Monday, April 3, 2017

The Adams-Jefferson Letters

“By the latter part of the 1790s Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had become bitter political opponents. The friendship they had forged as congressional and diplomatic colleagues, fellow revolutionaries, and members of George Washington’s administration did not survive the strain of Jefferson’s victory in the 1800 presidential election. Adams left the nation’s capital just before Jefferson’s inauguration in March 1801, and with the exception of brief notes they exchanged shortly thereafter, no letters passed between the two men for more than a decade. Jefferson tried to heal the breach after Abigail Adams wrote to console him for the loss of his daughter Maria in 1804, but to no avail. The eventual repair of their damaged relationship is attributable to the efforts of their mutual friend Benjamin Rush.

“On October 17, 1809, Rush wrote Adams that he had had a dream in which a “renewal of the friendship & intercourse” between the two ex-presidents took place [and “a correspondence of several years” ensued with “many precious aphorisms [truths], the result of observation, experience, and profound reflection” contained in their letters] -- a reconciliation to be prompted, Rush added, by a short letter from Adams to his former rival. Adams encouragingly replied that he had “no other objection to your Dream, but that it is not History. It may be Prophecy.” Early in 1811 Rush advised Jefferson of his ardent wish that “a friendly and epistolary intercourse might be revived” between the two men, expressing his firm belief that “an Advance on your Side will be a Cordial to the heart of Mr. Adams.” These initiatives bore no fruit at the time. 

"In the summer of 1811, however, Jefferson’s neighbors Edward Coles and John Coles visited Quincy, and Adams there told them that, “I always loved Jefferson, and still love him.” After these words reached Jefferson, he was moved on December 5, 1811 to write Rush about the continued warmth and depth of his feelings for his old friend. Sensing an opportunity, Rush soon passed the pertinent passages from Jefferson’s letter along to Adams. An olive branch having been extended, Rush implored Adams to write to Jefferson and for the two men to “embrace each other! Bedew your letters of reconciliation with tears of affection and joy. Bury in silence all the causes of your separation. Recollect that explanations may be proper between lovers but are never so between divided friends.” The first two letters [below] from January 1812 renewed direct contact between Adams and Jefferson and reestablished one of the most celebrated intellectual dialogues and literary conversations in American history, one that continued for 14 years until the last year of both men’s lives in 1826."[1]

January 1, 1812: Adams to Jefferson
As you are a Friend to American Manufactures under proper restrictions, especially Manufactures of the domestic kind, I take the Liberty of Sending you by the Post a Packet containing two Pieces of Homespun lately produced in this quarter by One who was honoured in his youth with Some of your Attention and much of your kindness. [John Quincy Adams’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory, Delivered to the Classes of Senior and Junior Sophisters in Harvard University, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1810)]

All of my Family whom you formerly knew are well. My Daughter Smith is here and has Successfully gone through a perilous and painful Operation*, which detains her here this Winter, from her Husband and her Family at Chenango: where one of the most gallant and Skilful Officers of our Revolution is probably destined to Spend the rest of his days, not in the Field of Glory, but in the hard Labours of Husbandry.

I wish you Sir many happy New years and that you may enter the next and many Succeeding years with as animating Prospects for the Public as those at present before us. I am Sir with a long and Sincere Esteem your Friend and Servant, 
J. Adams
*[Adams’s daughter Abigail Adams smith had recently undergone surgery for breast cancer. Her husband was Revolutionary War veteran William Stephens Smith]

January 21, 1812: Jefferson to Adams
I thank you before hand (for they are not yet arrived) for the specimens of homespun you have been so kind as to forward me by post. I doubt not their excellence, knowing how far you are advanced in these things in your quarter. Here we do little in the fine way, but in coarse & midling goods a great deal. Every family in the country is a manufactory within itself, and is very generally able to make within itself all the stouter and midling stuffs for it’s own clothing & household use. We consider a sheep for every person in the family as sufficient to clothe it, in addition to the cotton, hemp & flax which we raise ourselves. For fine stuff we shall depend on your Northern manufactures. Of these, that is to say, of company establishments, we have none. We use little machinery. The Spinning Jenny and loom with the flying shuttle can be managed in a family; but nothing more complicated. the economy and thriftiness resulting from our household manufactures are such that they will never again be laid aside; and nothing more salutary for us has ever happened than the British obstructions to our demands for their manufactures. Restore free intercourse when they will, their commerce with us will have totally changed it’s form, and the articles we shall in future want from them will not exceed their own consumption of our produce.

A letter from you calls  up recollections very dear to my mind. It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties & dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us & yet passing harmless under our bark we knew not how, we rode through the storm with heart & hand, and made a happy port. Still we did not expect to be without rubs and difficulties; and we have had them. First the detention of the Western posts: then the coalition of Pilnitz, outlawing our commerce with France, & the British enforcement of the outlawry. In your day French depredations: in mine English, & the Berlin and Milan decrees: now the English orders of council, & the piracies they authorize: when these shall be over, it will be the impressment of our seamen, or something else: and so we have gone on, & so we shall go on, puzzled & prospering beyond example in the history of man. And I do believe we shall continue to growl, to multiply & prosper until we exhibit an association, powerful, wise, and happy, beyond what has yet been seen by men. As for France & England, with all their preeminence in science, the one is a den of robbers, & the other of pirates. And if science produces no better fruits than tyranny, murder, rapine, and destitution of national morality, I would rather wish our country to be ignorant, honest & estimable as our neighboring savages are —but whither is senile garrulity leading me? Into politics, of which I have taken final leave. I think little of them, & say less. I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus & Thucydides, for Newton & Euclid; & I find myself much the happier. Sometimes indeed I look back to former occurrences, in remembrance of our old friends and fellow laborers, who have fallen before us. Of the signers of the Declaration of Independence I see now living not more than half a dozen on your side of the Potomac, and, on this side, myself alone. You & I have been wonderfully spared, and myself with remarkable health, & a considerable activity of body & mind. I am on horseback 3 or 4 hours of every day; visit 3 or 4 times a year a possession I have 90 miles distant [Poplar Forest], performing the winter journey on horseback. I walk little however; a single mile being too much for me; and I live in the midst of my grandchildren, one of whom has lately promoted me to be a great grandfather.**  I have heard with pleasure that you also retain good health, and a greater power of exercise in walking than I do. But I would rather have heard this from yourself, & that, writing a letter, like mine, full of egotisms, & of details of your health, your habits, occupations & enjoyments, I should have the pleasure of knowing that, in the race of life, you do not keep, in it’s physical decline, the same distance ahead of me which you have done in political honors & achievements. No circumstances have lessened the interest I feel in these particulars respecting yourself; none have suspended for one moment my sincere esteem for you; and I now salute you with unchanged affections and respect, Th. Jefferson

**[TJ’s first great-grandchild was John Warner Bankhead (b. 1810), eldest child of Charles Lewis Bankhead and Mrs. Anne Cary Randolph Bankhead, first-born of Thomas Mann Randolph and Mrs. Martha Jefferson Randolph].

Note: By remarkable coincidence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4th 1826 -- the 50th Anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Adams' last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” though his old friend and political rival had died only a few hours before.
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[1] Lyman H. Butterfield, “The Dream of Benjamin Rush: The Reconciliation of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson,” Yale Review 40, 1950). [Quoted in the United States National Archives online: 

The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence, Lester J. Cappon, Editor (The University of North Carolina Press; September 30, 1988). https://www.amazon.com/Adams-Jefferson-Letters-Complete-Correspondence-Jefferson/dp/0807842303/

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