Review: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Two ‘Friends Divided’

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Adams and Jefferson were colleagues in the Continental Congress but then took opposite sides in early American politics.


Review: Adams and Jefferson, Two ‘Friends Divided’

Alan Taylor on Gordon S. Wood’s book about the remarkable relationship between two presidents whose views defined—and divided— the early nation.


John Adams and Thomas Jefferson famously died on the same day, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The timing struck Americans as providential, for Adams had led the push for independence in the Continental Congress, and Jefferson drafted the inspirational document that justified the decision.

But, as Gordon S. Wood vividly conveys in “Friends Divided,” the two men were stark contrasts in almost every way. Tall and lanky, Jefferson towered over the short and stout Adams. Outwardly serene, gregarious and gracious, Jefferson made friends more easily than did the cranky, excitable and acerbic Adams. Jefferson sought to ingratiate, Adams to provoke. Where Jefferson flattered the American people as the best on earth, Adams warned them to beware of their passions, greed and conceit. Jefferson told them what they longed to hear, while Adams conveyed unpalatable truths. Adams clung to a secularized vision of the original sin that taints all humanity, according to the Calvinist sermons of his youth. Jefferson instead embraced an Enlightenment creed that regarded humanity as potentially perfectible if freed from too much government. Jefferson sought, with remarkable success, to know something about everything, while Adams focused his reading and writing on political theory.

Friends Divided

By Gordon S. Wood

Penguin Press, 502 pages, $35

They came from divergent backgrounds in radically different colonies belonging to the British Empire. Born into a farming family of middling means and conventional piety, Adams grew up in Massachusetts, a domain of relative equality, where leading men feared pressure from the common farmers below, because the social distance was so short. Jefferson, however, inherited wealth and prestige in Virginia, the richest and most unequal colony on the mainland of North America: a domain of a few grandees, a paltry middle class, many poor whites and thousands of enslaved African Americans. Born into the master class, Jefferson could champion the political aspirations of common folk, for he felt secure that they would never challenge his superiority. Adams boasted that he never possessed a slave; Jefferson owned hundreds during his lifetime.

Driven by ambition and self-doubt, Adams longed to become the leading lawyer in Massachusetts and statesman in America. He needed more applause than even his considerable talents could win, so he wallowed in self-abuse and self-pity in private diaries and letters. “No other Founder,” Mr. Wood remarks, “could paint in prose such colorful and pungent pictures of individuals as Adams”—especially Adams writing about Adams.

Instead of confiding to a diary, Jefferson recorded everything he could measure: population, weather, expenditures and the births and deaths of his human property. Jefferson carefully courted public esteem by withholding his private sentiments and self-doubts—if he had any, which Mr. Wood doubts. Adams could never mask his contempt for almost every other politician, while Jefferson dreaded contention and cultivated equanimity. While smiling to the public faces of all men, Jefferson savaged rivals in private letters and political intrigues, which led foes to suspect duplicity.

Modern citizens and politicians prefer Jefferson’s flattery to Adams’s criticism. Adams, however, has become the not-so-guilty pleasure of historians, who delight in his voluminous and vivid paper trail. Who can resist a source so garrulous, blunt, opinionated and provocative? He seems to offer the hidden truths coveted by scholars, who doubt surface appearances and pieties.

In this lucid and learned dual biography, Mr. Wood asks: “These two men were so different from each other. How could they ever have become friends?” They met at the Second Continental Congress, which convened in Philadelphia in May 1775, a few weeks after war had erupted between Patriot militiamen and British regulars. Thirty-nine-years-old, Adams was the older, veteran lawyer, writer and politician. Needing Virginia’s support in Congress, Adams cultivated the younger man (then 32), treating him as a promising protégé. Busy with committee work to manage the war effort, Adams encouraged Jefferson to draft the Declaration.

At the time, Jefferson felt frustrated because that duty marginalized him from framing a state constitution for Virginia. In the short term, Adams succeeded where Jefferson failed, drafting the constitution for Massachusetts in 1779-80. Featuring a bicameral legislature with a strong governor, that state’s constitution influenced the subsequent Federal Constitution adopted in 1787-88.

Thereafter, Adams became obsessed with vindicating the conservative principles of most American constitutions, writing long and turgid defenses. “Infatuated with the English constitution,” Adams favored elements of monarchy in the executive and of aristocracy in the senate. Few readers appreciated the subtlety of his too-subtle analysis. Adams despised the wealthy and wellborn of America as selfish and exploitative, but he insisted that their persistent power could never be wished away, as democracy falsely promised. Instead, he sought to channel that power overtly into a single house of the legislature, lest it covertly dominate the entire system. Adams also wanted an executive, with a complete veto and a life term, to hold the balance of power between a democratic lower house and an elitist senate. While Jefferson won renown for declaring all men as created equal, Adams became notorious for announcing, early and often, that all men were unequal, both naturally and socially.

Their friendship flourished during the mid-1780s, when both men served as American diplomats in Europe and exchanged warm sentiments and happy visits. But their affection eroded during the 1790s, after they had returned to the United States and taken opposite sides in the nation’s politics. During that decade, politics polarized between the nation-building Federalists and hostile Republicans, who promoted states’ rights and a more democratic vision of governance—albeit only for white men.

During that decade, Adams’s political fortunes ran on the fumes of former accomplishments, while Jefferson claimed the future. Early in the 1790s, Adams had little influence as vice president in the Federalist administration of the formidable and frosty President Washington. Meanwhile, Jefferson shrewdly built influence by leading the Republicans, who accused the Federalists of corrupting the government by insidiously cultivating monarchy and aristocracy. In 1797, Adams succeeded Washington as president, while Jefferson uneasily became his vice president—and continued to lead the opposition. No longer friends, they competed in the nasty and pivotal presidential election of 1800, which Jefferson narrowly won and triumphantly insisted had saved the republic from “monarchists.” Adams seethed in retirement, while Jefferson grew ever more popular, winning re-election in a landslide.

Mr. Wood has become the leading historian of the “Founding Fathers”—those who declared independence and wrote the first state and federal constitutions. Through a long, productive and celebrated career, he has sustained a remarkably consistent interpretation of the American Revolution as a middle-class movement by hard-working and ambitious common men seeking wealth and respect. Alarmed at British rule, they initially followed the enlightened lead of their better-educated and wealthier leaders—the Founders—in the fight for independence and republican government. After winning the war, common men completed the revolution through their own aggressive striving, which broke down traditional deference for the genteel elite. At the turn of the new century, middle-class manufacturers, newspaper editors and party politicians took over, shunting aside the older generation to create a speculative economy and democratic politics. The cleverest Founders, led by Jefferson, cleared the way, while the most conservative, especially Adams, became “irrelevant” by clinging to antiquated ideas of persistent social hierarchies.

Mr. Wood wants to admire the democratic Jefferson more than the skeptical Adams, but biographical details often pull the author toward reversing that assessment. If Jefferson was the smoother politician, Adams seems the better man to Mr. Wood. Adams developed a close, practically equal and always loyal marriage with the able, articulate and devoted Abigail Smith Adams. Jefferson, however, favored female inferiority, tried to seduce a friend’s wife, married a woman who knew her subordinate place, and, after his wife died young, took an enslaved mistress whose children could never challenge the inheritance of his legitimate daughters. Adams lived within his means in a modest farmhouse, while Jefferson built and rebuilt a mountaintop mansion filled with fine art, furniture and wines—while his debts mounted ever higher, ultimately ruining his heirs. Mr. Wood also disdains Jefferson’s dangerous naiveté in supporting the increasingly bloody and chaotic French Revolution of the early 1790s. Adams’s early skepticism seems, by comparison, judicious and prescient.

Both men despised slavery in principle, but neither did anything to end it in practice. Adams, at least, never indulged in the pseudo-biological racist speculations that tainted Jefferson’s book “Notes on the State of Virginia.” Adams supported the black revolutionaries of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), in the Caribbean, while Jefferson helped the French efforts to suppress their independence.

Mr. Wood’s reversal seems complete as he turns to the last decades of his two subjects, when they renewed their friendship through an exchange of 158 letters. “You and I,” Adams told Jefferson in 1813, “ought not to die, before We have explained ourselves to each other.” Forthcoming and funny, Adams ranged widely and frankly, while Jefferson was more cagey, politely deflecting his old friend’s most provocative points. Meanwhile, in letters to Virginia’s leaders, Jefferson became more dogmatic and angry, denouncing every new economic and social trend as destructive to his rustic vision of America. Challenged by antislavery politics emerging in the northern states, Jefferson fiercely embraced the dogma of southern states’ rights. While Jefferson became a crank, Adams belatedly warmed up, more serenely accepting the volatile new politics and economy as inevitable. “The two friends seemed to reverse their outlooks on the world,” Mr. Wood concludes. Indeed, he nearly dismisses Jefferson as shallow: “He had little understanding of man’s capacity for evil and had no tragic sense whatsoever. That is, he possessed no sense of the circumstances impinging on and limiting human action, little or no appreciation of the blindness of people struggling with a world they scarcely understood.”

But, ultimately, this reversal will not do for Mr. Wood or, he insists, America. In the epilogue, he scuttles back to more-familiar assessments. “However true, however correct, however in accord with stubborn facts Adams’s ideas might have been,” Mr. Wood writes, “they were incapable of inspiring and sustaining the United States.” In contrast with Jefferson, whose idealistic words Lincoln later drew upon, “Adams was too questioning, too contrarian, too cynical, to offer any such support for America’s nationhood.” In the book’s ultimate reversal, Mr. Wood renews his vows to Jefferson as the crafter of an optimistic and inclusive creed that allegedly binds diverse Americans together in one inspirational nation. Never mind, that Jefferson’s creed divided Americans along gender, racial and regional lines to frame fissures that endure in our politics. In the end, Mr. Wood casts Americans as needing consoling illusions because they cannot face “stubborn facts.” If so, the true pessimist is not Adams but Mr. Wood.

We should not be so quick to dismiss Adams as “irrelevant.” Indeed, contemporary politics render him alarmingly prescient. He astutely predicted, “Our Government must forever be a kind of War of about one half the People against the other.” He warned Americans that they could never eliminate the voracious political power of wealth in an unequal society. Therefore, American constitutions needed to isolate that power in one branch of the legislature lest it, instead, seep into and take over every political institution while wearing the façade of democracy. He imagined the day when the pose of populism would empower a plutocracy. Never has John Adams been more relevant than today.