In 1811, with an adroit use of epistolary shuttle diplomacy, Benjamin Rush brokered a reconciliation between two former friends, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. When the ice broke, the second and third presidents of the United States commenced a correspondence that produced 158 letters and ended when both men died, fittingly, on July 4, 1826, 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
In “Friends Divided,” Gordon S. Wood, a professor at Brown University and our finest historian of 18th-century America, provides a splendid account of the improbable friendship, estrangement and reconciliation between Adams, an irascible, ironic, hypersensitive middle-class New England lawyer, and Jefferson, a self-contained, diplomatic, slaveholding Virginia aristocrat.
Along the way, Wood illuminates the ideas (and conflicts over those ideas) that shaped the American Revolution, the U.S. Constitution and the early Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties — ideas that continue to have an impact on “our grand experiment in self-government.”
“Friends Divided” reminds us that Adams and Jefferson (and other Founding Fathers) were statesmen and political philosophers who had sophisticated insights about the nature and structure of representative government and the alternatives to it.
But Wood also points out his subjects’ flaws of personality, reasoning and judgment.
Wood agrees with Benjamin Franklin’s assessment of Adams: “Always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”
As president, Wood writes, Adams “was certainly no party leader; and he had very little political sense.” Adams’ fear of the likelihood that aristocrats would dominate the federal government, Wood maintains, led him to support making the president a monarch, with the power to rein them in.
Jefferson’s optimism, according to Wood, was often fueled by a naive faith in the wisdom of “the people.” His all-in support of the French Revolution — he preferred to see half the Earth desolated to failure — was the act of “a fanatical ideologue.”
Jefferson’s optimism, however, secured his legacy.
His assertion that the United States “was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” has inspired Americans and sustained the nation for almost 250 years.
By contrast, Wood claims that Adams was too skeptical, contrarian and cynical and too much inclined to question just about every element of the American dream to capture the imaginations of his fellow Americans.
Wood is right — for most of American history. But he leaves you wondering which Founding Father is more likely to connect in 2017 with our all too anxious and angry, partisan, polarized and paralyzed nation.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.
Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson
By: Gordon S. Wood.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 502 pages, $35.