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'Friends Divided' explores the remarkable, stormy friendship of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

Revolutionary-era historian Gordon S. Wood, in his latest book on the period, makes clear just how fragile the American experiment had become once George Washington retired to Mount Vernon.

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Friends Divided
By Gordon S. Wood
Penguin Publishing Group
512 pp.

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Conspiracy theories run amok. Fear of spies and meddling in American politics at the highest levels by foreign powers. A bipartisan divide so bitter that the federal government moves to muzzle what many politicians believe to be a biased, out-of-control news media.

Sound familiar? Of course, all of the above puts us smack in the middle of … the Adams administration. Make that the first Adams administration – as in John Adams, the fiery New England patriot (sorry, Tom Brady) who succeeded George Washington after eight years as Washington’s vice-president. As for the qualifier of the first Adams administration, John Adams’ son, John Quincy, won the presidency in 1825. (John Quincy Adams ran against Andrew Jackson in the 1824 election; neither candidate gained a majority of electoral votes, forcing Congress to decide the race in February 1825.)

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Revolutionary-era historian Gordon S. Wood, in Friends Divided, his latest book on the period, makes clear just how fragile the American experiment had become once Washington retired to Mount Vernon. Whereas few questioned the war hero Washington, Adams and his successor, Thomas Jefferson, stirred and became immersed in vicious partisan politics both men professed to loathe. They did so as friends-turned-rivals and at the same time the fight over whether the federal government would trump states’ rights remained undecided.

Wood tells that story through the remarkable, stormy friendship of Adams and Jefferson. He starts at the end, on July 4, 1826, when the two former presidents died on the same day – 50 years to the day after the Continental Congress in Philadelphia adopted the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, of course, was the main author of that declaration, with counsel from Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

Jefferson was 83 when he died; Adams, 90.

Between their first acquaintance, as part of the Continental Congress in 1775, and that Fourth of July 51 years later, Adams and Jefferson played pivotal roles in the birth of a nation, became close friends as diplomats in Europe, grew estranged over stark differences in political philosophy during their presidencies and beyond — and, finally, reconciled at the considerable urging of mutual friend Benjamin Rush. Beginning in 1812, and continuing until their deaths 14 years later, Adams and Jefferson exchanged 158 letters, ruminating on everything from Greek classics to religion and on to the role of the aristocracy in politics and government. Adams being Adams, he often sought to rankle Jefferson over the failure of the French Revolution and what Adams always contended was Jefferson’s dangerous, misguided support of the revolution. Jefferson ignored the jabs, preferring to keep the resumed friendship intact.

During their stints as part of George Washington’s administration and beyond, Adams aligned with the Federalist Party and Jefferson with the Republicans. Jefferson and James Madison formed and led what was known as the Democratic-Republican Party, fiercely supporting the French Revolution and popular rule above all else. (The Democratic Party of today traces its roots to Jefferson and the later influence of Andrew Jackson in the 1820s; the contemporary Republican Party dates to the mid-19th Century and cites Abraham Lincoln as its forefather.)

Adams, as Wood shows throughout “Friends Divided,” and other Federalists, admired, in many ways, the monarchical structure and balance of the British government between the executive and legislative branches – the same British government that Adams, Jefferson, and the rest of the colonists spent years rebelling against over taxes and other frustrations.

Jefferson and Madison and their supporters stood in opposition, embracing France at a time when legitimate fears of a French invasion ran rampant. In 1790, according to Wood’s research, French immigrants accounted for 10% of the population in Philadelphia, the US capital. The attendant arrival of French restaurants, shops, and newspapers created additional anxiety for Adams and the Federalists.

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Philosophical differences between Adams and Jefferson became more pronounced, and more heated, as the United States moved from establishing a republic to running one. Adams felt humiliated when his presidency ended after a single term in 1801 – and at the hands of Jefferson, his vice-president, in the election of 1800.

Adams eclipsed Jefferson’s star early in the Revolutionary period, but the Declaration of Independence eventually made Jefferson more admired and much more acclaimed. Though they admired one another in many ways, Jefferson’s assured legacy and wide-ranging intellectual gifts (architecture, arts, politics, philosophy, religion, and science) often left Adams frustrated and suffering from an inferiority complex.

Adams and Jefferson shared a profession (both were lawyers) and political ambitions, and both were insatiable readers and prolific writers. But the two men also differed in obvious and subtle ways. Some of those differences were notable and interesting but harmless. Differences in political philosophy and beliefs that emerged after the Revolution proved toxic and could only be repaired by largely being ignored late in their lives.

Wood, like the many eulogists who praised and assessed the two presidents in the weeks and months after July 4, 1826, lists some of their dichotomies.

Adams, of Massachusetts, came from the North. He was sarcastic, hot-tempered, and impulsive. His frame was short and stout and his wife, Abigail, was, in many ways, Adams’s intellectual equal.

Jefferson, a Virginian, was a Southerner. He was reserved, sought not to offend in personal interactions, and kept his emotions and motives in firm check, at least in public settings. He was a thin, tall man, though Clay Jenkinson, a current historian and Jefferson impersonator, has said Jefferson didn’t seem tall because he often slouched. In marriage, Jefferson maintained a traditional, patriarchal relationship, one dependent on his wife’s subservience.

The Jefferson marriage was a happy one, but ended after just 10 years when Martha Jefferson died at age 33. Thomas Jefferson lived 44 years as a widower, though, as the contemporary historian Annette Gordon-Reed has most notably worked to research and explain, Jefferson spent many years in a complicated relationship with Sally Hemings, an African-American who was both his slave and his late wife’s half-sister – and mother to six children fathered by Thomas Jefferson. (As Gordon-Reed wrote in The New York Times in August, even the language used to describe Hemings and Jefferson ignites furious debate, from whether she was mere property forced into a sexual relationship, to the complex entanglements of their time together in Paris, when Sally knew she could be and was free but agreed to return to Monticello after extracting promises from Jefferson to free family members.)

John and Abigail Adams were married for 54 years and exchanged 1,200 letters during a relationship marked by John’s frequent travels as an ambassador and politician.

Again and again, Wood reveals the depth of a lifetime spent studying the Revolutionary period. He never lapses into simplified assessments, taking the time to research and explain nuanced conclusions.

A typical example: his analysis of Abigail Adams, dismissing a modern urge to label her a proto-feminist.

“To conceive of Abigail as somehow yearning to be like her husband is not only anachronistic, it also trivializes and demeans her domestic character – as if the male model of political activity is the only standard of worth,” Wood writes.

As for additional contrasts between Adams and Jefferson, the former was frugal while the latter spent profligately and buried himself in debt during a lifetime of shopping sprees – most obviously books and wine, among other comforts. When their diplomatic missions overlapped in Paris, a time when their friendship blossomed, Jefferson lived in the more expensive heart of the city while John and Abigail chose a residence on the edge of town to reduce living expenses.

The Adamses never owned enslaved people, though John Adams was, as Wood makes clear, much more a man of his time on racial matters than modern readers might infer. He hoped for a gradual end to slavery, but feared chaos if abolition was implemented.

Jefferson, despite some early and unsuccessful attempts on his part to find a way to end slavery, owed his personal fortune and status to slaves he inherited from his father and through marriage. His very existence at Monticello — the still-famous home where he restlessly tinkered and renovated throughout his life — depended on enslaved people, including the extended Hemings clan, who received preferential treatment and, in some cases, emancipation, owing to the relationship between Sally Hemings and Jefferson.

Wood delves into the bitter disagreements between Adams and Jefferson: Adams infuriated and offended Jefferson by endorsing hereditary political offices as perhaps the only way to head off the misguided, uneducated people’s will, while Jefferson scared and angered Adams by embracing and touting the French Revolution and what he believed to be the unerring instincts and results of popular rule.

Though he clearly admires both Adams and Jefferson, and sees much of their yin-yang political differences as important to the development of the United States, Wood concludes that there is a very good reason for Jefferson’s lasting popularity and Adams’ comparative anonymity. The idealist in Jefferson, no matter how flawed he was or how flawed the actions of the nation and its subsequent leaders may have been, still captivates Americans and gives them a sense of self.

As Wood writes in “Friends Divided,” Jefferson “told the American people what they wanted to hear – about how exceptional they were. Adams told them what they needed to know – truths about themselves that were difficult to bear. Over the centuries, Americans have tended to avoid Adams’s message; they have much preferred to hear Jefferson’s praise of their uniqueness.”

The value of those ideals – “all men are created equal,” which Adams argued would forever be impossible in a world where people have or don’t have numerous advantages, talents, and characteristics – in Wood’s studied view remains essential to uniting America and keeping the country’s grand governmental experiment in working order. That seems like a message worthy of this or any other time.