John Adams (October 30, 1735 – July 4, 1826) was a politician and the second President of the United States. 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."1 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."2
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 ever you become acquainted with him."3 Mrs. Adams once called Jefferson "one of the choice ones of the earth,"4 and Mr. Adams wrote Jefferson that "intimate Correspondence with you ... is one of the most agreable Events in my Life."5
Despite their close friendship, Jefferson wrote that he and Adams were often separated by "different conclusions we had drawn from our political reading."6 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."7 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.8
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 knolege to revive towards him all the affections of the most cordial moments of our lives."9 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 to Abigail Adams, "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 10½ grandchildren, and 2¾ great-grand-children; and these fractions will ere long become units."10
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 family later recalled that his last spoken words were, "Thomas Jefferson survives."11
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."12
Jefferson on Adams
1783 February 14. (Jefferson to Madison). "His vanity is a lineament in his character which had entirely escaped me. His want of taste I had observed. Notwithstanding all this he has a sound head on substantial points, and I think he has integrity."13
1787 January 30. (Jefferson to Madison). "He is vain, irritable and a bad calculator of the force and probable effect of the motives which govern men. This is all the ill which can possibly be said of him. He is as disinterested as the being which made him: he is profound in his views: and accurate in his judgment except where knowledge of the world is necessary to form a judgment. He is so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him if ever you become acquainted with him."14
1804 June 4. (Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes). "He and myself have gone through so many scenes together, that all his qualities have been proved to me, and I know him to possess so many good ones, as that I have never withdrawn my esteem ...."15
1807 June 12. (Jefferson to William Short). "I have heard indeed that my predecessor sometimes decided things against his council by dashing & trampling his wig on the floor. this only proves what you & I knew, that he had a better heart than head "16
1811 January 16. (Jefferson to Rush). "Mr Adams was honest as a politician as well as a man .... I have the same good opinion of mr Adams which I ever had. I know him to be an honest man, an able one with his pen, and he was a powerful advocate on the floor of Congress."17
1823 August 30. (Jefferson to Madison). "[T]his however I will say for mr Adams, that he supported the declaration with zeal & ability, fighting fearlessly for every word of it."18
1. Jefferson to Abigail Adams, February 2, 1788, in PTJ, 12:533. Transcription available at Founders Online.
2. Adams, "Notes on a Tour of English Country Seats, &c., with Thomas Jefferson," April 4-10?, 1786, in L.H. Butterfield et al., eds., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 3:185. Transcription available at Founders Online.
3. Jefferson to Madison, January 30, 1787, in PTJ, 11:96. Transcription available at Founders Online.
4. Abigail Adams to Mary Smith Cranch, May 8, 1785, in L.H. Butterfield et al., eds., Adams Family Correspondence (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963- ), 6:119. Transcription available at Founders Online.
5. Adams to Jefferson, March 1, 1787, in PTJ, 11:190. Transcription available at Founders Online.
6. Jefferson to Abigail Adams, June 13, 1804, in PTJ, 43:578-80. Transcription available at Founders Online.