July 4, 2015

Founding Fathers And Unlikely Friends | Thomas Jefferson And John Adams

As the 4th of July is here, I figured we would pay tribute to two of our Founding Fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson … and talk a little bit about the architecturally magnificent Monticello which I will address in further detail in another blog.

The friendship that these two figureheads developed over the years is captured in the many letters that they exchanged during their lifetimes. Meeting at the 1775 Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the two men developed a strong respect for one another, despite their political, and personal differences. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson shared mutual admiration for one another, but were both very different men.

Portrait of John Adams by Samuel Morse (1816)

Adams, the elder of the two, was described as “distrustful, obstinate, excessively vain, [taking] no counsel from anyone,” by Thomas Jefferson himself. Despite his temper, Adams was known for his integrity, and staunch support of his ideals. Born in 1735 in Quincy, Massachusetts, his father was a farmer by trade who wanted his son to become a minister. Instead, John Adams won a scholarship to Harvard University when he was 16, eventually becoming a lawyer, a profession that suited him considering his love of debate. Adams first rose to prominence as an opponent of the British Stamp Act of 1765, which intended to raise money for the maintenance of troops stationed in America after the French and Indian War, but violated the right to be taxed by consent, and the right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers. Adams went on to write “Essay on the Canon and Feudal Law” for the Boston Gazette, denouncing the imposition of the Stamp Act. Despite his opposition to the British Parliament’s Stamp Act, In 1770 Adams agreed to provide legal defense for a group of British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre, two of whom had fired upon a crowd of civilians in Boston killing five people. As he feared, this hurt his reputation in Boston, but Adams would become known for his unwavering courage and unfaltering principles. That same year, Adams was elected to the Massachusetts Assembly and would become one of the representatives at the First Continental Congress.

Though John Adams was appointed to the committee which drafted the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was chosen to draft the document. Despite doubts some voiced regarding the young Thomas Jefferson heading the Committee for preparing the Declaration, Adams gave the Virginian his full support. In a letter to Timothy Pickering, John Adams stated the following in support of his friend:

Idealized depiction of the drafting of the Declaration of Independence (1900)

“You inquire why so young a man as Mr. Jefferson was placed at the head of the Committee for preparing a Declaration of Independence, I answer [..]

Mr. Jefferson came into Congress, in June, 1775, and brought with him a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent of composition. Writings of his were handed about, remarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression. Though a silent member in Congress, he was so prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees and in conversation, not even Samuel Adams was more so, that he soon seized upon my heart; and upon this occasion I gave him my vote, and did all in my power to procure the votes of others. I think he had one more vote than any other, and that placed him at the head of the committee. I had the next highest number, and that placed me the second. The committee met, discussed the subject, and then appointed Mr. Jefferson and me to make the draught, I suppose because we were the two first on the list.

The sub-committee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draught I said, “l will not.” “You should do it.” “Oh! no.” “Why will you not? You ought do it.” “I will not.” “Why?” “Reasons enough.” “What can be your reasons?” “Reason first–You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second–I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular.– You are much otherwise. Reason third–You can write ten times better than I can.” “WelI,” said Jefferson, “if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.” “Very well.– When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.”

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1800)
Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1800)

Thomas Jefferson was the third of ten children, born in 1743 in a farmhouse in Shadwell, Virginia. Jefferson grew up on the late William Randolph’s Tuckahoe Plantation, inherited by Thomas’ father in 1745, two years after Thomas was born. (This is where Thomas Jefferson would go on to build Monticello when he was 26 years old, a masterpiece influenced by Palladian Neoclassical architecture.)  Here he learned Latin, Greek, and French, began riding horses, and studied classics and science under Reverend James Maury. His father, a planter and surveyor, died when Thomas Jefferson was 14 years old; little is known about his mother. When Thomas Jefferson was 16, he entered the College of William & Mary, studying mathematics and philosophy. He completed his studies in two years, and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767. An avid reader, Jefferson amassed an immense library over the years, so much so that when the British burned the Library of Congress in 1814 he offered to sell his collection of over 6,000 titles to the Library. (He intended to pay off some debts with the money collected, but in a letter to John Adams, he stated “I cannot live without books,” and immediately began to buy more.)

monticello aerial
Aerial view of Monticello, photo credit: Smithsonian

The friendship between the two men only suffered a blow when Jefferson, who served as Adams’ VP, went on to beat him for the 3rd Presidency, inciting Adams to add some last-minute political appointments of Jefferson’s political foes before leaving office. Despite the bad blood, the pair reconciled at the urging of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence. A neighbor of Jefferson’s visited Adams in Massachusetts, and upon returning to Virginia and seeing Thomas Jefferson reported that he heard Adams say, “I always loved Jefferson, and still love him.” Whether or not Adams actually uttered those words remains to be seen, but apparently this was enough to rekindle the friendship between the former political foes, who continued to write until they both passed away, on the same day, July 4th, 1826 – fifty years after the original signing of the Declaration of Independence. Adams’ last words were purportedly “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Though in actuality Jefferson predeceased Adams by a few hours, both men live on in their legacies as great American leaders, and in their letters which offer a glimpse into the minds of two brilliant men.