Thursday, July 2, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Adams-Jefferson Letters

When I realized that Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten books was going to fall on July 3, my historian self rubbed his hands together with glee. Unquestionably, I was going to discuss one of my favorite history books on the Revolution.

But which one? David McCullough has given us two fantastic Revolutionary War books, the masterful biography, John Adams, and 1776. Joseph Ellis provides numerous biographies and studies of the Founding Fathers, none so good as Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Then there is Pauline Maier’s American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, an examination of the creation of the Declaration 233 summers ago and how it was--and is--the definitive statement of the American mind.

For all these good historical works, I decided to offer a book of primary sources. The sub-title tells the tale: The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, edited by Lester J. Cappon. Beginning in 1777, the conversation between these members of the Founding Generation continues, with a large gap, all the way until the year of their deaths, 1826.

The early letters are fascinating reading. You can see how each man conducted his life and service to the young republic both on this continent and in Europe. Jefferson and Adams had a genuine friendship in those early days, asking for and giving advice on any number of problems of government. Benjamin Franklin makes an appearance as does John Jay, our first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Even if you didn’t know a lot about these two men, you could tell a lot by looking over the table of contents. In the 1770s and 1780s, Cappon fills nearly 250 pages of this book with letters. You hit 1790, however, and things go south. As the new government under the Constitution took hold, the split between Jefferson and Adams grew larger and larger. The two men wrote only nineteen letters in the years 1790-1796 when they were serving in the Washington Administration. They ran against each other in the Election of 1796, with Adams winning and Jefferson becoming Vice President (this was before the 12th Amendment). They ran again opposite each other in 1800 and Jefferson won, with Adams coming in third behind Aaron Burr.

Here’s where the giant rift occurs. Adams was so bitter against Jefferson (and vice versa) that they ceased communicating. In fact, they never saw each other again. In 1804, Abigail wrote to President Jefferson upon hearing of his daughter’s death. Late the same year, Abigail “close[d] this correspondence” wishing the Virginian well with the remainder of his Administration.

Eight more years passed and, with the help of Benjamin Rush (also a Declaration signer), the Sage of Monticello and the Statesman of Quincy, Massachusetts, restarted a correspondence that lasted until each man died. Here’s where the meat of this friendship, and book, is. Fully, half of the current volume is dedicated to this era of their lives. They talked about everything: the years of the Revolution, the Federalist Era, both their administrations, and the current Madison Administration. Each man didn’t back down from his own belief but each acknowledged the other’s theories. You also get two founders commenting on the actions of the younger Americans and the meaning of the Declaration, the Revolution, and the American experiment.

Tomorrow also is the anniversary of their deaths, 183 years ago. They both died on July 4, 1826, the Fiftieth Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson left lasting legacies, none more important than their friendship. They weren’t demigods; they were real people who made real choices, some of which cost them years of friendship. Yes, their relationship teetered and broke for a time, but it eventually healed and both men were better for it. With The Adams-Jefferson Letters, you get a front row seat to some verbal and intellectual fireworks the likes of which our country rarely sees.

I’ll leave you today with the words of John Adams to Abigail upon the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 2, 1776 (they signed it on the 4th).
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.


Charles Gramlich said...

Probably a shameful thing to admit, but I never got as much into American history as I did European history. And especialy ancient history. Rome, Carthage, Alexander the great.

pattinase (abbott) said...

We've got these sitting on the shelf. So strange them dying on the same day.

Jake Murdock said...

It's nice to see that John Adams is getting the recognition he honorably deserves with our newer generation. Without him there would have been no free America. I guess we have to thank the likes of David McCullough, Lester J. Cappon and Joseph Ellis. We continue to need authors like these to keep reminding us.


Terrie Farley Moran said...

Thanks for a wonderful post.


David Cranmer said...

Great post Scott.

I grew up admiring Jefferson but now I'm a card carrying Adams disciple. If you haven't been to the Adams family crypt beneath the United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts then you owe yourself the trip. I was in awe standing in front of these great Americans. And Abigail! The greatest First Lady ever.

Scott D. Parker said...

Charles - Well, there's just so much more European history to know and read about. When I first visited Costa Rica and saw one of the churches down there, I realized that the building was older than the USA. We're young pups on the world stage.

Patti - It's the kind of thing Hollywood would laugh at if you gave them a script. Monroe, I believe, also died on July 4 but I forgot the year.

Jack - I agree with you re: Adams's contribution. In fact, the musical "1776" really shines a light on Adams's role, even if he is singing.

Terrie - Glad you enjoyed it. Like I wrote in the post, I could have written about five or so books.

David - I have yet to make it up to Massachusetts. However, when I do, I will be making a beeline to Quincey.

Unknown said...

just finished David McCullough's John Adams. I am amazed how little I knew/know about the american revolution. I am hungry for more - I also am now a huge fan of John Adams. His story inspired me to be a better person and hold true and "rejoice ever more".

Scott D. Parker said...

Kimberlee - It was "1776" the musical that first turned me on to JA's contributions. The McCullough book just solidified it. But these letters are utterly fascinating. Primary sources usually are.