by William H. Benson
July 4, 2001
Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years to the day after the 2nd Continental Congress had voted for Independence for the thirteen colonies. Despite this coincidence, the two men were opposites.
Adams was short and chunky, talkative, combative, prone to fits of extreme anger, and a New Englander. Jefferson was a tall and thin Virginian, who rarely spoke in public and who hated confrontation, more of a bookish intellectual. Despite their differences, their lives were interwoven in the creation and government of the new country.
Historians have usually regarded Jefferson more favorably than Adams, (even though Fawn Brodie explored Jefferson’s private life in The Intimate Thomas Jefferson). After all, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, served effectively well as President for eight years, swung the Louisiana Purchase deal with France, and sent Lewis & Clark off on a very successful expedition. Adams’s accomplishments seem to hold lesser appeal.
Recently, however, historians have upgraded Adams’s reputation and lowered Jefferson’s. Joseph J. Ellis in a recent book, Founding Brothers, made no secret of his partiality to Adams. And now David McCullough just published a new biography on John Adams, and he concluded that he likes and approves of Adams over Jefferson.
McCullough pointed out that Jefferson himself regarded Adams as “the colossus of independence”, and that he was the delegate most responsible for pushing independence through the Continental Congress. Adams did the hard work; he delivered the votes. If he had not done so, Jefferson’s document would never have been. And the Louisiana Purchase came about because of peace with France, something Adams had achieved through personal negotiation and outstanding statesmenship.
Adams served as Washington’s Vice-President for eight years, and then as the nation’s second President for four years. He was not a popular President, and was then beaten in 1800 in his bid for re-election by Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson’s wife died early in their marriage while delivering a child, and he never remarried. Adams married well when he married Abigail Smith. They both possessed a powerful sense of public duty, which they fulfilled despite great financial and emotional sacrifice. For years they lived miserably apart while John carried on his work. Nevertheless, they wrote often and tenderly, an extraordinary love story. From France, he wrote to her, “I must go to you, or you must come to me; I cannot live without you.”
Abigail managed his home and their finances in Massachusetts. She supported him, and he turned to her for advice. Their letters indicate that they held immense affection for each other, even though her parents felt that she had married beneath herself. Still, she loved this chunky New Englander who never failed for words.
Benjamin Franklin once described Adams as “sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” His enemies were less kind when they suggested he was “actually insane”. His episodes of anger shocked and intimidated the faint of heart whom he confronted privately.
Nevertheless, he served his new country well–whenever he could. McCullough wrote, “Never once did Adams refuse a mission for his country because of difficulties or unseasonable conditions, or something else that he would have preferred to do.”
John Adams left behind an estate worth about $100,000. Jefferson left behind an estate $100,000 in debt, and immediately after his passing, Monticello and all the other assets had to be sold, at a fraction of what they had cost him.
Adams or Jefferson? Equipped with vastly different personalities, they forged ahead, and together these two “founding brothers” created a new nation.