Thomas Jefferson; painting by Maira Kalman. It and the painting of John Adams on page 70 are from her book Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything, published in 2014.

In the contest with Thomas Jefferson for popularity, John Adams had no chance. The fault was almost entirely his own. Even friends found Adams’s irascibility, vanity, and pomposity embarrassing. Enemies had far worse things to say about the second president. During the run-up to the bitterly fought election of 1800, one of Adams’s detractors wondered whether future historians would “ask why the United States degrades themselves to the choice of a wretch whose soul came blasted from the hand of nature, of a wretch that has neither the science of a magistrate, the politeness of a courtier, nor the courage of a man.” Adams admitted that his problems in communicating with the public were of his own making. “There have been many times in my life,” he wrote in 1805, “when I have been so agitated in my own mind as to have no consideration at all of the light in which my words, actions, and even my writings would be considered by others.”

Unlike Adams, Jefferson seemed to float above controversy. Because he seldom shared personal feelings, contemporaries generally gave him the benefit of the doubt, assuming perhaps that emotional self-control in public was evidence of wisdom. They praised his extraordinary intelligence, cosmopolitan temperament, and balanced judgment. Although Jefferson mastered the give-and-take of everyday politics as well as any subsequent president, he successfully masked his own ambition and deflected the kinds of criticism that plagued Adams. And of course Jefferson possessed a talent that Adams could not claim: he knew how to turn a phrase. The opening words of the Declaration of Independence not only inspired a revolutionary generation but have also challenged Americans to this day to fulfill the promise of social equality.

In Friends Divided, Gordon S. Wood, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian of the American Revolution, assumes a daunting assignment. What could he possibly add to our understanding of the lives of these two men? Both have been the subject of scores of biographies. But he pulls it off. The source of his book’s originality is Wood’s insistence that we see the political ideas of Adams and Jefferson from a fresh perspective. Although he discusses Jefferson’s long and complex relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, he pays little attention to other intimate family matters or to personal financial affairs. Rather, the focus is on how Jefferson and Adams understood the implications of our Revolution. For them, what was at stake was the survival of the republic.

Wood dismisses the notion that Adams was just an earnest revolutionary who failed spectacularly to understand a republican system of government based entirely on the will of the people. He urges us to take Adams’s political ideas seriously. Indeed, Wood argues persuasively that Adams has a lot to tell us about how economic inequality and special privilege can undermine the stability of civil society. The crucial issues dividing these two revered Founders—about the strength of the central government, about the ability of the people to select honest and able rulers, and about the danger of concentrated wealth to the common good—are as urgent today as they were for Adams and Jefferson.

Had it not been for the Revolution, Adams and Jefferson would probably not have met. They came from strikingly different backgrounds. The owner of a large plantation and many slaves, Jefferson enjoyed a privileged life as a Virginia gentleman. Although burdened by debt, he indulged in expensive European goods, and in this self-consciously aristocratic society other wealthy planters rewarded a young man from an elite family with political responsibilities.

Adams did not move in these circles. Solidly middle-class, he relied on his skills and intelligence to establish a comfortable law practice. No doubt the Puritan traditions of New England affected his perceptions of human nature. Unlike Jefferson, who exuded optimism about social progress, Adams assumed that most people were self-absorbed and avaricious. Moreover, even though other political figures in Massachusetts respected him, he always felt that the members of the colony’s wealthiest families dismissed him as a parvenu. Wood describes Adams as a “new man” who was the product of the Revolution in a way that Jefferson was not:

Adams in his rise to public office dramatically reversed the relationship between social and political authority that existed in the traditional prerevolutionary society. In his case, his positions in government were the principal source of his social rank, not the other way around, as was the case with Jefferson, Washington, and many other leaders.

Throughout his long life, Adams never forgot how as an aspiring young lawyer he had been slighted by the Boston elite. In 1776 he proclaimed the American Revolution a great historical moment because after independence all “the Dons, the Bashaws, the Grandees, the Patricians, the Sachems, the Nabobs, call them by what Name you please, [will] sigh, and groan, and fret, and Sometimes Stamp, and foam, and curse—but all in vain.” A few “monopolizing Families,” he predicted, “will be brought down nearer to the Confines of Reason and Moderation, than they have been used.”

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After their selection to the Continental Congress, Adams and Jefferson forged a friendship that somehow endured for another fifty years, despite growing personal differences. Jefferson’s greatest moment came when his colleagues asked him to produce the Declaration of Independence. Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and others served on the drafting committee, but except for a few marginal changes, the work was entirely Jefferson’s. During the early desperate years of war, Adams focused on day-to-day government affairs. As a member of a score of congressional committees, he devoted himself tirelessly to securing national liberation. Later, after both men had accepted diplomatic posts in Europe, they became even closer, organizing family visits and seeking advice from each other about complex negotiations with France and Great Britain. If Adams and Jefferson had not shared these experiences, it is doubtful that their friendship could have survived the difficult time ahead when profound ideological divisions meant that they were not even on speaking terms for long periods.

Only after independence did Jefferson and Adams begin to sense just how much they disagreed about the future of the republic. Jefferson put his faith in the American people. After reading the work of John Locke and other thinkers associated with the European Enlightenment, he concluded that all human beings were born as a blank slate. Experience inscribed different ideas on their minds. Nurture, not nature, shaped their assumptions about government and society. In that sense, all people started in an equal position. Whatever erroneous opinions they acquired over time resulted from a defective cultural environment. The way to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, Jefferson believed, was to free them as much as possible from government rules and regulations. Liberating them from such coercion would allow their fundamental goodness to emerge. To advance such a state, Jefferson recommended access to better education.

Jefferson did not mean, of course, that this was true of “all men.” In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), he excluded African-Americans. As Wood explains, “Jefferson suggested that black Africans might be so different from whites—that they did not begin life with blank slates similar to other human beings—that education and cultivation could never make them equal.” He did not give much more encouragement to women in his imagined world of white farmers, who he believed would preserve a free and independent nation.

Adams closely followed Jefferson’s arguments for social equality and innate goodness. He found them utter nonsense. Unlike most of the Founding Fathers, he was not a child of the Enlightenment. Although not a deeply religious person, Adams could not liberate himself from the harsh Calvinist environment of his youth. A realistic assessment of human society throughout recorded history, he insisted, revealed that most people most of the time engaged in a ceaseless scramble for social and economic supremacy. They measured success almost entirely by the acquisition of material goods. Since nothing could change human nature, people were left with two choices. They could choose to ignore the endless contest for dominance and allow the “few” to oppress the “many,” a process that inevitably led to despotism. Or they could attempt to create a system of government capable of protecting the rights and liberty of the great mass of ordinary working people from a small, privileged group that had no interest in sharing power.

Adams believed that Jefferson’s expansive assumptions about human equality only served to mask the vicious struggle for social dominance. To claim that all men were created equal ignored the fact that some people were born with obvious advantages. Of course, from a narrow perspective, Adams admitted that all men were equal before the law. That was a fundamental element in common law. But in a larger social sense, anyone could see that individuals began life possessing very different attributes.

One could perhaps accommodate to these distinctive personal traits. Wealth, however, was another matter. It gave the privileged few a huge head start. Adams had no doubt that “the children of illustrious families have generally greater advantages of education, and earlier opportunities to be acquainted with public characters, and informed of public affairs, than those of meaner ones.” All of his voluminous reading, from the ancient Greeks to modern political philosophers, reinforced Adams’s conclusion that certain families would always use their personal resources to secure a privileged status. Based on what he regarded as irrefutable historical evidence, he demanded to know whether there was “or will there ever be, a nation, whose individuals were all equal in natural and acquired qualities, in virtues, talents, and riches.”

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For Adams, candid recognition of natural inequality was vital to the country’s future. After all, he believed, it posed the greatest challenge to the survival of republican government in the United States. Something had to be done to control the chicanery of the wealthiest Americans. He labeled this group of people “the rich, the well-born and the able,” or sometimes simply “the aristocracy.” The problem for Adams was that even though he feared the machinations of the privileged class, he could not bring himself to advocate any form of economic leveling. Property had to be protected. He certainly did not think of class in nineteenth-century terms. Ideas advanced by contemporaries such as Thomas Paine—such as the belief that strong government works against the true interests of society—had no appeal for him.

Still, the aristocratic danger to the rights of ordinary people remained real—indeed, urgent. As Wood observes, during the 1780s Adams came “to appreciate more fully than ever before the power and influence of the aristocracy in public life.” He insisted that unless they were “constrained and segregated, the rich and wellborn might pose an even greater danger to free government than the common people.” Adams’s solution was to award the American aristocrats their own branch of government—a kind of House of Lords without hereditary titles—that would serve to quarantine the privileged class and make it much harder for them to oppress the rest of society. However much they schemed for advantage, they would not be able to dominate the lower house—the voice of the people—or intimidate a very strong executive who would act as a referee balancing the rights of ordinary Americans against the self-serving ambitions of the country’s aristocrats.

John Adams

Whatever the merits of Adams’s ideas, he failed utterly to persuade anyone that a privileged group did in fact represent a major problem for the new republic. It was just as well that he was out of the country on diplomatic service when the Constitutional Convention met in 1787. His absence saved the delegates from windy speeches about the threat of aristocracy in America. They gave him credit for his advocacy of balanced government and separation of powers but missed the thrust of his more pressing concern. For Adams, it was not enough simply to create a senate or upper house.

Instead of giving ground on the point, he doubled down, repeating his arguments, each time more aggressively. Sadly, the lively, often humorous qualities that one encounters in his private correspondence were nowhere to be found in his formal writings. In 1787 Adams published his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, an almost unreadable three-volume study of how aristocrats had undermined popular liberties throughout recorded history. The lesson was clear: “Orders of men, watching and balancing each other, are the only security; power must be opposed to power and interest to interest.”

At the time of its publication, friends praised Adams’s work, even though they privately confessed that they had read only a few pages. His political analysis made no sense to a people who had just fought a war to liberate the country from George III. His insistence on the need for a strong executive seemed an invitation to restore the monarchy. His fulsome praise for the British constitution—king, House of Lords, and House of Commons—harked back to a prerevolutionary world that no longer had popular appeal.

Other critics insisted that Adams was just wrong. There were no aristocrats in the United States. Did Adams not realize that the Revolution had eliminated noble titles? Did he not understand that all branches of the newly ratified constitutional government derived their power from the people? Even if one could identify an American aristocracy, what guarantee was there that it would not try to extend its influence beyond its own senate or upper house? The whole plan seemed bizarre. One can understand why Franklin concluded, “I am persuaded…that he [Adams] means well for his Country, is always an honest Man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”

During the 1790s the spirit of unity that had energized the Revolution seemed in jeopardy. International crises poisoned American politics, threatening the stability of constitutional government. National leaders who had once been allies increasingly identified themselves as Federalists or Republicans—not political parties in the modern sense but rather loosely organized groups sharing political goals—and the public began to interpret contentious domestic differences over a national bank and executive power through the lens of the French Revolution. Former allies such as Adams and Jefferson suddenly found themselves at odds over how the new republic should respond to European rivalries that now threatened American commercial interests.

About the French Revolution, Jefferson had no qualms. It represented the spread of republican values to the Old World. His enthusiasm for the destruction of monarchy helps explain why he was reluctant to condemn the enormous bloodshed occurring on the streets of Paris. Adams did not share Jefferson’s upbeat assessment. He believed that the French had overthrown the ancien régime without properly considering what might replace it. “The world,” Adams wrote, “will be entertained with noble sentiments and enchanting Eloquence, but will not essential Ideas be sometimes forgotten, in the anxious study of brilliant Phrases?” Soon Adams, who served as George Washington’s vice-president for two terms and then as president in his own right, became the object of vicious personal attacks.

In this bitterly partisan atmosphere in which a newly aggressive press stirred up political division, Adams’s writings came back to haunt him. People identified him with monarchy and the policies of Great Britain. Jefferson, it seemed, had read the future correctly. When Jefferson was elected president in 1800, Adams felt betrayed. He thought he deserved a second term. Searching for an explanation, Adams insisted that Jefferson or scribblers of Republican persuasion had vilified him in ways that could not be forgiven. On the eve of Jefferson’s inauguration, a very angry Adams slipped back to Massachusetts. At that moment about the only thing the two men agreed on was their utter contempt for Alexander Hamilton, who they believed had allowed personal ambition to subvert national security. Their friendship was at an end.

Had it not been for Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, who had somehow managed to maintain good relations with both Jefferson and Adams, they might never have reconciled. As the members of the revolutionary generation passed away, Rush worried that two of the most prominent survivors would die without restoring a friendship that had been moribund since the election of 1800. In letters to Jefferson and Adams, Rush begged the men to forget and forgive. After all, they were national treasures, and their fellow citizens deserved to know more about the political events that had shaped the nation. Rush’s labors resulted in their first exchange on January 1, 1812. Adams sent Jefferson two volumes written by his son, John Quincy, which he described humorously as “two Pieces of Homespun lately produced in this quarter.” Since the books did not arrive with the letter, Jefferson assumed that Adams had been referring to cloth manufactured in New England, and in response he drafted a long note on production of textiles in Virginia.

Perhaps the initial misunderstanding relaxed the two men trying to restore a badly strained relationship. In any case, over the remaining years of their lives, Jefferson and Adams wrote 158 letters to each other.* It was an extraordinary correspondence—everything for which Rush had hoped. Adams wrote three letters to every one that Jefferson sent. For Adams especially it seemed as if the chance to communicate had opened a floodgate. He welcomed the opportunity to explore an impressive range of topics with someone of his own erudition and intelligence. The two former presidents made references to ancient classics, obscure religious writings, studies of Native American cultures, and philosophical treatises. They discussed how one might write a history of the American Revolution. They even displayed an impressive knowledge of Greek and Latin. Adams was more forthright, throwing out ideas as fast as he could record them on paper. “So many Subjects crowd upon me,” he confessed, “that I know not, with which to begin.” Jefferson remained more reserved, avoiding controversy by ignoring contentious topics that Adams frequently raised.

However much Adams may have welcomed the restoration of their friendship, he could not ignore the past. The two men had unfinished business to settle. As Adams declared, “You and I ought not to die, before We have explained ourselves to each other.” For Adams that goal meant in part rehearsing the many wrongs he had endured during the 1790s. Anxious lest his own accomplishments be overlooked, Adams asked Jefferson, “How many Gauntletts am I destined to run? How many Martyrdoms must I suffer?”

Fortunately, Adams did not often indulge in such self-pity. He had another, much more important matter to settle, one that had been on his mind for a very long time. Why, he wondered, had Jefferson failed to understand how much an American aristocracy endangered the future of the republic? Not only had the privileged class continued to try to monopolize power, it had also successfully persuaded ordinary citizens that it was right for them to do so. When he considered “the weakness, the folly, the Pride, the Vanity, the Selfishness, the Artifice, the low craft and meaning [sic] cunning, the want of Principle, the Avarice[,] the unbounded Ambition, the unfeeling Cruelty of a majority of those (in all Nations) who are allowed an aristocratical influence,” Adams could not help but be depressed by the corruption of republican government. After all, the ordinary people did the bidding of the aristocrats. They “not only become their Dupes, but even love to be Taken in by their Tricks.”

In 1813 Jefferson responded to Adams much as he had many decades earlier. He admitted that two kinds of aristocrats existed—natural and artificial. Titled nobility clearly had no place in the United States. As for the natural aristocrats—individuals of exceptional talents and accomplishments—awarding them a separate branch of government made no sense. “I think,” Jefferson wrote, “that to give them power in order to prevent them from doing mischief, is arming them for it, and increasing instead of remedying the evil.” Rather than trying to reconfigure the country’s balanced Constitution, Adams should put his faith in free elections. He should trust the people. “In general,” Jefferson concluded, “they will elect the real good and wise. In some instances, wealth may corrupt, and birth blind them; but not in sufficient degree to endanger the society.”

Jefferson counseled Adams to appreciate more fully how splendidly the country they had founded was progressing. Ordinary people were receiving better education; they could obtain land if they wanted. The future was bright. Jefferson believed that it was sufficient for the preservation of liberty “if the moral and physical condition of our own citizens qualifies them to select the able and good for the direction of their government.”

Adams was not persuaded. It probably did not matter. The two men greatly enjoyed the conversation. In a remarkable coincidence, Adams and Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. On one thing Adams was correct. Jefferson spoke to the American people in a language that resonated positively. It still does. But as Wood reminds us, Adams also has something to tell us. Although evidence of the power of great wealth to subvert democracy is now overwhelming—think of Citizens United—we can still appreciate Adams’s prescient warning. The challenge remains: How can the American people protect the republic from the political machinations of a privileged class?

  1. *

    The full correspondence can be found in The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, edited by Lester J. Cappon (University of North Carolina Press, 1959).