The Friendship and Rivalry of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

Ben Fellows

3 mins

29 Jan 2015

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were at times great friends and at times great rivals, and of the Founding the Fathers, they were probably the most influential in deciding the course of the of the United States of America.

In temperament, in politics and in faith these men were very different, but in important ways they were similar, notably both men suffering the loss of family members, particularly wives and children. But by charting this friendship, and rivalry, we do not just come to understand the men, but come to understand the founding of the United States.

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A painting showing the a meeting of the Continental Congress.

Jefferson and Adams First Meet

The friendship of Mr Jefferson and Mr Adams began when they met at the Continental Congress in support of the Revolution against England and as members of the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. It was during this time the men wrote the first of their 380 letters to each other.

When Jefferson’s wife, Martha, died in 1782, Jefferson became a frequent guest at the home of John and Abigail Adams. Abigail said of Jefferson that he was “the only person with whom my companion could associate with perfect freedom and reserve”.

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A portrait of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha.

After the Revolution

After the Revolution both men were sent to Europe (Jefferson in Paris and Adams in London) as diplomats where their friendship continued. It was upon their return to the United States that their friendship deteriorated. Adams, a Federalist suspicious of the French Revolution, and Jefferson, the Democratic Republican who did not want to leave France because of the French revolution, competed for office for the first time in 1788 for the position of George Washington’s Vice President. Adams was victorious but the political differences of the two men, once contained in cordial letters, became pronounced and public. Very few letters were written during this time.

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During their successive terms as president Adams and Jefferson’s relationship deteriorated.

The Presidential Rivalry

In 1796, Adam’s narrowly defeated Jefferson as Washington’s presidential successor. Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans greatly pressured Adams during this period, particularly over the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1799.  Then, in 1800, Jefferson defeated Adams who, in an act that greatly annoyed Jefferson, appointed a number of Jefferson’s political opponents to high office just before leaving office. It was during Jefferson’s two term Presidency that relationships between the two men were at their lowest.

Finally, in 1812, Dr Benjamin Rush convinced them to begin writing again. From here their friendship was rekindled, as they wrote movingly to one another about the death of loved ones, their advancing years, and the Revolution they both helped win.

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This was the last portrait painted of Adams in his lifetime, he was 89 years old.

50 years after the declaration, on 4 July 1826, John Adams, before he drew his last breath said, “Thomas Jefferson Lives”. What he could not have known is that Jefferson had died five hours earlier.

The remarkable lives, and friendships, of Jefferson and Adams tell us much more than a clichéd story of political friendship and rivalry, they tell a story, and a history, of the birth a nation, and its struggles through disagreement and rivalry, war and peace, hope and despair and friendship and civility.

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