Victor Nuovo: Adams and Jefferson in retrospect
Editor’s note: This is the 25th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
On July 4, 1826 — 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence — at 6:30 in the evening, John Adams died. His last words were “Thomas Jefferson still lives.” He was mistaken, for Jefferson had died four hours before. That both men should have died on the same day, and on that particular day seemed remarkable to many then as it does now. Given the narrative of American independence and nation-building, it was a fitting conclusion; to many it was providential, proof that the founding of this nation was not a mere historical accident. It is also remarkable that 17 years before the event, a mutual friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746–1813) had a premonition of it in a dream, which he described to John Adams in a letter dated October 17, 1809; he wondered whether the dream might be prophetic. Rush was a signer of the Declaration and a noted physician who did pioneering research into the physical causes of psychological disorders. He had taken on the task of restoring the friendship between Adams and Jefferson.
Once close friends and co-revolutionists, Adams and Jefferson had become political enemies. Profound differences about the nature of government and of domestic and foreign policy, exacerbated by their opposing views on the French revolution, created feelings of resentment and estrangement between them that in their retirement only deepened. Rush worried over this; it was not good for them or for the nation. He wrote to both men and, having secured from them mutual expressions of continuing respect and love, informed each of what the other had written, urging them to renew their friendship. Finally, on the first of January, 1812, Adams wrote Jefferson a short note wishing him “many happy new years,” expressing his long and sincere esteem, and signing off as “your faithful friend.” Jefferson quickly responded with expressions of “sincere esteem” and pledged his “unchanged affections and respect.” After a hiatus of eight years in their friendship and correspondence, which followed Jefferson’s unhappy exchange with Abagail Adams, they resumed their correspondence, which continued until the year they both died.
What is most impressive about these letters is their humanity. Adams and Jefferson had grown old and were acutely aware of their declining powers and loss of physical agility. At the outset, Adams was 77, Jefferson 70; when the last letters were exchanged in 1816, Adams was 90, and Jefferson 83. The founders of this nation were not Titans or great heroes, but mortal human beings, frail, afflicted with infirmities, and haunted by regrets. Their letters are a fitting postscript to the founding, bringing it down to earth.
Here were two old men, sensitive to their age. In his first letter, Jefferson excuses himself for his “senile garrulity,” to which Adams, always the Latinist, responded that he has retaliated with “my Senectutal Garrulity.” But they were also founders of a new nation, whose destiny to expand across a continent and become a world power was already becoming evident. Prominent in its founding, they had served in the highest offices of its government and shaped its policies. These were prodigious achievements and they took pride in them. Yet they did not glory in them or try to relive them. Jefferson allowed that he would be ready to live them over just as they happened, but Adams demurred, mostly recalling the pain and regret. When, in 1825, Jefferson congratulated him on his son’s succession to the Presidency after a distinguished career as a diplomat, his response was subdued.
Jefferson writes about his poor health and the difficulty of keeping physically active. He commends Adams on his continuing good health and describes his efforts: he rides everyday, but adds that he is able to walk only a mile. Later he would tell of having imbibed the waters at Warm Springs and the ill effects that resulted from it which seemed to cause a rebellion in his body that never relented. It was the onset of Uremia or kidney disease, which eventually caused his death. Adams was more robust, walking three or four miles “every fair day.” But he complains of the onset of tremors, and the palsy, which makes writing difficult for him. Both rejoice in their families, notwithstanding the pain of the early death of children, delighting in their grandchildren, and Jefferson of a great-grandchild.
Jefferson was still active, not as a politician but as an educator, overseeing the University of Virginia, which he had founded, still shaping its curriculum, and building up its faculty, but increasingly spending his days in his library at Monticello searching for ancient and modern wisdom. “I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid, and I find myself the much happier.” Adams was far more pessimistic. Although he was continuously gathering books, most of which he would never read, “100,000 would not be enough,” he was harsh in his criticism of what he found in them. He applauds his friend’s activity only so far as he studies Newton and “the contemplation of the heavens.” He had had his fill of ancient learning and its purported wisdom and of politicians to boot: “I am weary of Philosophers, Theologians, Politicians, and Historians. They are immense masses of absurdities, vices, and lies.” He prefered journeymen and the products of their honest labor. And yet, he continued to collect books, and continued to read them. It is a curious paradox, but not unusual.
They contemplated death. Commenting on Samuel Johnson’s fear of death, Adams wrote mockingly, “a friend of Johnson told me that Johnson died in Agonies and Horror of Annihilation … Dread of Annihilation! Dread of Nothing? A dread of Nothing should be no dread at all. Can there be any real substantial rational fear of nothing?” Adams expressed no fear of death: If it is annihilation, that he will remember nothing of it: if he survives, he will exist under the same rule of the universe that he did in life. In his old age, Adams, once a Christian, seems to have become a philosophical naturalist. His God is evident only in the natural order of things: a great intelligence, but indifferent to the sorrows and misfortunes of his creatures. “That there is an active principle of power in the Universe is apparent, but in what substance that active principle of power resides is past our investigation. The faculties of our understanding are not adequate to penetrate the Universe” He has only harsh words for the biblical account of creation which reduced the universe to “this little ball” of earth: and proceeded to “spit upon it.”
Both men expressed anxiety concerning the future, although both expected it would become a great world power. They continued to affirm liberty and equality as the fundamental principles of society; they expressed scorn for monarchies and aristocracies, worried over the growing wealth based aristocracy in this nation, opposed slavery, and cultivated a serious interest in the culture of the indigenous American nations.
Postscript: The institution of slavery and the treatment of the Indian nations make it difficult to write a celebratory history of the United States. The great divide in wealth increases the difficulty.
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