Jefferson and Adams: A Lifetime of Letters
The close friendship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams began when they met at the 1775 Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Although different in many ways down to their appearance, the two developed a strong respect and liking for one another. In 1776, they worked together on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, and in 1784, Jefferson joined Adams in France on diplomatic service. While Jefferson remained in Paris, Adams served primarily in London, from where, Jefferson wrote Abigail Adams, he considered her "as my neighbor." In March of 1786, Jefferson went to England on diplomatic business, though in the two months he was there, he and Adams found time to make a tour of English gardens. They also visited Shakespeare's home -- and chipped off a bit of his chair as a souvenir, in Adams's words, "according to the custom."
Through their work and play, Jefferson and the Adamses became close friends. Jefferson revealed his affection to James Madison, writing that Adams "is so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him if you ever become acquainted with him." Mrs. Adams once called Jefferson "one of the choice ones of the earth," and Mr. Adams wrote Jefferson that "intimate Correspondence with you . . . is one of the most agreable Events in my Life."
Despite their close friendship, Jefferson wrote that he and Adams were often separated by "different conclusions we had drawn from our political reading." The two maintained their friendship despite their political differences until 1801, the year that Jefferson became president. As Jefferson wrote Mrs. Adams: "I can say with truth that one act of Mr. Adams's life, and one only, ever gave me a moment's personal displeasure." By this, Jefferson was referring to last-minute political appointments made by Adams just before Jefferson succeeded him as president. Jefferson wrote that the appointments "were [selected] from among my most ardent political enemies" who could be counted on to work against his executive authority. Jefferson admitted to "brooding over it for some little time," and during this period, they ceased writing one another.
When Jefferson retired from the presidency in 1809, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration that Adams and Jefferson worked to create, took it upon himself to renew their suspended friendship. He had no success until 1811, when one of Jefferson's neighbors visited Adams in Massachusetts. The neighbor returned to Virginia with the report that he had heard Adams say, "I always loved Jefferson, and still love him." In response to these words, Jefferson wrote Dr. Rush: "This is enough for me. I only needed this knowledge to revive towards him all of the affections of the most cordial moments of our lives." He asked Rush to persuade Adams to renew their correspondence. A letter from Adams was forthcoming, and they continued to write until their deaths.
This reconciliation began a rich correspondence that touched on myriad topics, from reminiscences about their contributions to the young nation's history, to opinions on current political issues, to matters of philosophy and religion, to issues of aging. Their letters were also lighthearted and filled with affection. Jefferson wrote, "I have compared notes with Mr. Adams on the score of progeny, and find I am ahead of him, and think I am in a fair way to keep so. I have 10 1/2 grandchildren, and 2 3/4 great-grand-children; and these fractions will ere long become units."
A Lasting Legacy
After fifteen years of resumed friendship, on July 4, 1826, Jefferson and Adams died within hours of each other. Their deaths occurred -- perhaps appropriately -- on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Unaware that his friend had died hours earlier, Adams's last spoken words were "Jefferson still survives."
The written words of Jefferson and Adams, however, survive to this day, preserving the rich legacy of their friendship, thoughts, and ideas. In their later years, Jefferson responded to a reflective question from Adams: "You ask if I would agree to live my 70. or rather 73. years over again? To which I say Yea. I think with you that it is a good world on the whole, that it has been framed on a principle of benevolence . . . . I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern."
For more information, consider reading The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, edited by Lester J. Cappon.
- John Adams. Copy of sculpture by Binon. Photograph by Edward Owen.