day deaths as a sign of divine providence. Today, their intertwined July Fourth passings serve as a convenient metaphor for an American legacy of boundless disagreement and unlikely accord.

First, friends

Historians, including Gordon S. Wood in his book “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson,” have long focused on the two rivals’ volatile relationship.

Their friendship began in the early days of the nation, despite their vastly different political views. Adams believed in a strong central government whereas Jefferson championed states’ rights.

Surprisingly, their contrasting views brought them together, thanks to a deep mutual respect and esteem.

Adams was elected vice president under George Washington while Jefferson was appointed secretary of state. It was here that their kinship began to splinter.

After Washington chose not to seek a third term, a power vacuum formed. Adams and Jefferson ran against each other, split on issues like their views of the French Revolution.

Adams squeaked by with three more electoral votes and won the presidency. In an awkward technicality, the 1796 system called for the second-place contender to become vice president.

Adams asked Jefferson to join him in forming a strong, bipartisan administration. But Jefferson turned him down.

Then enemies

In 1800, Jefferson and Adams faced off again. Things got nasty.

Members of Jefferson’s camp said Adams had a “hideous hermaphroditical character,” while Adams’ supporters called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow.” (Despite the vitriol, there was no mention of nasty women or deplorables.)

Jefferson won, and Adams was bitter. He left town and skipped the inauguration ceremony.

The rivals didn’t speak for 12 years.

Finally, frenemies

Another Founding Father, eager to reunite the two statesmen, hatched a plan to bring them back together. Benjamin Rush, a civic leader and fellow Declaration signer, wrote to both men, saying the other wanted to rekindle their friendship. (And thus a timeless comedy trope was born).

Rush sealed the deal by telling them he had a dream in which they revitalized their friendship through letter-writing before they later “sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country.”

In 1812, the two started writing again and eventually mailed more than 185 letters to each other. But their friendship was still tense at times and their political divisions remained ripe.

A year after their communication was reopened, Adams wrote, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”

Over the next few years, a tenderness crept back into the founders’ relationship. As he grew older, Jefferson even wrote, “Crippled wrists and fingers make writing slow and laborious. But while writing to you, I lose the sense of these things, in the recollection of ancient times, when youth and health made happiness out of everything.”

We’ll never know exactly where they stood in the end or what Adams was thinking on that fateful Fourth of July 192 years ago. But we know that Jefferson was on his mind until his last moments.

A month later, wordsmith Daniel Webster was called to deliver a joint eulogy. In commemoration of July Fourth and the life of the two politicians, he said:

“Adams and Jefferson are no more. On our 50th anniversary, the great day of national jubilee, in the very hour of public rejoicing, in the midst of echoing and re-echoing voices of thanksgiving, while their own names were on all tongues, they took their flight together to the world of spirits.”

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Founding frenemies worked it out

I was recently re-watching "John Adams" — the brilliant 2008 miniseries based on the biography of the Founding Father and second U.S. president by David McCullough.

It's been on HBO On Demand this week — probably to coincide with the Fourth of July. Adams, of course, played a leading role in persuading the Continental Congress to break ties with Britain while assisting Thomas Jefferson — his longtime frenemy — in drafting the Declaration of Independence.

The miniseries — which stars the vastly underrated Paul Giamatti as Adams — is extremely well done. It chronicles the conflicts with England as well as the bitter rise of political parties — led by Adams on one side and Jefferson on the other — that followed independence.

Seriously, if you think partisanship is out of hand these days, you should go back and read the stuff allies of both Adams and Jefferson were slinging at the other side back then.

It makes the nightly pontificating on Fox News and MSNBC seem like kids stuff.

And yet, toward the conclusion of their long lives (which, appropriately enough, each ended on July 4, 1826), Adams and Jefferson managed to reconcile. They even traded a series of letters in which they discussed political philosophy and the historic times in which they had both played such important roles.

Those letters are still studied in-depth in history classes. It's hard to imagine, say, John Boehner and Barack Obama entering into such a civil correspondence in their own impending retirements.

And even if they did, today's methods of communication don't really lend themselves to posterity.

You can't expand much on issues like immigration reform or the battle over health care reform in a text message or a 140-word tweet sent at 3 a.m.

Try to imagine Jefferson using Twitter to communicate with his fellow founders back in 1776.

"OMG you guys. Truths self-evident. All peeps created = and endowed by @TheTweetofGod with cool rights. #lifelibertypursuitofhappy @Pharrell :)"

Doesn't have the same zip as that old-school parchment, does it?

But times change. And rather than jumping right into the debate, the way politicians, bloggers and other partisans on both sides often assure us they would, if you somehow transported founders like Adams and Jefferson through time to today, they'd pretty much just be freaked out by a modern society beyond their comprehension.

"Egad Thomas! Is that the devil's voice speaking to me through this infernal mobile device?"

Imagine how poorly we'd cope ourselves if we were thrust back into an era of smallpox and mutton and johnnycake for dinner every night.

Perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn from studying Adams and Jefferson, then, is that they were very much men of their time with different views who battled, but nevertheless managed to work together when it counted most.


Like an Asp

And then she let loose about Callendar’s disclosure of his affair with Sally Hemings. “The Serpent you cherished and warmed, bit the hand that nourished him, and gave you Sufficient Specimins of his talents, his gratitude, his justice and his truth.”

Jefferson, no doubt stung, replied that he knew nothing of Callendar’s activities. She wrote back that she didn’t believe him. And she added to his list of sins: He had used his position as Adams’ vice president to undermine his policies.

Abigail’s letter to Jefferson has gone down in history as the bluntest, angriest missive he ever received. And Jefferson received more than 26,000 letters in his lifetime.

The USS Constellation attacks the French frigate L’Insurgente during the Quasi-War.


Jefferson, Adams, and the Hope of Liberal Education

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (Rembrandt Peale/Gilbert Sullivan)

C itizenship in America is in a troubling state. In 2015, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni conducted a survey of college graduates which found that only 28.4 percent could name James Madison as the father of the Constitution. Thirty-nine percent did not know that Congress had the war power, and roughly 45 percent did not know the length of congressional terms. In 2017, the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 37 percent of Americans could not name any of the rights in the First Amendment, and that only 26 percent could name all three branches of government. Gallup poll results from 2018 reveal that young Americans’ views of capitalism and socialism have switched since 2010, with only 45 percent of respondents now professing a positive view of the capitalist system. A November 2018 YouGov poll revealed that Americans’ patriotism and knowledge of civics was troublingly low. More recently, in January 2019, Gallup released survey results which showed that 30 percent of younger Americans, a record high, would like to permanently leave the U.S. Unfortunately, these results are not shocking. Each new poll extends the long line of depressing findings.

The answer to this crisis of civics and citizenship is a renewal of America’s commitment to liberal education. A consensus is growing among many on the left and right that a reinvigorated system of liberal education is necessary if we want a society of active, engaged, and informed citizens. As an article published in the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ journal Liberal Education noted, liberal education “is the best means to the desired end of having a citizenry with the knowledge, skills, and wisdom necessary to participate in democratic governance.”

Liberal education and citizenship are fundamentally linked. Concerned with the liberty of the mind, liberal education prepares young men and women for free thought and citizenship in a democratic republic. It imparts to students knowledge of the history of our country, the shape of our traditions and structures, and the accumulated wisdom of our greatest minds. It is the act of entering into the world of thought and creation generated by humankind throughout history. Liberal education is education for liberty. Proponents of this education understand that liberal learning is necessary if our citizens are to fully comprehend and act on all that is involved in their citizenship.

Rebuilding a system of liberal education that teaches our students to become active citizens will be far from easy. Fortunately, we have a guide in the famous friendship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. These two great Founders, though often at intellectual odds, maintained their roughly 50-year friendship through intellectual discussion, investigation, and a desire to learn. In 1784, John Adams wrote of Jefferson, “He is an old Friend with whom I have often had occasion to labour at many a knotty Problem.” Adams later wrote to Jefferson that this “intimate correspondence with you… is one of the most agreeable events in my life.” For these two men, friendship and education were intimately connected.

What does a spirit of friendship mean in the setting of liberal education? Looking to the letters of Jefferson and Adams, it seems that this spirit is not one of simple open-mindedness, but rather of committed engagement with each topic, idea, and argument. It involves a readiness and ability to defend one’s positions and to engage with the ideas of others, and cultivates enthusiasm for that exchange. All involved care enough to prepare, so all are pushed to think their arguments through. The discussion is unencumbered, unrestricted, and free. This leads friends to think deeply, defend vigorously, and argue fully. The best cases are made, and the strongest counters are given. Friendship fosters true intellectual engagement.

There is also an inherent sense of challenge that pervades Jefferson and Adams’s letters. In their questions and claims both men pushed each other and were willing to be tested. Although each laid out the best possible defense for his own position, victory was not the goal. Their end was a search for truth. In an exchange of letters from August to September 1813, Jefferson and Adams took up the question of the nature and role of aristocracy. After receiving two letters from Adams, which used numerous quotations from classical sources to argue that aristocracy should be looked to in the structuring of governments, Jefferson replied with a vigorous response and counter argument. In doing so, he perfectly characterized what disagreement and learning in a spirit of friendship means.

“On the question, what is the best provision [for aristocracy]?” Jefferson remarked, “you and I differ but we differ as rational friends, using the free exercise of our own reason, and mutually indulging its errors.” Intellectual disagreement for Jefferson and Adams was not a barrier to friendship, but rather an opportunity to jointly investigate ideas and grow closer to the truth. When students learn in this way, it leads them to think together. Willingness to be challenged and openness to learning encourages bold intellectual explorations of new worlds and ideas. Above all, each student’s primary goal becomes the improvement of themselves and each other. Enthusiasm, challenge, and a drive to think at one’s highest level come to mark liberal learning. Joy results as these generate progress towards the truth.

Unlike much of the college environment today, students learning in the spirit of Jefferson and Adams will push each other and be pushed. Students will inevitably experience the discomfort of admitting there are things they do not know and answers they do not have. There may also be times when they encounter opinions and ideas foreign to their worldview. An ethos of friendship in liberal education, however, enables students to use this discomfort to become more open and to drive themselves to challenge ideas, think, and discover. The surprise of new thoughts and the joy of discovery will propel the search for truth, and ultimately liberal education may again be pursued for its own sake. If this is to happen, liberal education should be understood as the act of entering, in friendship, into the world of thought and creation generated by humankind throughout history.

When Jefferson and Adams were reaching their final years, and Jefferson learned of Adams’s declining health, he wrote, “the account I receive of your physical situation afflicts me sincerely but if body or mind was one of them to give way, it is a great comfort that it is the mind which remains whole, and that it’s vigor, and that of memory, continues firm.” Adams replied, “Your letter of the 8th has revived me,” and ended by stating simply, “I salute your fire side, with best affection and best wishes for their health, wealth, and prosperity. Ever your friend John Adams.” The national discussion taking place over civic life would do well to be informed by the friendship of two of the country’s greatest patriots. If liberal education is to help remedy the problems we face, if it is to teach students to become citizens through opening them up to a universe of thought and allowing their minds to grow, freely roam, and interact with the world, then cultivating this spirit of friendship should be the focus of our greatest efforts.

While liberal education will never be a cure-all for the disgraceful state of civic life and historical knowledge in America, its renewal in a spirit of friendship is essential if we seek to tackle our citizenship deficit. Students educated in such an environment will not only deeply understand the ideas and principles of the Founders and of Americans throughout history, but they will also come to understand their own connection to those ideas. They will feel invested in the future of their country and in the principles that form its foundation. This educational environment will also affect the concern and interest students have in what government does, how it acts, and the way in which they see their rights and duties. Robust engagement in the classroom naturally translates to the open marketplace of ideas and the active world of citizenship. These students will serve as examples to their fellow citizens, expanding the education of the classroom to the entire country. In the fight to restore civic life and knowledge in America, the rebuilding of liberal education in the spirit of Jefferson and Adams’s friendship is an essential component.


President Donald Trump has been criticizing and insulting President Barack Obama since he was a private citizen, and Obama has lashed out at Trump since the 2020 election.

The bad blood between President Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, has been evident throughout the years.

Trump has criticized and insulted Obama since he was a private citizen, and has reversed or sought to reverse many of Obama's policies as president.

Obama had refrained from openly criticizing his successor until the 2020 presidential election, when he slammed the Trump administration's COVID-19 response, called Trump's approach to governance "mean-spirited," and mocked Trump for being "jealous of COVID's media coverage."

After Trump lost the election, Obama even joked that Trump might have to get dragged out of the White House by Navy SEALs if he keeps refusing to concede.


Watch the video: Jefferson and Adams: Frenemies (January 2022).