Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson
(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