The Friendship

August 19, 2004

When John Adams left the office of president, he did not exchange another word with his vice-president and incoming president Thomas Jefferson for 12 years.

In those early days, the top 2 vote getters would be president and vice-president, and though Adams and Jefferson had been close friends during the Revolutionary War days — in fact, it was Adams who selected Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence — they had had a falling out due to differences in politics and the factions within the parties. Adams favored what became the Federalist idea of government — a central authority with a strong executive branch — while Jefferson favored what was then called Republicans, for a strong state, weak federal government. Adams, however, though the titular head of the Federalists, actually disagreed with them on many points, but as that head, his name was invoked in all criticisms.

Whatever the case, Adams desired Jefferson as a bipartisan vice-president based upon their old friendship, which Jefferson originally agreed to until party factions and perhaps his own future designs on the presidency (along with his belief that no matter who followed Washington was doomed to failure) forced him to separate himself from Adams. Obviously, a president and vice-president of differing parties and opinions was a bit difficult, and became moreso as Jefferson worked behind the scenes against his old friend, even hiring a fellow to write and publish a scathing attack on Adams — the author then publishing the letters Jefferson sent him in the paper because he thought Jefferson owed him money — confirmation of Jefferson's manipulations, much to Adams's fury.

Four years after Jefferson took office Abigail Adams sent Jefferson her condolences upon the death of his daughter Maria during childbirth. Jefferson was normally attune to undercurrents, but for some reason he didn't catch her letter's warning tone (that her husband still felt hurt, betrayed, and very angry), and replied that he had had no role in the author, for example, writing the articles about Adam's senility, etc., and that both he and Adams had both suffered through lies and false accusations, among other things. He denied ever working against Adams, basically. Jefferson had the dubious ability to fool himself into thinking he didn't participate in such things, and Abigal would have none of it. She replied that though affection remained, he had mortgaged his honor to win an election, and took him to task (and by surprise as well).

Adams himself did not see this exchange for several months, when Abigail told him and asked him to read them. He put a note on the margins that he had read the entire correspondence and had nothing to add at this time.

Because he and Jefferson had been so close, and because he knew history would carry forth the Jeffersonian version of history (which it did), Adams was especially hurt and angry and confused by the events of his presidency. He knew what he had done in the past and that history was being written, and his vanity wanted his proper place in it. Jefferson had written the Declaration of Independence, but had not given speeches, had not coaxed the convention to declare independence, had not helped write the Constitution, argued, negotiated, and put his reputation on the line. Jefferson was a master of elusiveness, even inside his own mind with his own guilt.

However, a mutual friend began writing both Jefferson and Adams. Jefferson had retired after a second term, and Adams, perhaps suffering from Graves, had been trying unsuccessfully to write his memoirs. The friend played them both against one another, pretending he had had a dream that they had renewed their friendship through correspondence, and ended their lives together. Adams saw through this manipulation but finally gave in.

He wrote a letter to Jefferson in January of 1812, beginning a correspondence and a renewal of friendship which lasted until 1826. They debated, they joked, they jabbed one another occasionally — especially Adams, who was much more volatile and straight-forward. Some subjects remained off the table, such as discussion of slavery.

By summer 1826, both Adams and Jefferson had been asked to give their opinions on the future of the United States and its history. They were two of the last three remaining signers of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson wrote an eloquent essay though he was suffering from an intestinal disorder which would prove fatal. At first Adams gave a few brief words, still stung perhaps in knowing that Jefferson's reputation, and his history, would be the "official" history, true or not, though he did give in to later interviews for additional commentary.

Immediately before Jefferson lapsed into a coma on July 3, 1826, he asked, "Is it the 4th yet?" He died shortly after noon on July 4th, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Almost at that very hour, Adams collapsed in his favorite reading chair in Quincy, Massachusetts, and died within five hours of Jefferson. His last words were "Thomas Jefferson still lives."

I say all that long segue. I have been reading Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis, about several individuals involved in the founding days of the republic — George Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison. The final chapter is called "The Friendship," about John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and their correspondence.

My cousin, whom I loved dearly and who was my best friend for most of my life, and with whom I shared ideas, laughter, sadness, and everything that is shared between close friends, stopped speaking with me about 8 years ago. I won't go into the details of why, but basically he had to choose between his wife, or me. I told him to do what he had to do, and he did. What I didn't expect was a scathing letter which called me most everything this side of Satan and demanding I never try to communicate with him again. I've never been sure if he wrote it for me, or for his wife, but I agreed to the terms since my son was staying with him while going to a tech school. Basically, if I communicated, my son would have to leave. If I did not, my son could stay.

After my son graduated, I tried to contact my cousin by sending an apologetic letter to both he and his wife, asking her to please let us renew our friendship. No answer from either. In the interim, my cousin found his faith again and converted to his wife's Catholicism, surprising considering his Baptist upbringing.

A few years ago I got a mysterious email from someone that I eventually recognized as my cousin, hiding behind an alias. We met online to chat a few times after I told him to come out of hiding. We had some nice chats, he chatting from where he worked so his wife wouldn't find out. He felt guilty for speaking with me even then, but couldn't help it. He thought we had things to say.

Then our grandmother died. We both went the funeral and he ignored me the whole time. He wife kept staring at me. Only at the end, when he'd escorted his little boy to the bathroom and I caught him, we shook hands and I hugged him, and he whispered, "It's so hard." I imagine he was speaking about our grandmother but always wondered if he was speaking about he and I.

I didn't hear from him for some time. I wrote him an email, asking simply, "Is that it?"

He replied, "I guess so," and it was.

My cousin and I loved history and discussing it, and he was fascinated with Jefferson. We made plans to visit Monticello together, and I was disappointed that he went with his wife before we stopped talking. When I was there this past summer I thought of him.

We loved to talk — a correspondence of nearly 25 years starting with children's scribbles in kindergarten — phone calls, and of course, our frequent get togethers. And of course, we loved books.

So reading this last chapter "The Friendship," I found myself with the idea that I should send my cousin a copy of this book. Chances are, he may already have it, but I thought….bookmark that one chapter, with a note, "Someday, perhaps…."

He would know what I meant.


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