John 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.

 

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 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.

Taylor McNeil

Taylor McNeil, deputy editor for news at Tufts, can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.