For 50 years, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were at the heart of American political thought and action, and in the final 14 years of their lives, they exchanged a series of letters ranging over the whole of the vast ideological landscape they shared.
Book review: Agony and Eloquence is a lively history of the deep but fractious friendship between two US presidents
Agony and Eloquence: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and a World of Revolution
Daniel L Mallock
Daniel Mallock takes for the subject of his debut work of history, Agony and Eloquence, the long, passionate and sometimes troubled friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the Boston lawyer and the Virginia planter who became two of the principal architects of the American Revolution.
For 50 years, the two were at the heart of American political thought and action, and in the final 14 years of their lives, as the nation they did so much to establish approached its half-century anniversary, they exchanged a series of letters ranging over the whole of the vast ideological landscape they shared. These letters represent one of what Mallock refers to as the “great services” Adams and Jefferson performed for their country, epitomising their belief that “friendship should be immune to political differences”.
That remarkable final correspondence – a literary treasure unsurpassed in American history and yet so much less well-known than, for instance, the Federalist Papers or the Lincoln-Douglas debates – was as refreshing for both men as it was unlikely, since it came after years of personal and political estrangement.
Both men were fiercely intelligent: Adams in a blunt, dogged, slightly pompous register; Jefferson, almost a decade his junior, in a more diffident but wiser register; and both were enthusiastic readers and writers. Their personalities were so at odds that in retrospect it seems improbable that they would ever have been friends at all, let alone the close friends they were for most of their lives.
Both had been ministers of the fledgling United States to the courts of Europe – Adams in London and Jefferson in Paris. Both had served in the country’s first presidential administration under George Washington – Adams as vice president, Jefferson as secretary of state. But that service Mallock mentions – that friendship should be immune to political differences – is a hard, uphill lesson to learn, and when Washington left office, the dampening effect of the reverence everybody felt for him was withdrawn. The country’s government fragmented into the political factions that have characterised it ever since.
Washington had hated infighting; even as a military commander, and certainly as president, he had sought always – sometimes irresponsibly – to avoid pointed discourse. But in any group of six Americans, you’ll have six different ideas of how the country should be run, and when Washington left office, those differences boiled to the surface.
Adams won the hotly-contested election in 1796, and Jefferson became his vice president. There’s a strong argument to be made that neither Adams nor Jefferson had a particularly suitable temperament to be president, although Mallock treads fairly lightly on the point. John Ferling, John Adams’s best modern biographer, quite accurately describes him as “dour, acerbic, and querulous,” and Jefferson had an even more complicated personality, one commonly misunderstood.
“A common view of Jefferson,” Mallock writes, “is that he was a deeply contradictory man – distant and aloof, according to some scholars – a determined political and personal manipulator, an emotionally-challenged man who withheld his deepest and most essential personal truths.”
In reality, as Mallock sees it, Jefferson was “an extraordinarily brilliant and multifaceted person whose better nature was sometimes subsumed by personal pride, emotional limitations, and by his deep affection for revolutionary political principles.” Ideologically, the two men were poles apart. Jefferson was an ardent admirer of revolution, a deep believer in the wisdom of the collective, full of optimism about human nature. He looked on the French Revolution, which was first exploding into existence while Jefferson was minister in Paris, as a triumph of the human spirit on par with the American Revolution, and his zeal could sometimes blind him.
“Perhaps Jefferson’s reaction would have been different had he remained in Paris and seen all of those horrors with his own eyes,” Mallock writes with unsettling perception. “Disturbingly, one gets the impression that he may well have kept on, regardless.”Alternately, Adams was deeply suspicious of majority rule, leery always of granting any kind of power to the uneducated, and as he observed decades later, he was never taken with the romance of the French Revolution.
“We differed in opinion about the French revolution,” he wrote to Benjamin Rush in late 1811. “He thought it wise and good, and that it would end in the establishment of a free republic. I saw through it, to the end of it, before it broke out, and was sure it could end only in a restoration of the Bourbons, or a military despotism, after deluging France and Europe in blood …” Adams complained that the French Revolution did great damage to his friendship with Jefferson.
These differences were only exacerbated by political infighting of their respective presidential administrations. The Alien and Sedition Acts imposed on the country by Adams, for instance, naturally grated against Jefferson’s non-autocratic sensibilities. And the Embargo Acts Jefferson enacted in his second term, which Adams considered “a cowardly measure”, very nearly drove New England to secede from the Union.
Each man engaged in more or less overt sniping, and the little political betrayals that are inevitable in the arena of government grew more and more acrimonious. Rather than attend Jefferson’s inauguration as a gesture of goodwill, Adams packed up his household and began the long carriage journey back to his home in Quincy, Massachusetts, where he lost very little time in taking up his pen to defend his administration and – by extension – criticise his successor. By the time Jefferson’s two terms in office were over, an icy silence had existed between the two men for years and seemed fated to continue unbroken.
As time passed and the great lions of the Revolutionary era died off, the friends and acquaintances of the two men increasingly sought to bring about a reconciliation. Foremost among these friends was gentle and brilliant Benjamin Rush, who worked subtly but persuasively to overcome the momentum of silence between Jefferson’s home of Monticello and the Adams farm at Peacefield.
In late 1811, Rush might have thought his labours close to fruition, only to receive a tart letter from Adams asking what possible use it could be for Jefferson and himself to exchange letters so late in life. “I have nothing to say to him, but to wish him an easy journey to heaven, when he goes, which I wish may be delayed, as long as life shall be agreeable to him,” Adams wrote. “And he can have nothing to say to me, but to bid me make haste and be ready.”
Undaunted, Rush persisted, and when the correspondence actually began and Adams quickly realised how much he’d missed Jefferson, he sent a very different letter to Rush, one that virtually capered with glee, shouting “Huzza!” and going on: “You have wrought wonders! You have made Peace between Powers that never were at War! You have reconciled Friends that never were at enmity!” The two exchanged 158 letters over the next 14 years, with Adams writing twice as often and, tellingly, almost never complaining about the discrepancy. He happily maintained that although he wrote more, Jefferson wrote deeper. In these letters, all the emotional and intellectual storms that had blown between the two men dissipated, and in their place, a challenging and very sweet epistolary portrait of two old friends delighting in each other’s company.
Mallock tells the story of that friendship with a great deal of energy and only a very occasional inclination toward banality (lines like “Every generation writes its own histories, often reaching different conclusions from those who came before” are mercifully few). He quite rightly views it as in some ways a personification of America’s formative early years and as “a model of learning, acceptance, and forgiveness”. And with effective understatement, he tells the familiar story of that friendship’s end in 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Republic’s founding.
On his deathbed, Adams, mentally surveying the ranks of the Founding Fathers, is consoled at least that “Thomas Jefferson survives” – not knowing that Jefferson had died just a few hours earlier that same day. The moment is a perfect capstone to a vigorously symmetrical relationship, and Mallock has given that relationship a lively new history.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly and a regular contributor to The Review.