Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson by Gordon Wood

My Dad sent me this one a few weeks ago. Thanks Dad! What a book! I can see why it won the Pulitzer the book is a sweeping history of a monumental friendship that turned sour, and then turned back again as both of them were nearing the end of their lives as two of the greatest of the Founding Fathers. Even though Adams was about eight years older than Jefferson he started out as sort of a mentor to him, and Jefferson took to the role as mentee as well. They were there when the revolution started but came from vastly different backgrounds — Adams was a hardscrabble lawyer from the outskirts of Boston, while Jefferson was an aristocrat who grew up surrounded by and tended to by the slaves on his plantation. The main question that Wood asks is, why do we celebrate Jefferson and not Adams? Why is Jefferson so revered while Adams languishes a few steps behind the rest of the all-time greats? Simple: Adams was a realist, a pessimist, a believer that human beings could not be trusted, while Jefferson was an idealist, a dreamer, a believer that America was “exceptional” — and he went to great lengths to write about it in powerful prose and storytelling that Adams lacked. Adams was grumpy, cynical, stout, short, and chubby; Jefferson was tall, charismatic, good-looking, political, world-renowned, and famous. But what made them different made them so great, and even though Adams tends to get lost to us he was just as important as anyone else in the founding of this nation. While we can continue to revere Jefferson (for better or worse) we definitely cannot forget Adams. Gordon makes that point incredibly loud and clear.

  • Jefferson dominates Americans historical memory, although at the time of independence Adams was far better known
  • they remained divided on basically everything, but in the end reconciled over a series of letters — somewhat superficial
  • Jefferson was an aristocratic virginia planter/Adams a middling born in MA
  • Adams rose due to merit — crusty conservatism, emphasized the inequality and vice ridden nature of american society
  • Jefferson emphasized american equality and the promoters of the uniqueness of the nation and its special role in the world
  • Adams didn’t think we were unusual or special, Jefferson told us how special we were, exceptional
  • Adams told the truths about ourselves that were difficult to bear
  • We mostly avoid Adams’ message and like Jefferson’s, who praised our uniqueness
  • Jefferson dreamed of a better world to come/Adams always had qualms and uncertainties about the future
  • Jefferson was a moral idealist — thought humans were basically good natured and good hearted
  • Adams had a bleak view of human nature
  • Jefferson had a spacious and encyclopedic mind
  • Jefferson was raised with slaves all around — privileged aristocratic world
  • No american in the 18th century had diaries like Adams
  • Jefferson was reserved and self possessed, Adams opened up to everyone, very self critical
  • Adams despised the world of affluence and elegance although he envied it
  • Jefferson was all about the spread of civility social and moral behavior of people
  • Jefferson was always polite, didn’t want to offend, didn’t like conflict
  • Adams was sharp and sarcastic
  • Jefferson had the largest private library in the country — slaves were principle source of income
  • Adams and his wife, Abigail were intellectual equals, although Adams didn’t believe in women’s equality generally
  • by the time of Jefferson’s death in 1826, one third of the 130 slaves on his estate were members of the Hemmings clan
  • Sally was the half sister of his deceased wife — may have resembled his wife
  • Jefferson never acknowledged his slave children publicly or privately and never made any effort to prepare for their financial futures
  • Adams rose to fame in response to the Stamp Act — was a lawyer
  • Adams understanding of history was a long ongoing struggle against tyranny in which america had a central role to play
  • Adams defended the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre
  • colonists inability to overcome the british insistence on the sovereignty of parliament — that the colonists had to be totally under parliaments authority or totally outside it — that ultimately drove them into their wholesale rethinking of the nature of the empire
  • taxes were the big issue
  • Jefferson wrote A Summary View of the Rights of British America — first sustained piece of american political writing that subjected the kings conduct to direct and posted criticism
  • called the king out for vetoing the colonists efforts to prohibit the importation of slaves, ironically — primed a listing of charges he would use in the Declaration
  • Adams was eight years older than Jefferson, regarded him as a protege, and Jefferson assumed the role in congress
  • Adams had a massive influence on the Virginia constitution of 1776, more so than Jefferson
  • Adams was the main man interested in constitutionalism
  • Thought you had to balance and mix different parts of government — sharing of political power, few, many, and the social orders — admired the English constitution
  • republic as a government of laws, not of men
  • was never really able to convince the american pubic that the british monarchy was really a republic, and this plagued him through his life
  • thought people had to sacrifice for the sake of the public — principle of virtue
  • in a republic, where authority comes from below, from the people, each citizen must somehow be persuaded to sacrifice his personal desires for the sake of the public good
  • virtue, self sacrifice — without, republics fall apart
  • independent judiciary, separated from legislative and executive powers, liberal education of youth, passage of sumptuary laws
  • both took away the governors traditional prerogative powers — abrupt departure from English constitutional tradition
  • looking back, Adams acknowledged that they granted too much power to the people in the houses, should have offset better with stronger and more distinctive senates and more powerful governors, who should have never had had prerogatives taken away in the first place
  • Jefferson wrote the declaration — didn’t necessarily believe in all men crated equal, as he stated in Notes on the State of Virginia when referring to blacks and slaves
  • nature at birth doomed blacks to be inferior — didn’t think that about Indians though
  • Adams started out believing that all men were created equal, but within a decade of the declaration, he shifted that belief
  • Abigail’s famous “remember the ladies” quote was more teasing Adams than actual feminism, although nowadays it’s used as such
  • Jefferson semi retired as governor of VA in 1781, which angered his colleagues
  • Adams and Jefferson resumed a friendship in Europe (Paris), and their families became very close, including Abigail and Jefferson, who exchanged tons of letters over the years
  • Americans thought of a “constitution” in 1776 as written document set apart from the government, very different from English understanding of it
  • Parliament was a part of the constitution, and the law, both customary and statutory, was thus constitutional
  • MA constitution greatly influenced other state constitutions and the national
  • Adams had a strong senate, independent judiciary, much more powerful and independent governor that existed in other states — elected annually by the people at large rather than legislature
  • came closest to the English constitution — MA executive emerged as the strongest governor of any of the states
  • Jefferson believed that the people themselves could never become oppressive — only their elected agents were capable of tyranny
  • Adams always resented aristocracy, which haunted him — rich and wellborn pose a greater danger to free government than the common people
  • he thought he perfect constitution was a tripartite balance
  • “You are afraid of the one, I the few … you are apprehensive of Monarchy, I of Aristocracy” — Adams to Jefferson in 1787
  • Wrote “Defence of the Constituions of Government of the United States of America”, which came out when the constitution was done, but over time got him in trouble for some of his philosophies — devastating view of fellow Americans
  • French Revolution strained the relationship between Adams and Jefferson
  • Adams had misgivings about whether his fellow citizens had the proper moral character needed to sustain republican governments (in america)
  • Jefferson loved the luxury and sophistication of europe, Adams was wary of the consummation of luxury and vice and fixated on the struggle between rich and poor, gentleman and commoners
  • his book looked at ambition and avarice, not virtue and benevolence, of americans
  • wrote about inequality, wealth, birth, talent — for Adams, this issue lay at the heart of his entire understanding of society and politics
  • wealth more important than birth
  • no founder talked like this, and no one really challenged the assertion of all men created equal like he did
  • Jefferson claimed that all men (white) were born with equal blank slates and that he natural and cultural environments inscribing these blank slates through time by themselves created the obvious differences that separated one person from another
  • Adams in 1787 denied this optimism of 1776, so he changed course in his beliefs — men born decidedly unequal — people were born possessing previously existing natural and cultural privileges
  • aristocracy vs. commoners, struggle for supremacy, social conflict
  • Jefferson never saw it this way — took his status for granted
  • Adams thought America was no different than europe — no american leader ever so emphatically denied american exceptionalism
  • dark and grim society — power must be opposed to power and interest to interest
  • thought there needed to be a powerful executive — Jefferson feared this
  • few grasped at the time the dark and forbidding and un american picture of society he had created
  • Jefferson had totally the opposite view
  • both abroad when the Constitution convention met
  • French Revolution began the estrangement — Jefferson thought it was a consequence of the american revolution, Adams was skeptical
  • Jefferson felt you should never be shackled by the past — Adams thought you could never be free of the past, must learn the truths of politics
  • Jefferson thought america should be agricultural, supported by farmers and yeomen, crops for export — south, slavery
  • Jefferson was a supporter of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man — ideas opposed to Adams, and the public found out about the split, and Adams was VP and Jefferson secretary of state
  • Adams was a Federalist, with Hamilton (sort of) vs. Jefferson/Madison, Republicans
  • Adams attitude toward the French Revolution divided him from Jefferson and other republicans
  • Jefferson hated the British, Adams did not
  • Adams was a federalist — friend of government, hierarchy, law and order
  • When Adams elected, he kept Washingtons cabinet, which was his greatest political error
  • XYZ affair made Adams very popular at the time, exploded anger against France and republican party
  • May 1798, riots in Philly between supporters of Britain vs. supporters of France — one of the more underrated and scarier times in american history that hasn’t been acknowledged — fears of a French invasion
  • Alien and Sedition acts, horrendous mistake by Adams — tarnished historical reputations of Adams and the Federalists
  • Sedition Act made it a crime to write, print or utter publish writings that brought the President or congress into contempt or disrepute
  • Adams was a terrible party leader and horrible politician — Jefferson was the opposite
  • Adams actually ended a conflict with France but the news was too late to reach the American public, as Jefferson won the election in 1800
  • Adams became the first president not to greet his successor
  • Jefferson believed in few offices, little debt, low taxes, small military
  • believed society was naturally harmonious and benevolent and didn’t need much government
  • hated monarchical government and power
  • Adams thought you needed government to restrain people from envy, jealousy, power — believed in authority
  • Under Jefferson, the federal presence was mainly mail delivery
  • gradually, Adams started to agree with some of what Jefferson did
  • Jefferson was an international celebrity when he retired
  • Adams and Jefferson became the last two survivors of the committee that drafted the Declaration
  • Jefferson had a poor last decade of his life, thoughts, demons, dogmas — had a hard time adjusting to changing times
  • Adams didn’t have as hard a time adjusting, cynicism and low expectations of human nature protected him from the kind of disappointments that Jefferson had
  • Jefferson later in life thought that the north and government were encroaching on states rights, judiciary was dangerous, even though he didn’t like slavery and thought it would die out in time
  • Adams became more serene and somewhat optimistic later on in life, opposite of Jefferson
  • Adams ended up being right about the French Revolution, and saw it fail — Louis was back on the throne
  • “power must never be trusted without a check” — Adams
  • Adams turned out to be very accurate in his assessment of Americans, but he was not inspiring, and that could not sustain the nation
  • inequalities amongst individuals, inevitable and impossible to eradicate
  • people born unequal, inequalities were the products of nature, not nurture
  • inequality was a fact of life — some people born smarter, more handsome, more personable, more wealthy
  • Adams — Americans must not assume that increased knowledge among ordinary people would make them equal to the aristocracy, the elites
  • preoccupied with the existence if inequality
  • dark views, could not be accepted, not what americans wanted or needed t hear
  • america was just as sinful, vicious, as other countries
  • Jefferson, by contrast, could and did inspire and nourish the people
  • Lincoln embodied Jefferson in his speeches — grand experiment in self government, conceived in liberty, dedicated to the proposition that all men created equal
  • liberty and equality gave hope to the world
  • Adams was too questioning, too contrarian, too cynical, to offer any such support for america’s nationhood
  • Jefferson offered americans a set of beliefs that through the generations have supplied a bond that holds together the most diverse nation that history has ever known
  • to be an american is not to be someone, but to believe in something — and that something is wast Jefferson declared
  • thats why we honor him and not Adams

I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.

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