I have been listening to the audio book, Founding Brothers, by Joseph J. Ellis. It is a good read, or a good listen, in my case. The book talks about some of the major players of the early revolutionary period. It talks about George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. I liked the book and it seemed to be historically accurate though I do detect a little bit of anti-Jefferson sentiment by the author. For the most part, I liked what I listened to.
A large part of the book discusses the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Jefferson and Adams were about as different as two men could be, but during their lifetimes they developed a great friendship. Initially that friendship was easy to maintain, but later the bonds of friendship were strained seemingly to the breaking point as they became political enemies. Finally, towards the end of their lives and careers, that friendship was renewed as they reconciled, after years of estrangement.
In 1776 when the colonies had determined they were going to declare independence from Great Britain, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were working side by side in the fight against the tyranny of Great Britain. It was John Adams that nominated Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. Hopefully we all understand how significant that document was, and is, to our nation.
Later, both Jefferson and Adams served as ambassadors to France during the Revolutionary War period. It was during that time that the friendship between Jefferson and Adams was cemented. They knew each other before that, but worked together very closely during that time in France.
When George Washington was elected to be the first President of the United States, both Adams and Jefferson served in Washington’s administration. Jefferson served as the Secretary of State and John Adams served as the Vice President. Neither man enjoyed their position. Jefferson didn’t like or handle conflict well and butted heads, hard and often, with Alexander Hamilton who also served in the Washington administration. Adams felt the position of Vice President was a useless position and was frustrated that he had almost no influence in the Washington presidency while serving as Vice President. Both men felt they were unable to offer a meaningful contribution during that time of service.
After Washington had served two terms, he refused to serve a third term. That action set the precedent for a 2 term limit to the office of the Presidency until FDR served three plus terms in the 1930’s. After Washington’s’ resignation, John Adams was elected as the second president of the United States and Jefferson was elected as the Vice President. The way the Constitution was originally writen gave the Presidency to the man who gained the most electoral votes and the Vice Presidency to the second highest vote getter. That created some very significant problems during the Adams presidency. Even though Jefferson and Adams were personal friends, they differed a great deal in their views of the proper role of the federal government and their interpretation of the Constitution.
Generally speaking John Adams was a Federalist and supported the ideas of a strong presidency, strong executive branch and a strong federal government while Jefferson was a Republican and favored a weaker federal government and a weaker executive branch, with greater emphasis on maintaining states rights. (The Federalist party was somewhat similar to the Democrat party today and the Republicans of that day were at least somewhat similar to the current Republican party.) Probably the greatest point of contention during the Adam’s presidency centered around the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Jefferson felt the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional. He was right. As a result of those Acts, Jefferson was opposed to much of what President Adams was doing and secretly lobbied against those Acts. Jefferson tried to be secretive about his concerns, but over time, Jefferson attempts to influence the repeal of the Alien and Sedition Acts become known.
After Adam’s first term in office, Jefferson challenged Adams for the Presidency and won. John and Abigail Adams both felt Jefferson had been underhanded and dishonest will he served as Vice President and while he had campaigned for the presidency. After the Adams presidency, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams did not communicate with each other at all for many years. Hard feelings between the two former friends seemed to go both ways, though there remained a mutual admiration.
After many years, after both men had retired from public life, through efforts of Benjamin Rush- a mutual friend of both men- a correspondence was renewed. After they started to communicate to each other again, these two great thinkers, these men we regard as two of the most important figures in the founding of our nation, wrote about 150 letters to one other. In those letters they were able to apologize for offences and explain their differences of opinion. Those letters are now a national treasure. They help to preserve for us the ideas and concerns that helped to shape this great nation.
Interestingly, both men died on the same day, within hours of each other. They both died on July 4th exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. Was the date of their death coincidental? Was the fact that they died within hours of each other just an interesting twist of fate? I don’t think so. I think God was trying to tell us something about these two great men.
Tomorrow we will talk about how this part of our national history applies to us today.