John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are two of the most famous Founding Fathers of the United States. They are also famous for their friendship and also for their eventual hostility towards each other that lasted for many years. However, the hostility came to an end, and both men became friends again. Adams and Jefferson died on the same day — on the 4th of July, 1826 — the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Adams met Jefferson in 1775 in the Continental Congress. The following year, they led the colonies in declaring their independence from British political dominion. Although they both had the reverse temperament of each other, both men were staunch allies and complemented each other’s work ethics. Adams spoke plainly and straight to the point. He was well-educated and did not attempt to hide his feelings on matters that were important to him. Meanwhile, Jefferson was an aristocrat, one of the wealthy people in Virginia who owned land. He possessed a more reserved personality and kept such constant control of his temper that people around him could not easily guess what he was thinking. During the Continental Congress, Jefferson was impressed by Adams’ firmness and outspokenness. He later told statesman Daniel Webster that Adams was an intimidating figure during that time and that although he was not refined in his manner, he always argued powerfully.

Jefferson and Adams’ friendship strengthened in the latter part of the 1770s and flourished even further in the 1780s. Jefferson came to know Adams’ wife, Abigail, and admired her for her literacy and intelligence. He also noticed that she had a sharp political instinct and said she was one of the most respectable people he knew. In turn, Abigail expressed to Jefferson that her husband had no other friend with whom he was closer than Jefferson. However, the time came when Adam was sent as minister to Great Britain, and Jefferson was designated as minister to France. Because of this, they had to separate ways. This made Jefferson unhappy, and he wrote to Adams and told him that he was saddened by the separation. Jefferson later described Adams as a vain person but clarified that Adams’ vanity was all that could be said about him because he was honest and capable of deep thought.

The two men’s friendship went through a crisis when the French Revolution broke out in 1789. There were other matters that had upset both of them, but their disagreements surrounding the French Revolution tore them apart. Adams looked at the revolution as a distortion of the events in 1776. He believed that the revolution would result in a bloody chapter in history. Jefferson viewed the revolution in a more favorable light, thinking it was an extension of 1776 and that it would lead to an era of liberty. But the revolution became a terror, and when it happened, Adams did not waste time in criticizing it as having achieved more evils in a single night compared to all the tyrannical French kings in the past 30 years.

In 1797, Adams became the second president of the United States. He took his chances at a second term but failed. He was defeated by Jefferson, who was then serving as his vice president. The election proved to be too bitter for both men, and this signaled the unsavory division between the two. Adams grew sullen while Jefferson wrote letters to his friends saying spiteful things about Adams.

Their friendship started to recover when another founding father, Benjamin Rush, put himself between the two. Rush had been exchanging letters with Adams and frequently wrote about his dreams to Adams. In 1809, Adams jokingly asked Rush if he had dreamt of Jefferson lately. Rush responded months later, saying he indeed had a dream about Adams and Jefferson resurrecting their friendship. He said that in his dream, he saw Adams writing a letter to Jefferson, congratulating him at the end of his term. To this, Adams positively replied that Rush’s dream might turn out to be a prophecy.

Rush followed this up by writing to Jefferson, reminding him that he once cherished Adams as a dear friend and that the evilest thing in politics is the breaking up of friends. Rush tried to further blunt Jefferson’s sharp edges by telling him to disregard the political issues that tore him and Adams apart, stating that explanations were not needed between former friends.

In 1812, Adams wrote a letter to his old friend and political rival, Jefferson. Jefferson replied to this with a long letter. And so, this first exchange gave way to two old friends exchanging letters and reviving their friendship. They wrote to each other for the next 14 years, and their letters numbered up to 158. They discussed books they had read, politics, and the people they had met. Adams wrote about the French Revolution, but Jefferson evaded the topic, perhaps not wanting to start another argument. Instead, he directed the topic to the Shawnee tribe and their religious faith.

Their exchanges continued until 1826 when the United States marked its 50th year since its founding as a nation. Jefferson was now 83 years old, and Adams was 90. Both men were becoming increasingly weak but were hanging on for the nation’s big 50th-year celebration. On the eve of the much-awaited day, Jefferson woke up and asked the doctor if it was already the 4th of July. His doctor told him that it would be in just a short while. He woke again the following morning and died that afternoon.

Eight hundred kilometers away, in Massachusetts, Jefferson’s dear friend, Adams, was on his deathbed. The celebrations of the day were being heard in Adams’ room, so he woke up to clanging bells and firing cannons. The people surrounding his deathbed asked him if he was aware of what day it was, and he said that he knew it was the “glorious fourth of July.” Adams died at around 6 in the evening. His last words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He had mistakenly thought that his old friend was still alive when in truth, Jefferson had died five hours earlier.

Historians will never know if Adams’ last words were caused by some remaining bitterness towards Jefferson, thinking that he was outlived by his friend. However, their letters immortalized their admiration for each other.