Jefferson-Adams: Round Two

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Weisberger is a contributing editor at American Heritage and a member of the advisory board of History News Network. He is the author of America Afire: Jefferson, Adams and the Revolutionary Election of 1800.

I believe it’s William Faulkner who said that the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. Which is not necessarily a bad thing if it stimulates creative thinking. I’m moved to these reflections by an exchange of correspondence on the eve of July 4th last. Responding to an Op-Ed piece which suggested that we don’t sufficiently honor John Adams as an architect of American freedom, Floyd Abrams pointed out that Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the most brazen attempt ever made to muzzle political dissent in time of peace."Happy Birthday Thomas Jefferson," he concluded. Next day the Letters page carried the reminder from a correspondent that Jefferson had authorized state court sedition proceedings against hostile editors when he was President. Score one for John Adams’s side

Adams’s stock is rising again, boosted by David McCullough’s justly admiring biography. It’s been up and down over the years among both professional and popular historians. A high point in my own recollection is the portrayal of Adams in the musical 1776 as the passionate activist for independence who recognizes, however, that he is"obnoxious and disliked," and so tends to yield the spotlight to his fellow pro-independence advocate Thomas Jefferson. And it’s always in the framework of contrast to Jefferson that Adams is invoked. Adams’s stormy and miserable one-term Presidency dooms him to insignificance in our Presidential-term-oriented history books, as against Jefferson’s brilliant exercise of the Executive power to purchase the Louisiana Territory. Never mind the fact that Jefferson had to backtrack on his own strict-construction, states-rights philosophy to make the buy, nor that his second term ended with an ill-advised and disastrous embargo on foreign trade—but there I go, joining the never-ending argument again.

The two men are among the great pairings of the Revolutionary generation—Jefferson and Hamilton, Adams and Hamilton, Hamilton and Burr, Jefferson and Burr, all of them partners in the fight for freedom who came to hate each other in an historical drama that might have been scripted for The History Channel. Jefferson and Adams are an especially irresistible duo, however, partly because they stand for such clearly opposite strains in political thinking. In thought, at least, Jefferson was the embodiment of the Enlightenment’s faith in progress, reason and the perfectibility of popular government. Adams had a much darker view of human nature, which he saw as constantly driven by jealousy and ambition. Free government, for him, was possible only under a strong executive that would hold contending classes in line; otherwise it degenerated into tyranny (as the French Revolution seemed to be doing under his very eyes.) He dreaded the tumult of elections, though he absolutely never advocated a hereditary monarch for the United States. This contrast between an open door to utopian expectations, and constitutional restraints on popular majorities is built into our history, and Jefferson and Adams serve as poster-figures for each view, though it’s usually Hamilton who is cast as Jefferson’s enemy. Possibly because he makes better copy and because his pro-business economic thinking still dominates American conservative discourse.

Jefferson and Adams rise and fall in our estimation, then , in rhythm with other tides of sentiment—although the spotlight is usually on the more versatile, intellectually adventurous and many-faceted Jefferson with all his piquant but troubling contradictions. Jefferson’s"Republican" party was popular enough to control the White House for an unbroken twenty-four years after 1800. But by mid-century, with the controversy over slavery boiling, conservative Southerners, unable to handle his eloquence on behalf of freedom began to turn their backs on"St. Thomas of Cantingbury" as fellow Virginian John Randolph called him. Jefferson’s career was drawn into an ongoing debate over whether Virginia or Massachusetts, the two dominant pre-1776 colonies, had been the first and foremost in resisting royal tyranny. Was it Boston or Williamsburg that was the true" cradle of liberty?" In a post-Civil War era of historical writing dominated by New Englanders, Jefferson occasionally fell on hard times. John Adams’s great-grandson Henry, writing a history of Jefferson’s administration, got some family revenge with such observations as this one: Jefferson was"superficial in his knowledge and a martyr to the disease of omniscience," a strange man to be in the rough-and-tumble of politics at all. And nationalists and jingoes like Theodore Roosevelt (a part-time historian himself) saw the anti-militarist Jefferson, in TR’s words, as"the most incapable executive that ever filled the presidential chair. . .It would be difficult to imagine a man less fit to guide a state with honor and safety through. . .stormy times." His preference for Adams, who supervised the beginnings of the U.S. Navy in 1797, was obvious.

In the era of popular liberal thought that prevailed during the post-New Deal era, Jefferson became once more the dominant and heroic figure of American democracy (and of the reigning Democratic Party as well). I was virtually brought up on Saul K. Padover’s laudatory works. And John Adams was more or less the well-meaning but deluded antagonist who favored the anti-democratic policies of the Federalist Party. The conflict extended to John Quincy Adams’s feud with Andrew Jackson—A.M. Schlesinger’s prizewinning Age of Jackson began with a memorable portrait of the second President Adams rising at dawn to read his Bible and meditate gloomily on the imminent arrival of the western barbarians in the White House.

So what does the current renewal of the battle portend? There’s a possible realignment going on. Contemporary"leftist" historians are much tougher on Jefferson’s contradictions, especially on his slaveholding, his prejudices against Indians, and his almost-certain paternity of the children of Sally Hemings. In contrast, conservatives who hate what they see as the iconoclasm of the left and the trashing of traditional American values, are sticking up for the man from Monticello. There’s a website that will explain to you carefully that the DNA tests only prove the paternity case against some male Jefferson, not necessarily Thomas, and in any case why throw mud at the marble statue? Is the post-Reagan revival of conservatism seeping into historiography? There is a group of historians in the South stoutly denying that the Confederacy was created to defend slavery; there is another bent on rehabilitating Senator Joe McCarthy and other anti-Communist zealots of the fifties. Are these straws in the wind?

Hard to say. But it is important to note two things; one, that David McCullough most emphatically does not fit this profile. And more importantly, that both men were special—and friends. Though Adams’s reputation for crabbiness is legendary, someone who knew him well wrote in 1784 that he was"disinterested, profound in his views, and accurate in his judgment, except where knowledge of the world is necessary to form a judgment. He is so amiable that you will love him if ever you become acquainted with him." That someone was Thomas Jefferson. And in their acquaintanceship of fifty-plus years, there were only eleven during which they were totally estranged from each other. Whether Adams deserves a monument on the Potomac or not, as McCullough suggests, I don’t know, but I think that if, in the Elysian fields, there was a vote on the subject, that Jefferson would approve. For myself, I would love to have known either man, and I think I’d have been quicker to take John Adams at his word—but I’d have voted against him in 1800!

comments powered by Disqus