Founding Frenemies

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.