Retrospect and Prospect
IT WAS SCARCELY TO BE EXPECTED THAT THE VICTOR AND THE vanquished in the “revolution of 1800” would ever be reunited in friendship. Remarkably, they were, though only after the passage of eleven years. Adams withdrew into his shell at Quincy. His influence gone and only his books and his plow between him and the grave, he seemed sullenly resigned to his fate; but defeat struck at his pride, and he soon began rummaging over the past to discover its cause. Recalling his entire career, he wondered if it was not an almost classic case of the ingratitude of republics toward their leaders. “I always consider the whole nation as my children,” he said, “but they have almost all been undutiful to me.” That all his efforts to serve and instruct the nation would be met with persecution, injustice, and ingratitude had been prophesied to him by an ambassador at the court of Versailles in 1784. The prophesy had been “completely fulfilled,” as Adams always knew it would be.1 He found solace in the life of Cicero, who had also borne the slings and arrows of all parties. Conscious of his own purity and integrity, Cicero, in his defense, had been driven to assertions that many thought proof of vanity but which Adams took as proof of the envy and dishonor of little men. “Pushed and injured and provoked as I am, I blush not to imitate the Roman,” he said. The old charge of vanity had no terrors for him. “Every persecuted man, persecuted because he is envied, must be an egotist or a hypocrite.” And besides, as he would philosophize to a young friend, “Vanity is the cordial drop which makes the bitter cup of life go down.”2
Gradually, as his spirits revived, Adams spoke out boldly in defense of his public career. In 1807 he engaged in an epistolary tirade against Mercy Warren, once a dear friend, for her History of the American Revolution. Mrs. Warren slighted his revolutionary services, made him a figure of passion and prejudice, and accused him of apostacy from republican principles. Adams, in turn, accused her of writing history in order to gratify the feelings of the Republican party. He was boastful of his own services, believing they exceeded those of any of his contemporaries, and insisted he was, as he had always been, a better republican than Jefferson. Much of this was mean and petty as well as vain. Mrs. Warren at first attempted to reason with him, but finally dismissed Adams’ performance as “the ravings of a maniac.”3 The pommeling of Mrs. Warren, and through her of all the Republican assailants of his reputation, was only a prelude to Adams’ denunciation of the Federalist party in a prolonged series of letters published in the Boston Patriot. Principally a vindication of his presidency, the letters attacked Hamilton, Pickering, and the “British party” who, Adams charged, had silently conspired with the Republicans to accomplish his downfall. As he later summed up the analysis, “The [Federalist] party committed suicide; they killed themselves and the national President (not their President) at one shot, and then, as foolishly or maliciously, indicted me for the murder.”4 The main count in the indictment, the second mission to France, was actually “the most splendid diamond in my crown,” Adams said. It was a disinterested act—between self-serving partisans left and right, the only American act. The more he pondered the subject, the more he made the peace with France the virtuous symbol of his entire career. Thus he could write in 1815 that he wanted no other inscription on his tombstone than this: “Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of the peace with France in the year 1800.”5 He sometimes said he was careless of fame, but this, too, was a piece of vanity. A passionate commitment to his fame caused him to cast off the mantle of oblivion he had wrapped around himself in 1801 and can alone explain the personal preoccupation of many years to vindicate his place in history, often at the expense of eminent contemporaries.
Renewal of the old friendship with Jefferson was no part of this scenario. In his heart Adams may have wished it, for he still liked Jefferson, and such was the strength of his feelings that once he had contracted a friendship he could never lose it all. But only victors enjoy the luxury of magnanimity. The first move would have to come from Jefferson, who made it, in a roundabout way, in 1804. Mrs. Adams had written to him a letter of condolence on the death of his younger daughter. Jefferson thought he saw in the letter proof that their friendship, at least, was unbroken, and he seized on the opening to invite a reconciliation with the former president. Reviewing the ancient friendship, Jefferson observed that for his part only one act of Adams’ life, the so-called “midnight appointments,” had ever given him a moment’s personal displeasure. “They were from among my most ardent political enemies, from whom no faithful cooperation could ever be expected, and laid me under the embarrassment of acting through men whose views were to defeat mine; or to encounter the odium of putting others in their places. It seemed but common justice to leave a successor free to act by instruments of his own choice.” (Jefferson removed a number of the eleventh-hour appointees, and was particularly irritated by the new federal judgeships, their tenure running for life, created by the Federalist Judiciary Act of 1801. The act, with the judgeships, was repealed by the Republicans in 1802.) This, Jefferson confessed, “left something for friendship to forgive,” and after a time he had forgiven it, cordially and completely.6
Jefferson expected that Mrs. Adams would share his letter with her husband. She did not, but undertook to speak for him in reply. In filling federal offices, Adams had simply exercised the duty imposed on him by the Constitution. Government could not be suspended in the interval between one president and the next. No act of personal unkindness was intended. But as long as Jefferson was airing grievances, she would disclose those actions of his that had finally severed the bonds of friendship. Jefferson’s election had been effected by “the blackest calumny” against the incumbent. The chief of the calumniators was James T. Callender, who had been tried, convicted, fined and imprisoned for violation of the Sedition Act. One of Jefferson’s first executive acts was to liberate this wretch and remit his fine, after which Callender, turning on his former benefactor, revealed that he had been a paid hireling of the vice-president. “This,” Mrs. Adams declared, “was the sword that cut asunder the Gordian knot, which could not be untied by all the efforts of party spirit, by rivalship, by jealousy or any other malignant fiend.”7 She went on to allude to another act of unkindness which Jefferson’s own reflection would readily enough suggest. When it did not, she reminded him of his removal of her son John Quincy from the office of commissioner of bankruptcy in Massachusetts. Jefferson was able to explain this incident to her entire satisfaction. (Under the former law, appointment to the occasional office of commissioner had been by a federal judge; when the law was changed to give the appointment to the president, Jefferson had no knowledge the younger Adams had ever served in the office.) As to Callender, he said that the small payments made to him were mere charities, “no more meant as encouragements to his scurrilities than those I give to a beggar at my door are meant as rewards for the vices of his life.”8 This was less than candid, for Jefferson’s “charities” were so intimately blended with the production of partisan tracts he acknowledged to be scurrilous as to require an act of naïvete to separate them. Mrs. Adams did not believe him. Jefferson was on firmer ground in restating his position that regardless of the atrocities perpetrated by the press, whether against him or against Adams, the federal government had no authority to suppress opinion. He had, accordingly, upon becoming president considered the Sedition Act “a nullity” and freed all its victims. Mrs. Adams, whose polemical skills fully equalled Jefferson’s, replied with a discourse on the blindness and licentiousness of party spirit which threatened the. survival of the republic. She defended the constitutionality of the Sedition Act and said that even if it were unconstitutional, the judiciary, not the executive, should declare it. Jefferson countered with his own theory of tripartite balance founded on the separation of powers. Each of the three branches of the government had a right to decide questions of constitutionality for itself; if the judiciary alone possessed that right, it would tyrannize over the others. Mrs. Adams had no wish to argue such questions. A correspondence that had begun with her expression of heartfelt sympathy over the death of a daughter had turned into a confrontation of political principles. She returned to the major personal grievance centering on Callender. “It was not until after the circumstances concurred to place you in the light of a rewarder and encourager of a libeler, whom you could not but detest and despise, that I withdrew the esteem I had long entertained for you.”9 Mrs. Adams would not forgive, and on this note she declared the correspondence closed.
The correspondence of several months was carried on without John Adams’ knowledge or suspicion. When Mrs. Adams later showed it to him, he had nothing to say. Although her political opinions were to the right of his, and she was the more fiery politician, there is no reason to believe that the outcome would have been different had he participated in the correspondence. He was still licking his wounds in 1804, and his wife apparently wished to save him the pain of reopening them. He wrote few letters and generally avoided political questions; but the evidence suggests that, for all his ineradicable affection, he felt no more forgiving of Jefferson than his wife and thought little better of him as a philosopher and a statesman than the New England Federalist leaders. He was a man under French influence; his scientific speculations were but “pitiful bagatelles”; he despised the wholesome sentiments of the Christian religion. His patronage of Callender and a host of Republican libelers was not only a blot on his moral character but proof he was a captive of party.10 The course of Jefferson’s administration confirmed Adams’ fears for it. He condemned the repeal of the Judiciary Act, partisan removals from office, repeal of the internal taxes, and cutbacks of American naval power. The only important Jeffersonian measure he approved was the Louisiana Purchase.11 As he saw it, the nation was suffering from a distemper, democracy, “and when it is once set in motion and obtains a majority, it converts everything good, bad, and indifferent into the dominant epidemic.”12 It had invaded Massachusetts and to all intents and purposes converted Adams’ balanced constitution into a simple democracy. Jefferson was wholly consumed by this epidemic. “I wish him no ill,” Adams wrote in 1804. “I envy him not. I shudder at the calamities, which I fear his conduct is preparing for his country from a mean thirst of popularity, an inordinate ambition, and a want of sincerity.”13 Jefferson, of course, supposed that a free government grew strong not by combatting the popular will but by sympathizing with it and nudging it into constructive channels. As he stated the issue between the parties to Mrs. Adams: “One fears most the ignorance of the people; the other the selfishness of rulers independent of them.”14 The idea that democracy traveled a circular route, through licentiousness, demagoguery, and egalitarian delusion, back to despotism—an idea rooted in political philosophy including Adams’ own—was alien to Jefferson’s outlook.
The first essay at reconciliation failed, but a second seven years later succeeded. Why? Nothing was more important in preparing the way than a change in Adams’ political posture. His articles in the Boston Patriot, commenced in 1807, made him persona non grata to New England Federalists. They were a necessary purgative for his return to political health, and in effect, if not in name, he became a Republican. The purging coincided with the foreign crisis of Jefferson’s second administration. The War of the Third Coalition racked the Atlantic world; relations between the United States and Great Britain rapidly deteriorated on issues of neutral rights and impressment of American seamen. The two nations were brought to the brink of war in June 1807 when the British ship Leopard brutally attacked the American frigate Chesapeake off the coast of Virginia. Adams rallied to the Jefferson administration. In this he followed the course of his son John Quincy Adams, now a United States senator from Massachusetts. John Quincy, though a Federalist, had his father’s penchant for independence, and in the reciprocity of influence between the two men he now held the upper hand. War was averted over the Chesapeake Affair, but the crisis worsened until in December Jefferson proposed the embargo of American ships, seamen, and productions from the high seas. The Massachusetts senator enthusiastically endorsed the embargo. John Adams also approved of it, as an alternative to war, though he inclined to think it “cowardly” and never entered into the Jeffersonian theory of “peaceable coercion,” the theory of forcing justice on foreign nations by withholding American commerce, which the measure assumed.15 John Quincy attended the Republican caucus in Congress in January 1808. He was then repudiated by the Federalist-controlled legislature of Massachusetts and forced to resign. Before leaving Washington he called on the president, who had known and admired the younger Adams since his seventeenth year when they had promenaded in Paris together, and disclosed a disunionist plot among bitter-end Federalists in New England. He was later charged with selling out to the Republicans to save his political career. While the charge lacked merit, it was not without some semblance of truth, for in 1809 Adams’ Republican career was launched by his appointment as United States minister to the court of St. Petersburg. Naturally enough, the father was suspected of going over to the Republicans and, in due time, making up with Jefferson for the sake of his son.
The evidence of Adams’ changing politics was not only to be found in national affairs, however. In 1810 his old friend—Jefferson’s too—Elbridge Gerry became the second Republican governor of Massachusetts. Adams vigorously supported him. As the second war with Britain came on, and Gerry attempted to range Massachusetts behind the Madison administration, he purged the Federalists from office, castigated their leaders as tories, traitors, and disunionists, and denounced the pulpit politics of the clergy. Adams rejoiced. Yet he denied that he had changed his politics. “The charge of ‘change of politics’ … deserves no other answer than this, ‘The Hyperfederalists are become Jacobins, and the Hyperrepublicans are become Federalists. John Adams remains semper idem, both Federalist and Republican in every rational and intelligible sense of both these words.’ ”16 In fact, he had changed, though the motion was only that of a balance wheel. He had always conceived of his political role as an antagonist of extremes, shifting his weight to the right or left depending on his sense of where the greater danger lay, but never altering his fundamental principles. Thus in 1770, thinking American libertarians needed a lesson in the supremacy of the laws, he had defended Captain Preston and the British soldiers charged with the Boston Massacre; at the time of the treaty of peace, he had attempted to neutralize French power by bidding for British friendship; after Shays’ Rebellion, fearing rampant democracy, he had drawn attention to the virtues of monarchy and aristocracy in a balanced constitution; and so on. Now, in the prolonged crisis leading to the War of 1812, the danger came from the political right, particularly from New England Federalists who had sold their souls to Britain for partisan and commercial gain. With an eye cocked to his son’s political fortunes, but with the national interest uppermost in mind, Adams threw his weight into the Republican scale.
After Jefferson’s retirement to Monticello in 1809, America’s most eminent physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, took upon himself the task of reuniting his old friends. In them the spirit of the American Revolution was personified, Rush thought, and their continued estrangement was a national calamity. He suggested as much to Adams but got only a cryptic response. Later he broached the subject to Jefferson, who forwarded his correspondence of 1804 with Mrs. Adams and asked Rush to judge for himself whether it admitted a revival of friendly intercourse.17 In 1811, Edward Coles, President Madison’s private secretary, made a social call on Adams. He reminisced freely about American politics and voiced old grievances against Jefferson, especially as connected with the election of 1800. Coles, a young Albemarle friend of Jefferson’s, suggested that these matters might be viewed in a different light. And when he assured Adams of Jefferson’s continued affection, the old man burst out, “I always loved Jefferson, and still love him.”18 The report soon reached Monticello. “This is enough for me,” Jefferson declared to Rush. “And now, my friend, my dear friend,” the doctor at once wrote to Adams, “permit me again to suggest to you to receive the olive branch which has thus been offered to you by the hand of a man who still loves you. Fellow laborers in erecting the great fabric of American independence! … Embrace—embrace each other!”19 Adams replied in a vein more comic than serious. His past differences with Jefferson (and Rush too) were “all miserable frivolities.” He preferred formal speeches to Congress, Jefferson written messages. He favored formal weekly levees; “Jefferson’s whole eight years was a levee.” “Jefferson and Rush were for liberty and straight hair. I thought curled hair was as republican as straight.” Rush solemnly exhorted Adams to forgive his enemies, as if he had ever considered Jefferson an enemy. “This is not so; I have always loved him as a friend. If I ever received or suspected any injury from him, I have forgotten it long and long ago.” But why did Rush make such a fuss over these two old warriors, Adams and Jefferson, exchanging letters? “I have nothing to say to him, but to wish him an easy journey to heaven, when he goes.… And he can have nothing to say to me, but to bid me to make haste and be ready. Time and chance, however, or possibly design,” Adams added jauntily, “may produce ere long a letter between us.”20 Within a week, on January 1, 1812, he opened the correspondence with greetings on the new year and the promise of “two pieces of homespun” produced in his quarter of the Union. Jefferson, caught off guard by Adams’ humor, promptly responded with an essay on domestic manufactures, only the next day to discover that the “homespun” consisted of two volumes of Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory by John Quincy Adams.21
The correspondence continued without interruption for fourteen years, until they were both ready to die. A marvelous vindication of the spirit of friendship over the spirit of party, it also carried symbolic meaning for the nation at large. Adams and Jefferson were well aware of this. As their revolutionary comrades fell away one by one, they became the last of the founders, the great patriarchs of the nation’s heritage, and it almost seemed that renewal of the ancient friendship was the highest service they might yet render their country. The correspondence was not a patriotic exercise, however. It was an expression on the late landscape of the philosophical genius that had guided the early footsteps of the republic. It testified to, and in time became a testament of, the intellectual spaciousness that distinguished the founders’ generation and would not be seen in American statesmanship again. For Adams and Jefferson the American Revolution was a philosophical adventure no less than a political one. All history, all learning, all mankind were concerned in it, and while they often read the directives differently, neither man could any more separate his politics from a humanistic frame of values than he could see the other as an enemy to the holy cause of liberty. The correspondence, both a retrospect on the founding and a somewhat anxious prospect on the new age, evoked qualities of mind and heart that may have been ultimately more significant, because they were shared, than all the continuing clashes of opinion and temperament between the aged patriots.
Their letters traversed an immense intellectual terrain: the philosophy of Plato, the pronunciation of ancient Greek, Indian origins and antiquities, neology, spiritualism and materialism, the uses and abuses of grief, the nature of aristocracy, the French Revolution, the character of Bonaparte, and so on. Adams turned 77 in 1812, and Jefferson 69, but they addressed questions of the past, present, and future with a nimbleness younger men might envy. Both enjoyed good health for their years, the adoration of children and grandchildren, and the veneration of their countrymen. Reading was their favorite pastime, and mixed with ample writing, especially in Jefferson’s case, it kept their minds alert. While both men welcomed the renewal of correspondence, Adams entered into it with an eagerness Jefferson never felt. He wrote at least four letters to Jefferson’s one, despite the palsy—“quiveration,” he called it—in his hands which made writing difficult. It was Adams who generally introduced the subjects for discussion and thus directed the course of the correspondence. Jefferson could not keep up with him. He was a much busier man than his Massachusetts friend. Not only was there the management of a large estate with all its farms, and then, during the last decade of his life, the work of founding the University of Virginia, but he was literally deluged with correspondence. This, he said, was “the burden of my life.” In a single year he received 1,267 letters. They were letters of inquiry, for the most part, seeking his aid or advice on some project or theory, usually from perfect strangers, but always written civilly, therefore deserving civil answers. Moreover, a letter for Jefferson tended to become a disquisition. The result was that he was chained to his writing table several hours of every day. “Is this life?” he finally wrote rebelliously to Adams. “At best it is but the life of a mill-horse, who sees no end to his circle but in death.”22 Adams was not “persecuted” in this way. He was not popular. He had little of Jefferson’s Delphic reputation as a sage. And, as he confessed, Adams employed two expedients to discourage correspondents: returning no answer at all or giving “gruff, short, unintelligible, mysterious, enigmatical, or pedantical answers.” Jefferson’s nature, concededly, placed these methods out of his power.23 The correspondence proved a godsend to Adams. With little to do but read and poke about his farm, he made it his “refuge against ennui,” spilling out ideas and reflections in an epistolary assault that stunned Jefferson.24 Being constantly in arrears was bad enough but, contemplating the forest of Adams’ topics, he sometimes felt like Theocritus’ woodcutter on Mount Ida gazing at the thousands of trees and asking himself, “What first shall I gather?”25 Coolly, he set his sights on a single one and let the rest go.
The contrast between Adams’ random loquacity and Jefferson’s studiously composed responses characterized the correspondence as a whole. Adams wrote as he talked. Sprightly, pungent, spontaneous, running off in half a dozen directions at once, his letters gained in naturalness what they lost in logical development of ideas. Jefferson’s were more artful, coherent, felicitous, tending to be rounded essays on some topic of learning or experience. Adams was bold, even reckless, in expression of opinion, Jefferson cautious and reserved. Adams was full of himself, turning everything around his own thoughts and feelings; Jefferson was less egocentric, more detached, more interested in general truths disclosed by inquiry than in psychological truths disclosed to oneself. Jefferson was grave, never descending to notice his friend’s teases and jests. The world sometimes seemed to Adams a bedlam, to be understood only in riddles; and shocking, laughing, and scolding were his delights. He liked to speculate on politics and religion, where Jefferson followed him easily enough—indeed, Adams remarked, any speculation dispatched to Monticello was like sending coal to Newcastle—though his preferred realm was the sciences, where Adams rarely ventured. History afforded many topics of discussion, but for Adams history was not only a branch of humane learning but a critical post of observation on the present. Mention of anything was likely to lead him into historical discourse; dwelling on his own past was almost an obsession. Jefferson, on the other hand, felt an aversion to looking back. He did not enjoy staring into the shadows of his own reflection and, as he said, preferred the dreams of the future to the history of the past. While he was no less sensitive than Adams to his title to fame, he was much more philosophical about it, easily resigning himself to the judgment of posterity. Perhaps he could afford to be. Adams’ fame was less secure. He still had old scores to settle (with Paine, Franklin, Hamilton, and others) and he did not hesitate to throw the vexing question to Monticello, “How many gauntlets am I destined to run? How many martyrdoms must I suffer?”26
The books that they read, and the way they read them, offers another index to the contrasting styles of the two men. Adams was a voracious reader, even after his sight failed and he had to find other eyes to read for him. He read and reread ancient classics; read the complete works of Lord Bolingbroke (of whom Burke had asked the devastating question, “Who now reads Bolingbroke? Who ever read him through?”) for, he said, at least the fifth time; swallowed fifteen volumes of Baron Grimm’s memoirs in one gulp, along with twelve volumes of Dupuis on religious imposture; read Jesuitical history, Scott’s romances, and early New England chronicles. Jefferson was astounded by one annual report: “Forty-three volumes read in one year, and 12 of them quartos! Dear Sir, how I envy you! Half a dozen octavos in that space of time is as much as I am allowed.”27 Jefferson’s reading, if much less in quantity, was much more discriminating. The ancient writers, with whom he sought to beguile the weariness of old age, had a stronger hold on him than on Adams; and to the classics he added liberal doses of mathematics and science. Adams was a combative reader, as is evidenced by the marginalia in his books, as well as by the enjoyment he got from reading what he hated, while Jefferson, who rarely left more than his initials in a book, was an absorptive one. The former was more adventuresome during these declining years; the latter generally stuck to what he knew, living on the literary capital accumulated over several score of years.
It was a more or less silent premise of the correspondence that politics would be adjourned. Jefferson underscored the point in his first letter. He had taken final leave of politics. “I think little of them, and say less. I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.”28 Adams, too, professed to be “weary of politics,” yet he could not dismiss it, and he peppered the correspondence with controversial matters Jefferson was reluctant to touch. The friendship was resumed on the eve of the War of 1812. Both men fervently supported the war. Jefferson had hoped to win the second contest with Britain by peaceful means, by economic coercion, but “the lions and tigers of Europe” demanded American blood, and so the war came as a mournful necessity from which, nevertheless, he anticipated a new epoch of American liberty and nationality. It was his hope, as he told Adams, that the war would end in “indemnity for the past, security for the future, and complete emancipation from Anglomany, Gallomany, and all the manias of demoralized Europe.”29 This was all very well—it was Adams’ hope too—but the New Englander could not refrain from criticizing Jefferson and Madison for policies that, in his opinion, had invited war with Britain and left the country virtually defenseless as well as disunited when it came. The Virginians’ hostility to the navy was his principal complaint. Because of it the commerce of New England was sacrificed and popularity played into the hands of disorganizing Federalists, whose policy was war with France, alliance with Britain, dependence on British naval power and British manufactures, and, in the ultimate extremity, separation from the Union. Adams condemned these madmen, of course, but lamented the policies that had given too much apology for them. Without a navy, he declared, the Union must be “a brittle China vase.”30 Increasingly, in Adams’ thought, the idea of the Union tended to replace the idea of constitutional balance as the rock of political salvation. As the war progressed, the navy was built. Adams took pride and found vindication in its gallant victories. At times in the past Jefferson had exceeded him in the advocacy of naval power, but Adams had been “the early and constant advocate of wooden walls,” as Jefferson acknowledged, and if while president he had differed with him, the difference was one of priorities and timing, not of principle.31 To most of Adams’ criticism Jefferson was silent or evasive. He did not wish to argue questions likely to give offence, and where necessary he went out of his way to soften asperities Adams still felt.
The reconciliation was only a year and a half old when Adams called Jefferson to account for portraying him as a kind of vandal against science and progress in a letter to Joseph Priestley in March 1801. This letter and another to Priestley on religion had turned up in a book concerned with the rise of Unitarianism, Memoirs of the Late Reverend Theophilus Lindsey, published in London in 1812 and put into Adams’ hands. He saw at once that the work was destined to “produce a noise” in the United States, especially in his quarter, for it contained the letters of many American Unitarians, including ministers in Congregational pulpits in New England. But it was Jefferson’s political letter that at once agitated Adams. In it Jefferson had taken his first opportunity as president of the United States to welcome his friend, the English refugee scientist and theologian, to the country, and to assure him that he would not again be threatened by bigotry and persecution masquerading under the form of law, such as “that libel on legislation,” the Alien Law. “What an effort, my dear Sir, of bigotry in politics and religion have we gone through! The barbarians really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the time of Vandalism.… We were to look backwards, not forwards, for improvement; the President himself declaring in one of his answers to addresses, that we were never to expect to go beyond [our ancestors] in real science.”32 This last sentence became Adams’ theme in an avalanche of letters. He totally disclaimed the sentiments Jefferson had ascribed to him and demanded proof.33
Jefferson was shocked that the confidence of his private letters to a friend should be so grossly abused by publication in the memoirs of a man whose name he scarcely knew and at the hands of an author, Thomas Belsham, he had never heard of. (It was neither the first nor the last time he would suffer this grief, and Adams knew enough of it to sympathize with him.) He was actually more anxious about the second letter, on religion, which would again arouse the priesthood against him. As to the political letter, it accurately portrayed the sensations excited in Republican minds by “the terrorism of the day.” Adams would find the wanted proof of the charge of ancestor worship in his answer to the Young Men of Philadelphia, May 7, 1798. It did not look personally toward him, however. “You happen to be quoted,” Jefferson said, “because you happened to express, more pithily than had been done by themselves, one of the mottoes of the [Federalist] party.” He was as far from considering the expression as Adams’ deliberate opinion as he was from blaming him, rather than the crew around him, for the persecuting measures of his administration. “You would do me great injustice therefore taking to yourself what was intended for men who were then your secret, as they are now your open enemies.” And he closed with the wish that the passions of a former day not be rekindled either between themselves or in public.34 Adams, contrary to Jefferson’s impression, had no intention of going to the newspapers, but he was not mollified by Jefferson’s explanation. The ancestral principles praised in his address were those of Christianity and of English and American liberty, and nothing he had said could be fairly construed as expressing hostility to science and improvement.35 In literal truth, he may have been right, though Jefferson was clearly right as to the spirit of the address. At any rate, as Adams went on to expatiate on “the terrorism of the day” in a way that justified the actions of the government, Jefferson made no further response other than again to urge upon his friend the wisdom of burying the past and resigning himself to the verdict of posterity. Because neither man would risk jeopardizing the reconciliation, it easily survived this little crisis.
“You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other,” Adams wrote in July 1813.36 This seemed more important to him than it did to Jefferson, and in the area that concerned Adams most, political philosophy, it cannot be said that they succeeded. About many things they agreed, from the metaphysical nonsense of Plato to the despotism of Napoleon. Serious issues still divided them, however, issues which Jefferson recognized more clearly than Adams but which, in his view, being rooted in nature were unworthy of dispute between old men with one foot in the grave. The same political parties that agitated the United States had existed through all time. “Whether the power of the people, or that of the αριστoι [aristoi] should prevail, were questions which kept the states of Greece and Rome in eternal convulsions, as they now schizmatize every people whose minds and mouths are not shut up by the gag of a despot. And in fact the terms whig and tory belong to natural, as well as to civil history. They denote the temper and constitution of mind of different individuals.” Adams, according to his temperament and circumstances, had sided with the party of the few, Jefferson, from the same cause, with the party of the many. In this there was room neither for priaise nor for blame. Both parties were equally honest. “The next generation will judge, favorably or unfavorably, according to the complexion of individual minds, and the side they shall themselves have taken; [but] … nothing new can be added by you or me to what has been said by others, and will be said in every age, in support of conflicting opinions on government.”37
Quite aside from the fact that the theory failed to explain why he, a Virginia aristocrat and slaveholder, became the partisan of democracy, while Adams, the Yankee commoner, became the partisan of aristocracy, this was a surprising statement from Jefferson, perhaps not to be understood apart from his effort to persuade Adams to draw the mantle of oblivion over the past. He had always had difficulty developing a satisfactory theory of political parties. The notion of the natural duality of political life had appeared in his thought before, but usually combined with exigent social, economic, and ideological factors; and for him to assert that the division of Federalist and Republican was no more than the division between Claudii and Grachii, that no advance had been or could be made in resolving the conflict, seemed to place him in Adams’ corner. Adams thought so at once. The eternal battle of aristocrats and democrats: was this not the theme of his Defence of the Constitutions, and had he not there remarked on the failure of political science to advance over thousands of years? He went on to confound Jefferson’s theory with his own. The theory of the permanence of aristocratic and democratic orders, based on natural inequality, was the same as the theory holding that men are Whig or Tory by nature. “Inequalities of mind and body,” Adams wrote, “are so established by God Almighty in his constitution of human nature that no art or policy can ever plane them down to a level.”38 Once tuned in to the old theme, Adams could not give it up. He reviewed the Defence and the Discourses on Davila, complaining that he had been scandalized for them, though their truths could never be refuted. The French Revolution turned into a holocaust for failure to recognize these truths. Aristocracy was a fixture of the universe, its principal pillars being birth and wealth, and every government must make provision both to employ and to control it.
For several months Jefferson took no notice of Adams’ rambling reflections on aristocracy. He willingly conceded that Adams had been misunderstood—who among the founders had not been?—at least on the point of wanting to introduce hereditary monarchy and aristocracy in America; but he wished his friend would abandon these old discussions, “equally useless and irksome,” and follow him into that Epicurean philosophy, “ease of body and tranquility of mind,” which was the summum bonum of his remaining days. Finally, however, lest the dialogue lapse into a monologue, Jefferson wielded his axe on one of the trees in Adams’ forest of opinions. In Adams’ conception, aristocracy was a unit block. Jefferson split the block, distinguishing between natural and artificial aristocracies. The grounds of the former are virtue and talents, of the latter birth and wealth, and one is valuable while the other is pernicious. “The natural aristocracy,” Jefferson wrote, “I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society.… May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendancy.” How was this to be accomplished? Adams would lock the “pseudo-aristoi” into a separate chamber of the legislature. But this only armed them for mischief, without any compensatory benefits. It was an unjust intrusion on the popular will; nor was it necessary to protect property from numbers, as often alleged, since property easily found means to protect itself and American experience exploded old fears of the many plundering the few. The natural aristocracy was so fluctuating and fortuitous that it could not be identified or categorized, much less constituted, as an element of government. A precipitate of freedom and equality, it should be left to their devices. “I think the best remedy,” Jefferson said, “is exactly that provided by all our constitutions, to leave the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the real good and wise.” He went on to speak of his revolutionary laws in Virginia abolishing entail and primogeniture, which “laid the axe to the root of pseudo-aristocracy,” and of what remained to be done to complete the work. The counties should be divided into wards—a Virginia equivalent of New England townships—to collect the will of the people at the grassroots, and the people should be educated on the plan he had first proposed in 1778 partly with the view “of qualifying them to select the veritable aristoi.” The Americans were not under the constraint of European theories of government, he told Adams. There was no canaille in America. “Here every one may have land to labor for himself.… Every one, by his property, or by his satisfactory situation, is interested in the support of law and order. And such men may safely and advantageously reserve to themselves a wholesome control over their public affairs.”39 Without exactly saying so, Jefferson suggested that Adams’ political theory belonged to the Old World.
Adams, in reply, rejected Jefferson’s basic distinction. The natural and the pseudo-aristocracy are one and the same, and every aristocracy tends to become hereditary. Who is an aristocrat? Every man, Adams answered, who commands one vote in addition to his own, whether this influence comes by way of birth, talent, beauty, fortune, or cunning. The definition was worse than useless, yet it struck closer to what Adams had been attempting to say on the subject of aristocracy than analogies to European nobility. His bête noire, as always was equality. As there was no natural equality, so there could be no natural aristocracy in Jefferson’s rarified sense. “Birth and wealth are conferred on some men, as imperiously by nature, as genius, strength or beauty.”40 After all, men are born, a fact of nature, into aristocratic families. Besides, every law providing for the descent of property militates against equality and ensures the perpetuation of aristocracy. Adams elaborated at length on these matters in a series of some thirty letters to Jefferson’s Virginia friend, John Taylor of Caroline, whose Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States, published in 1814, was a belated answer, tedious but effective, to Adams’ Defence.41 In 1820 Adams sat in the Massachusetts convention to revise the constitution he had himself drafted forty years before. The restricted suffrage came under attack and, in particular, reformers assailed the property basis of the senate as “an aristocratical principle.” Tottering under the weight of eighty-five years, Adams rose to defend it. The great object of government being the security of property, he said, it must be shielded from the tyranny of numbers. Had not Aristides upset the balance of property in Athens, loosing the torrent of popular commotion that desolated the republic? Had not the French Revolution been doomed from the start by the adoption of the erroneous idea of government in one assembly?42
Adams was a voice from the past, while Jefferson continued to voice the aspirations, the rising aspirations, of American democracy. Still angry at Virginia’s Constitution of 1776, trying it by “the mother principle, that ‘governments are republican only in proportion as they embody the will of the people, and execute it,’ ” he proposed a comprehensive agenda of reform: universal white manhood suffrage, equality of representation, public education and similar measures to ensure “the ascendancy of the people.” In the Massachusetts convention, Adams praised the work of “our ancestors,” of whom he, strangely, was one, and doubted that a later generation could improve on it. In Virginia, Jefferson denounced “sanctimonious reverence” for institutions handed down from the past as an obstacle to the ongoing process of revision and reform that was vital to a free and enlightened society. Laws and institutions, he said, “must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.” “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”43 Partly because he held such opinions, no convention would be called to reform the Virginia Constitution until he was safely in his grave.
The question of progress, specifically, the progress of virtue, intelligence, and freedom, was a persistent theme in the correspondence from beginning to end. Looking back on the eighteenth century, Adams pronounced it good, more enlightened and more honorable to human nature than any other; yet it had ended in the disaster of the French Revolution, which exceeded even his darkest forebodings, and he sniffed reaction in the winds of change in the nineteenth century. Again and again he taunted Jefferson on the exploded hopes of the French Revolution. “Let me ask you, very seriously my friend, Where are now … the perfection and perfectibility of human nature? Where is now, the progress of the human mind? Where is the amelioration of society?”44 Jefferson conceded that Adams had been the better prophet so far. The melancholy events of 1815, the return of the Bourbons, the Congress of Vienna, the Holy Alliance, wrote finis to the epoch of European liberty commenced so gloriously in 1789. Even Jefferson was led to question the first article of his faith. “I fear,” he observed sadly to another friend, “from the experience of the last 25 years that morals do not, of necessity, advance hand in hand with the sciences.”45 Still, he could not rest in darkness and doubt. In the longer race of history, he told Adams, the cause of liberty and self-government would prevail, though “rivers of blood must yet flow, and years of desolation pass over.” It had failed in the first attempt in Europe in part because of the ignorance, poverty, and vice of the mass of people, and because, as Adams also said, their leaders sought to scale the heights of liberty in one great leap “But the world will recover from the panic of the first catastrophe. Science is progressive, and talents and enterprise on the alert.” The idea of free government had taken root. Even kings must now honor it. “Opinion is power, and that opinion will come,” Jefferson declared.46
Adams wanted to believe this, but where Jefferson was characteristically sanguine, concluding every expression of disappointment or doubt with an affirmation, the New Englander maintained his reputation for historical pessimism. When would the bloody circle of despotism, revolutionary democracy, anarchy, and returning despotism be broken? When would reason and conscience, however much improved by education and religion, ever prove a match for human passions?47 About the French Revolution, the old friends could never agree. What a great bouleversement it had been! But who was most responsible for that, Jefferson asked. And he answered, the European despots who conspired against it and who even now quaked on their thrones. Adams, on the other hand, still inclined to blame the catastrophe of the revolution, not on its avowed enemies, but on its misguided prophets, those philosophes, so learned but destitute of common sense, preaching the perfectibility of mankind yet knowing nothing of men, whose books he could not read without imprecations—“poisonous stuff,” “mad rant,” “stark mad,” “Fool! Fool!”—on his lips.48 Nor could he find any redeeming virtues in the French Revolution. In 1815, however, with the Congress of Vienna, the seat of danger shifted from the revolutionary left to the reactionary right: from atheists to priests, from Jacobins to kings, from the prophets of progress to the prophets of a new dark age. “Priests and Politicians,” Adams wrote, “never before, so suddenly and unanimously, concurred in establishing darkness and ignorance, superstition and despotism.”49 He referred to the so-called Holy Alliance, of course, but also to the restoration of the Society of Jesus, which revived in Adams old Puritan feelings about Roman Catholicism.
The age of revolution ended in the Latin American struggles for liberation. Neither Adams nor Jefferson was optimistic about the prospects of republican government in these countries sank in ignorance, proverty, and superstition. For Adams the project was utterly chimerical, because “a free government and the Roman Catholic religion can never exist together in any nation or country.”50 Without entering into this prejudice, Jefferson called for the introduction of freedom and enligntenment by degrees, on a moderate plan such as he had recommended at the onset of the French Revolution. The Latin American revolutions led him to endision a hemispheric “American system” separated from the Old World and presided over by the republican genius of the United States. “What a Colossus shall we be when the Southern continent comes up to our mark!” he exclaimed to Adams in 1816. “What a stand will it secure as a ralliance for the reason and freedom of the globe.”51 The Monroe Doctrine seven years later gave a kind of diplomatic recognition to the idea.
Regardless of the fate of republicanism to the south, Jefferson looked upon the maturing United States as a well-lit fortress of freedom in an Atlantic world swept by reaction. “Must we,” Adams asked once again in 1821, “before we take our departure from this good and beautiful world, surrender all our pleasing hopes of the progress of society? Of improvement … , of the reformation of mankind?”52 Thinking of the struggles of the Greeks, of the Spaniards and the Italians against the antirevolutionary coalition in Europe, Jefferson admitted the horizon was clouded. “Yet I will not believe our labors are lost,” he told Adams. “I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance.… And even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them. In short, the flames kindled on the 4th of July 1776 have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism. On the contrary they will consume those engines, and all who work them.”53
And so, it all came back finally to the American Revolution as the hope of the world. “Who shall write the history of the American revolution?” Adams queried his friend. “Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?”54 Its true history was lost forever; so many lies had already been written, so many bloated reputations—Franklin’s, Washington’s, yes, and Jefferson’s too—monopolized the page that Adams almost despaired of the subject together with his own revolutionary fame. (Years earlier, he had prophesied to Rush: “The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures and wars.”)55 Adams attended to his reputation in private, occasionally public, letters, but declined to write history or more than a fragment of autobiography. Jefferson’s course was much the same. As the revolutionary age faded into the past, the patriarchs were besieged with requests for recollections, information, and materials on the nation’s founding. Each cooperated in his own fashion while discouraging hagiology. The true history of the Revolution was important, said Adams, not only for America but for all countries, primarily because its lessons were conservative and admonitory. It would teach mankind “that revolutions are no trifles; that they ought never to be undertaken rashly; nor without deliberate consideration and sober reflection; nor without a solid, immutable, eternal foundation of justice and humanity; nor without a people possessed of intelligence, fortitude, and integrity sufficient to carry them with steadiness, patience, and perseverance, through all the vicissitudes of fortune, the fiery trials and melancholy disasters they may encounter.”56 With this emphasis Adams wished to disentangle the American Revolution from the French and to call attention to what was sound and solid in American character long before independence was declared. Jefferson, with his idealism, tended to see the Revolution in terms of goals rather than of origins. It was progressive, unfolding in time; it concerned the “revolution of 1800,” or of 1789, as well as of 1776, and could not be written without a view to the struggle of principle between the great political parties. The best known general history, John Marshall’s five-volume Life of Washington, was a Federalist diatribe in Jefferson’s opinion. What he thought of Mercy Warren’s spirited work, which caused Adams so much grief, is not known, but he remained anxious for a Republican historian to combat Marshall. None materialized.
Jefferson pressed the claims of Virginia, Adams those of Massachusetts, to precedence in the leadership of the Revolution. Although he thought William Wirt’s biography of Patrick Henry “too flowery for the sober taste of history,” he credited the Virginia Demosthenes with “setting the ball of revolution in motion.” Adams waged a one-man campaign on behalf of James Otis, who did his work while Jefferson was still a boy in college, as the “Father of the American Revolution.”57 Jefferson’s revolutionary fame soared with the fame of the Declaration of Independence now, in the exuberant patriotism following the War of 1812, celebrated as the very ark and covenant of the nation. “The mighty Jefferson, by his Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776, carried away the glory both of the great and the little,” Adams noted mournfully. “Such are the caprices of fortune.”58 It was thus with some pleasure that he called Jefferson’s attention to the so-called Mecklenburg (North Carolina) Declaration of Independence of May 20, 1775, which came to light in 1819. Not only had it preceded the congressional declaration by over thirteen months, but the language of this relic plainly suggested that Jefferson was guilty of plagiarism. The reply came posthaste from Monticello: the document was a fabrication. Adams, who had at first supposed it genuine, promptly accepted Jefferson’s verdict, which eventually became the verdict of history. In all these matters touching the history of the American Revolution, Adams and Jefferson were entirely amiable, and neither man placed the subject high on the agenda of discussion.
Old men, trying to transcend the past, they were more interested in religion than in history. Differences of religious belief, including different attitudes toward the role of religion in government, had helped to distinguish their politics, but as they grew older their religious convictions tended to converge. Jefferson became a kind of Christian humanist, a disciple of the morals of Jesus, while Adams “read himself out of bigotry,” as he said, and embraced the Enlightenment’s faith in reason. The Virginian’s 1803 letter to Priestley, appearing in the London Memoirs of Lindsey, precipitated a wide-ranging discussion of religion. In that letter Jefferson had sketched the plan of a comparative view of the moral doctrines of the ancients, the Jews, and Jesus. He had hoped that Priestley would undertake this work. The great philosopher-theologian died within a few months, though not before he had dashed off The Doctrines of Heathen Philosophy Compared with Revelation in partial response to Jefferson’s request. Adams now, in 1813, urged his friend to take up the work on his own account. He declined anything so thorny or ambitious, but told Adams that he had, just after his letter to Priestley, written a brief syllabus of the proposed inquiry, a copy of which he enclosed in strictest confidence. This “Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others” reached the conclusion that the moral system of Jesus, if filled up in his spirit, would be “the most perfect and sublime” ever taught by man. The ancient heathen moralists, who had earlier won his allegiance, Jefferson now found deficient on several counts. So far as they aimed at “tranquility of mind,” they were great, and Jefferson, who never ceased calling himself an Epicurean, continued to seek their instruction. But Jesus had pushed his scrutinies into the recesses of the human heart, raised the standard of universal philanthropy, and by his teaching of a future state of rewards and punishments provided a powerful incentive to moral conduct. Unfortunately, falling a victim to “the combination of the altar and the throne,” Jesus had been unable to perfect his system; and it was mutilated and corrupted by the Platonizing priests and metaphysicians who pretended to be his followers.59 The next step in Jefferson’s plan was to extract the pure from the impure in the gospels. He did this to his own satisfaction, as he later explained to Adams, by taking a New Testament, cutting from the books of the evangelists only those verses that had the authentic stamp of Jesus’ genius, “as easily distinguished as diamonds in a dunghill,” and arranging the whole into a text of forty-six pages which he named “The Philosophy of Jesus.”60
“Sancte Socrate! Ora pro nobis,” Adams exclaimed. The Syllabus proved that Jefferson was as good a Christian as Priestley and most Unitarians, himself among them.61 Jefferson thought so too. “I am a Christian in the only sense he [Jesus] wished any one to be, sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.”62 Whether this made Jefferson a Christian in any acceptable theological sense, including the Unitarian, may be questioned. Priestley, in writing to Lindsey, had classified him as an “unbeliever,” though one who was “almost with us.”63 Jefferson did not care; the only test of religion was conduct, and so the moral branch alone concerned him. The republication of his letter to Priestley in a Boston volume, American Unitarianism, in 1815, contributed to the rumors that he had changed his religious opinions and planned to write a Christian confession of faith. Jefferson denied any material change; as for writing a book on religion, he would as soon write for “the reformation of Bedlam.” A sect unto himself, he still rejected revelation, the divinity of Christ, the miracles, the atonement, and so on, without which Christianity was nothing in the eyes of most believers. Few Unitarians cared to claim the reputed infidel one of them. He did not even accept Jesus on his own terms, for Jesus was a spiritualist by the grace of God, Jefferson a naturalist by the grace of science. But he had brought the morals of Jesus, above all the love of man, within the perimeters of the older faith of the Enlightenment. Returning to primitive Christianity, he had found in the teachings of Jesus a hard core of morality which infused a universal ethic based on the natural rights of man and around which, he thought, all men might be united in a common religion of humanity.
Adams applauded Jefferson’s work and agreed with most of it. He had generally been more liberal in religion than in politics. His church in Quincy had been among the first to move away from Congregational orthodoxy and to adopt the Unitarian creed. He was a zealot, not about any particular creed, but about religion. It was in his blood and had weighed on his mind all his life. In matters of theology, especially Christian but not excepting the Hindu and other religions, he was better read than Jefferson, who had little taste for the subject and felt more comfortable resting his head on “that pillow of ignorance which the benevolent Creator has made so soft for us knowing how much we should be forced to use it.”64 In New England religion was a sober subject, to be approached in a sober manner; but in addressing Jefferson, Adams freed himself from these customary restraints and conversed with wild abandon. Speculations about God and eternity, matter and spirit, priests, saints, and demons were, he said, “the marbles and nine pins of old age,” and in these games he found more amusement than any other.65 He shared Jefferson’s confidence in historical criticism as the way to recover religious truth from the mountain of error built up by priests and theologians. He did not know whether to laugh or cry over the rising wave of evangelical Protestantism in the United States. Observing the missionary appeal of the newly formed American Bible Society in 1816, Adams remarked, “Would it not be better, to apply these pious subscriptions, to purify Christendom from the corruptions of Christianity, rather than to propagate these corruptions in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America!”66 And after reading Dupuis on cults and impostures, he was often on the point of breaking out, “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.”67 But he could not. Even Dupuis, Adams told another correspondent—interestingly, not Jefferson—had not shaken his belief that Christianity was a revelation.68 This belief, however rationalistic and moralistic Adams’ sense of revelation, continued to differentiate his religion from Jefferson’s. The argument that revelation was necessary to Christianity, according to the latter, gave a handle to atheism, for five-sixths of mankind had no knowledge of it; it was, in truth, unnecessary because the evidence of design in the universe and the moral sense in man proved the existence of a beneficent first cause. Adams declined to argue the point. There were certain questions, such as the divinity of Christ, upon which he did not care to speculate. He was most at odds with Jefferson on the issue of materialism and spiritualism. All the wearisome writings of philosophers and theologians had convinced Adams that mortal man could know nothing of either matter or spirit. Jefferson conceded the difficulty but, proceeding from Lockian sensationalism, referred to the experiments of certain scientists who had recently shown that the thinking power of man, the spirit or soul, was a function of matter inseparable from the body. Matter was everything. “To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial is to say they are nothings, so that there is no god, no angels, no soul.”69 This was Priestleyan as well as Lockian. Adams, too, though he preached the widest latitude of religious freedom, remained committed to the system of compulsory tax-supported churches in Massachusetts, which survived the convention of 1820. Nevertheless, he could unite with Jefferson on a rational and moralistic religious creed, summed up in four short words, “Be just and good.”70
As the years passed and both men pondered Cicero’s De Senectute, the toll of physical affliction rose. Exchanging notes on their health in 1822, Jefferson said he could walk no farther than his garden, though he rode horseback every day, read without difficulty, and wrote his own letters despite the pain from an old wrist dislocation. Adams could not ride but walked easily enough, and he could neither read nor write for himself. At least they weren’t “dying at the top.” Their minds remained sound and active. Adams found happiness and contentment during these last years. While of comparatively modest means, he had no financial worries. Not since 1776 had he felt so hopeful for the American republic; indeed, in this regard, he seemed to revert to his earlier self. He had lost his wife in 1818, a terrible loss, and, like Jefferson, borne his share of family grief; but he had the infinite satisfaction of seeing his son John Quincy become president of the United States. A child of Jefferson’s conception, the University of Virginia, gave him satisfaction of another kind; still, it could not dispel the gloom and disaster that gathered around him. With the Panic of 1819, his estate, long ravaged by debt, was drowned in it, and he was finally reduced to the humiliation of begging the favor of the legislature to dispose of most of his property by a lottery in the expectation—alas, not to be fulfilled—of saving the splendid monument, Monticello, for his daughter. The anguish of his personal affairs was enmeshed in political fears of sectional discord and neo-Federalist consolidation in the government at Washington. The Missouri Question in 1820, raising the claim of congressional jurisdiction to legislate on slavery in the territories, focused these fears. “From the battle of Bunker’s hill to the treaty of Paris we never had so ominous a question,” Jefferson told his friend.71 He foresaw not only a renewal of the old party conflict, but a conflict now fanaticized by sectionalism. The Missouri Compromise, while it resolved the immediate crisis, drew a geographical line between slavery and freedom, which, he predicted, would become a constant irritant, stirring hatreds and fears, North and South, that must eventually terminate in disunion. Repeatedly during his public life Jefferson had attempted to find some solution to the problem of slavery. He still adhered to the plan of gradual emancipation framed for Virginia during the Revolution. But he no longer held much hope for it. One thing was clear: slavery could not be abolished by congressional fiat without destroying the Union and much else that was dear. “Are our slaves to be presented with freedom and a dagger?” he asked.72 Adams was sympathetic. The Union held the first place in his political affections; and he had never thought that slavery, as hateful as it was, ranked with other evils facing the country. It must be left to the South, he wrote reassuringly. “I will vote for forcing no measure against your judgments.”73
The Missouri Compromise was only the most dangerous part of the movement toward consolidation—protective tariff, national bank, internal improvements—that caused Jefferson to wonder if all the sacrifices he and Adams and the generation of 1776 had made for their country would be thrown away by their children. With respect to political temperament, the two men seemed to change places. Adams was serene, Jefferson morbid. The New Englander found the path of tranquility Jefferson had pointed out to him, while he, the Virginian, lost it in the gloom that invaded a declining society. Curiously, the latter’s fears came to be projected on John Quincy Adams. During the prolonged contest that culminated in his election to the presidency, there was published a confidential correspondence between his father and the late William Cunningham in the early years of the century. The elder Adams’ letters bristled with unflattering remarks on democracy and its idol, Jefferson. The object of the publication, for which Cunningham’s son bore the responsibility, was to discredit the younger Adams by attempting to show that the elder had been the prolific fountain of Federalist abuse of Jefferson and, further, that the conversion of both father and son to Republicanism was a fraudulent disguise to cover their real purpose of raising an aristocratic family dynasty in the American government. Beware, the younger Cunningham warned the public, of engrafting “a Scion of this old Stock in our tree of liberty.”74 The Cunningham correspondence did little damage to John Quincy Adams, but it caused considerable embarrassment to his father. Jefferson, sensing the embarrassment, at once addressed Adams a letter denouncing this “outrage on private confidence,” this poisonous attack on their affections. “Be assured, my dear Sir, that I am incapable of receiving the slightest impression from the effort now made to plant thorns on the pillow of age, worth, and wisdom, and to sow tares between friends who have been such for near half a century.”75 Adams rejoiced: “The best letter that ever was written.… How generous! how noble! how magnanimous!”76 Jefferson could sincerely felicitate Adams on his son’s election, though he had backed another candidate; but the new president’s enunciation of a boldly nationalistic program transported Jefferson back to the Federalist decade. He gave aid and comfort to Virginia’s “old” Republicans laboring to revive the individualistic and state rights “doctrines of ’98.” He lashed out at the new breed of Republicans, products of nationalizing forces he had himself stimulated, but who “having nothing in them of the principles of ’76 now look back to a single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions and monied incorporations … riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry.” And, he added, should it finally settle down to the alternatives of “dissolution of our Union … or submission to a government without limitation of powers,” there could be no hesitation in the choice of liberty.77 Thus this rebel against the past came to the end of his days haunted by demons he had vanquished a quarter-century before, while Adams, so long in political torment, rested peacefully, securely, at the homestead he now jokingly called Montezillo.
The venerable sages of Monticello and Montezillo died on the fiftieth anniversary of American independence, July 4, 1826. It was a day of jubilee all across the land. Both the patriarchs, in their last illnesses, had prayed to live to see the day. Adams, declining an invitation to attend the celebration in Quincy, called the American Revolution “a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race,” and, always the monitor, said it was destined to form “the brightest or the blackest page” in history depending on the use or abuse of the legacy by posterity.78 Jefferson, equally in character to the end, summoned all his eloquence to pen a bold last testament to the American people in a letter addressed to the observance in Washington. “All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor the favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”79
The passing of these two political fathers on the day of jubilee, a coincidence so remarkable it could only be explained as providential, led to an American apotheosis, not alone of the dead, but of the nation’s revolutionary epoch.80 In solemn commemorations from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, Americans raised an anthem of praise to Adams and Jefferson. Providence, it was said, had decreed by their death that “the revolutionary age should be closed up.” Suddenly, self-consciously, the nation recognized it had a past, a golden age, a glorious heritage, complete with heroes and scriptures to guide its footsteps toward a more glorious destiny. Eulogists such as Daniel Webster discovered striking parallels in the lives of Adams and Jefferson, giving the impression of a surpassing harmony of purpose; and some placed their “sublime example” of reunion “at the head of their catalogue of praises” because of what it signified for the American Union. In them Massachusetts and Virginia, North and South, were one. Still, as an old Federalist remarked, their tempers and politics were such as would at one time have made “a very tolerable salad,” and it could never have occurred to partisans of one or the other in 1800 that it would ultimately end in one homogenous mixture admitting one and the same apotheosis. Harmony was the eulogists’ motif, but they did not fail to observe the contrasting meanings of Adams and Jefferson for the nation. Adams was Roman, Jefferson was Grecian; Adams was a realist, Jefferson an idealist; Adams trusted the lessons of the past, Jefferson dreamed of the future; Adams was a Whig of the old school, Jefferson belonged to the modern democratic school; Adams advocated restraints on the popular will, Jefferson advocated its ascendancy. All of this was true, more or less, and the contrasting idioms of the two men entered into the political dialogue of the future. But Adams and Jefferson, philosophical statesmen in an age of revolution, were more comparable to each other than they were to the leaders of a new and brassy age regardless of political persuasions.
Although Adams died five hours after his Virginia friend, his last words, “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” uttered a truth beyond their literal error. Jefferson lived on in American spirit because his thought, not just in politics but in most of the avenues of civilization, addressed the future. He became a symbol of American liberty, and a great memorial would finally be raised to him in the nation’s capital. Even the denunciations and the demeanings, ever plentiful, contributed to keeping his memory green. It was Adams’ fate, on the other hand, to be neglected by posterity, as he always knew he would be. “Mausoleums, statues, monuments will never be erected to me,” he had prophesied in 1809, “nor flattering orations spoken to transmit me to posterity in brilliant colors.”81 Still, his influence survived, if not in the American spirit, then in American institutions, above all in the workings of constitutional government; and his thought, even when unrecognized as his, helped to keep the democracy born of Jefferson’s vision alert to its own delusions and its suicidal tendencies. It was not a legacy, like Jefferson’s, inspiring the hopes and dreams of mankind, but one for which Americans might also be grateful two hundred years after the nation’s birth.