The United States has been blessed with many distinguished leaders. But the generation that founded our nation has a special place in the hearts of many Americans. Even among that very special generation, two of our Founders stand out not only because of their many accomplishments and their lasting mark on the country, but because their friendship helped shape its early years—a friendship that both started and stopped on the Fourth of July.
Jefferson was an erudite, tall, slender, and fearfully shy man from the rolling hills of the Virginia countryside. John Adams was a brash, short, stocky, and straight-talking man from the bustling town of Quincy, Massachusetts. Both were well-educated, having pursued arduous courses of self-study that lead to them each becoming members of the bar.
Jefferson was known for his intellect and writing ability, and was often called upon by his home state of Virginia to write important legal documents, frequently focused on human rights. Adams, on the other hand, was known for his work in the courtroom, famously taking on the defense of the British soldiers charged with murder after the Boston Massacre. Where Jefferson was likely to engage in thoughtful analysis, Adams charged forward to take whatever course his unbending principles dictated. While Jefferson was a deist who often wrestled with the idea of an all-knowing creator, Adams was a devout Christian with puritanical tendencies. The two were polar opposites in many respects, but shared one trait: their undying patriotism and devotion to the new nation to which they helped give birth.
Their Reputations Preceded Them
Jefferson and Adams knew of one another by reputation long before they met personally.
Adams was a public figure by his 29th year, in which he published the influential “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” in opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765. He went on to become well-known as a patriot. His fame increased when, at the age of 34, he took on the criminal defense of Captain Thomas Preston and eight British soldiers under his command who faced charges of murdering five colonists in Boston on March 6, 1770, a trial history has dubbed The Boston Massacre Murder Trial. Adams’s preparation, attention to detail, and dogged advocacy paid off. The case led to a split verdict, with Preston and six of the eight soldiers being acquitted while the two remaining soldiers were convicted of manslaughter. Adams had proven to England that the colonies were capable of administering justice, an argument Adams later advanced in advocating for America’s independence from Britain. By 1776, he had progressed from a well-known regional patriot to a respected national leader.
Jefferson, on the other hand, was eight years younger than Adams, and came to national attention when he authored “Summary View of the Rights of British America” in 1774. He became known as particularly effective in articulating the colonial position for independence from Britain, and his voice became as important as Patrick Henry’s in advocating for the colonies to separate from their mother country.
Jefferson and Adams are thought to have first met in the summer of 1776 in Philadelphia, when the Second Continental Congress appointed them to a five-man committee to write the Declaration of Independence. The other members of the committee were Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. It was John Adams who nominated Jefferson to pen the declaration in honor of Jefferson’s highly praised writing style. Together, on July 4, 1776, Jefferson and Adams presented to the world one of the most important and enduring statements of human rights and liberty ever written. Both men viewed it as an important foundation for the creation of a truly representative and egalitarian American republic.
By 1784, three of the five men on the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence—Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin—found themselves together again, this time in Paris. Jefferson had lost his wife, Martha, only two years prior, and Adams and his wife Abigail became close friends with him, consoling him in his loss and treating him as family. Both men returned to the United States where, following the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the subsequent ratification process, John Adams served as George Washington’s vice president, and Thomas Jefferson was appointed as the country’s first secretary of state.
Crossing Political Swords
Despite their close friendship, the two crossed political swords. Adams believed that the United States needed a stronger central government in order to compete with the European powers of the day, while Jefferson feared that such concentrated power would lead to tyranny. Adams became an important leader of the Federalist Party, while Jefferson became a leader of the newly formed Democratic-Republican Party.
The tension between the two reached its breaking point when they competed against one another to succeed George Washington as the second president of the United States. The race pitted the two friends against each other for the future course of the nation: Would it be the mercantile and banking dominated future offered by the Federalists or the laissez-faire agrarian democracy envisioned by Jefferson and the Republicans. The dominant presence of George Washington had been the primary force holding the country together until the end of his second term, and the vacuum left by his absence loomed over the election. The nation’s future literally hung in the balance. Given the importance of the race, it soon turned personal, with ad hominem attacks abounding. Their relationship reached its nadir.
Adams won the race, and the men barely spoke during Adams’s term. Their competition was repeated in the 1800 presidential race, which historians count among the nastiest political battles in our nation’s history. Jefferson scored a narrow victory. On his way out of office, Adams saddled Jefferson with “midnight” appointments of key officials, none more important than installing longtime Jefferson political enemy John Marshall on the Supreme Court. Their longstanding friendship came to a bitter end. They didn’t exchange a word for twelve years.
Reconciliation and Final Words
Benjamin Rush, their mutual friend and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, finally brought the men back together. In 1812, at Rush’s urging, Adams made a written overture to Jefferson, who responded kindly. Over the next 14 years, the two exchanged 158 letters, and their friendship and respect for one another reignited.
In a strange quirk of fate, both founders passed away on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years from when they presented the world with the Declaration of Independence. And they were still on each other’s minds. History is murky as to exact dying words of famous individuals. But legend has it that Jefferson’s last words were “At least the country still has Adams,” while Adams last words are reported to be “Jefferson survives.” Neither man was correct. They died within hours of one another on the 50th anniversary of the day our great nation was born.
George Wentz is a partner with the Davillier Law Group in New Orleans, La. He’s a graduate of Georgetown Law School, where he served as the administrative editor of the International Law Journal. Ronald Reagan appointed him to serve in the Office of Policy Development at the Federal Trade Commission. He has had a 38-year career as an attorney in the insurance, transportation, and energy fields, as well as litigating constitutional issues in federal court. He has a love of history, the philosophy of law, and the United States of America.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.