Friends Di­vided: John Adams and Thomas Jef­fer­son

The Week (US) - - 21 - By Gor­don S. Wood

(Pen­guin, $35) Thomas Jef­fer­son and John Adams, by many mea­sures, “could not have been more dif­fer­ent,” said James Piere­son in The New Cri­te­rion. One was an aris­to­cratic, slave­hold­ing Vir­ginian with pop­ulist lean­ings. The other was a flinty New Eng­land lawyer sus­pi­cious of the masses. And though they clashed spec­tac­u­larly when they faced off as pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates in 1800, that rocky pe­riod was brack­eted by a fruitful al­liance dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War era and a late-in-life rec­on­cil­i­a­tion that car­ried through their deaths, hours apart, on July 4, 1826. His­to­rian Gor­don Wood’s dual bi­og­ra­phy doesn’t rad­i­cally re­frame their shared story. But Wood, who has writ­ten “bet­ter and more ex­ten­sively” than any­one else about Amer­ica’s for­ma­tive years, vividly shows why the ideas that di­vided the two friends still di­vide Amer­i­cans to­day.

“This is an en­gross­ing story, which Wood tells with a mas­tery of de­tail,” said Richard Brookhiser in The New York Times. When the pair met in 1775 at the Sec­ond Con­ti­nen­tal Congress, Adams was al­ready a seasoned fighter for Amer­i­can self-rule, who saw in the younger, qui­eter Jef­fer­son a pro­tégé whose gift for lan­guage made him an apt can­di­date to draft a doc­u­ment that would de­clare the colonies’ de­mand for in­de­pen­dence. A decade later, both men were United States diplo­mats in Europe, and Jef­fer­son be­came close friends with Adams’ wife, Abi­gail, who shared his in­ter­est in po­lit­i­cal talk and shop­ping. In the 1790s, how­ever, Jef­fer­son and Adams split de­ci­sively as both eyed the pres­i­dency and de­vel­oped ir­rec­on­cil­able views of the bloody revo­lu­tion roil­ing France. “Rather than it should have failed,” Jef­fer­son wrote, “I would have seen half the earth des­o­lated.” Adams con­sid­ered over­throw of the ex­ist­ing or­der a form of mad­ness doomed to end in despo­tism.

His­tory has gen­er­ally looked more kindly on Jef­fer­son, said Alan Tay­lor in The Wall Street Jour­nal. He was surely the abler politi­cian and pres­i­dent, and his faith in the bet­ter an­gels of hu­man na­ture shaped Amer­ica’s self-con­cep­tion. But though Wood ob­vi­ously wants to cham­pion Jef­fer­son, the facts of­ten make Adams look more ad­mirable. A lov­ing and faith­ful hus­band, he was not a slave owner, and he was more open to the changes in Amer­ica he and Jef­fer­son wit­nessed after leav­ing the pub­lic stage. Sub­se­quent events also make Adams look “alarm­ingly pre­scient” in his warn­ing that wealth would ex­ert too much in­flu­ence and dis­tort democ­racy. Still, Wood ar­gues that the stub­bornly ide­al­is­tic Jef­fer­son mat­ters more to his­tory, be­cause Amer­i­cans re­quire com­fort­ing il­lu­sions. “If so, the true pes­simist is not Adams, but Wood.”

Ben­jamin Franklin with Adams and Jef­fer­son

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