What the Feud and Reconciliation between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson Teaches Us About Civility


Category:  Op/Ed

Via:  flynavy1  •  last year  •  24 comments

What the Feud and Reconciliation between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson Teaches Us About Civility
Our survival as a nation depends on our ability to listen to those with very different political philosophies, to “explain ourselves” to one another, to search for broad areas of agreement with those of different political philosophies, and to reject the acidic politics of personal demonization in which we attack the humanity or patriotism of others

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

Donald Trump did not invent the art of the political insult but he’s inflamed the level of vitriolic public discourse and incivility to a new low unmatched by other presidents. In a tainted tradition that has permeated our history, other presidents have not been immune to dishing out acerbic insults against one another.


John Quincy Adams was livid that Harvard University planned to award President Andrew Jackson with an honorary degree. He wrote in his diary that Jackson was “a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name.”


Franklin Pierce was not as impressed with Abraham Lincoln as history has been, declaring the day after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that the president had “limited ability and narrow intelligence.” 


The list of spicy presidential insults goes on and on. While such statements are often laugh-aloud funny, they are also shocking and sobering. How can these men who have reached the pinnacle of political power be so crude and demeaning? We can learn a valuable lesson from the friendship and feud between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and their ultimate reconciliation.


In 1775, the 32-year-old Virginia born-and-bred Jefferson traveled from his mountain-top Monticello mansion to the bustling city of Philadelphia to serve as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress.


Sometime in June that year after Jefferson arrived in the City of Brotherly Love, he met for the first time one of the most prominent and outspoken leaders of the resistance to British domination – John Adams. The Massachusetts attorney was the soft-spoken Jefferson’s senior by seven years. But neither their opposite personalities, age differences, or geographical distance separating their homes stood in the way of the start of a remarkable relationship that would span more than a half-century. 


They forged a unique and warm partnership, both serving on the committee to draft a declaration of independence from British rule. According to Adams, Jefferson had “the reputation of a masterly pen,” and was therefore tasked with using his writing skills to draft the document. Jefferson was impressed with how Adams so powerfully defended the draft of the document on the floor of the congress, even though he thought Adams was “not graceful, not elegant, not always fluent in his public addresses.”


In the 1780s, they found themselves thrown together once again as diplomats in Europe representing the newly minted United States. These collaborators and their families were friends.


But by 1796, their friendship was obliterated by the rise of political parties with starkly different visions of the new American experiment. With his election that year as the nation’s second president, the Federalist Adams found himself saddled with Jefferson as his vice president representing the Democratic-Republican Party. Tensions were high between the two men. 


Just three months after their inauguration as the embryonic nation’s top two elected officials, Jefferson privately groused to a French diplomat that President Adams was “distrustful, obstinate, excessively vain, and takes no counsel from anyone.” Weeks later, Adams spewed out his frustration, writing in a private letter that his vice president had “a mind soured, yet seeking for popularity, and eaten to a honeycomb with ambition, yet weak, confused, uninformed, and ignorant.” 


When Jefferson ousted Adams from the presidency in the election of 1800, Adams was forced to pack his bags and vacate the newly constructed Executive Mansion after just a few months. At four o’clock in the morning on March 4, 1801, Jefferson’s inauguration day, the sullen Adams slipped out of the Executive Mansion without fanfare, boarded a public stage and left Washington.  The streets were quiet as the president left the capital under the cover of darkness on his journey back home. He wanted nothing to do with the man who had publicly humiliated him by denying him a second term as president, nor in witnessing Jefferson’s inauguration and moment of triumph. 


For the next dozen years these two giants of the American revolution largely avoided one another, still nursing wounds inflicted by the poisonous partisan politics of their era. But on July 15, 1813, Adams made an overture, reaching out to his former friend and foe, writing that “you and I ought not to die until we have explained ourselves to each other.” That letter broke the dam and began a series of remarkable letters between the two men that lasted for more than a dozen years until death claimed them both on the July 4, 1826 – the 50thanniversary of the Declaration of Independence. 


Not all such presidential feuds have resulted in such heart-warming reconciliations. But the story of Adams and Jefferson serves as a model of what can happen when respect replaces rancor, friendships triumph over political dogma, and we allow reconciliation to emerge from the ashes of fractured friendships. 


Adams and Jefferson ultimately listened to one another, explaining themselves. Listening to someone who thinks differently than we do can feel threatening and scary – almost as if by listening to their thoughts we might become infected by their opinions. So we hunker down and lob snarky tweets to attack the humanity and patriotism of others, foolishly hoping such tactics will convince them to change.


But what would it look like if we could agree on core values we share in common with one another? Patriotism, a safe country, a stable society, economic well-being that promotes health, education, food, and housing, ensuring that people are treated with dignity and respect.


We could then have vigorous and civil debates about the best policies to implement our values. We won’t always agree with everyone. There will be a wide diversity of opinions. But if we could “explain ourselves” to one another, listen deeply, forge friendships, and understand the hopes and fears and humanity of others, we might actually solve some of the problems that seem so intractable in our polarized society – a society that seems to thrive on extremism on both ends of the political spectrum.


Adams and Jefferson ultimately allowed their humanity and deep friendship to triumph over their politics. We can thank them and other candid and often irreverent barbs by our presidents about other presidents, because these insults cause us to reflect how we should treat one another – not only in the public square, but around the family dinner table, in our marriages, and in the workplace. 


Our survival as a nation depends on our ability to listen to those with very different political philosophies, to “explain ourselves” to one another, to search for broad areas of agreement with those of different political philosophies, and to reject the acidic politics of personal demonization in which we attack the humanity or patriotism of others.


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1  seeder  FLYNAVY1    last year

Personally I think it is all a big diversion to keep us divided and distracted so the powerful can continue to laugh all the way to the bank.

Remember.....Fear sells! 

1.2  Ronin2  replied to  FLYNAVY1 @1    last year

I can agree with that.

Both sides use fear. If we weren't verbally sniping at one another constantly, and so entrenched in our positions politically; we might have time to ask our elected leaders better questions and force them to give real honest answers. 

1.2.1  seeder  FLYNAVY1  replied to  Ronin2 @1.2    last year

If any of them gave honest answers to those questions...… do you think that half of the electorate would ignore them anyway?

2  JBB    last year

Due to his own sensitivity to criticism Adams foolishly enacted The Aliens and Sedition Act which Jefferson used to savage his old friend in his rush to the White House thereby robbing Adams of a deserved second term both hurting and humiliating him in the process. As it turned out, Jefferson could have waited four years. In the end, they both died almost simultaneously on the 50th anniversary of this Nation's founding regretting their long estrangement. Great men often have great regrets. Even our greatest Presidents made mistakes. Until now, exactly none of them were unrepentant liars with only their own personal advantage motivating them. Until now...

3  sandy-2021492    last year

I've been rewatching the HBO miniseries about John Adams on Prime.  I know there's a lot of license taken, but I thought it captured the spirit of their relationship in its ups and downs.

3.1  JBB  replied to  sandy-2021492 @3    last year

Based on McCullough's outstanding biography that miniseries is excellent...

4  1stwarrior    last year

Have always like Adams and, after reading many "tales" of Jefferson, have to concur with Adams that Jefferson had “a mind soured, yet seeking for popularity, and eaten to a honeycomb with ambition, yet weak, confused, uninformed, and ignorant."  From stories read in the past, even Franklin had the same impression.

4.1  seeder  FLYNAVY1  replied to  1stwarrior @4    last year

All three men you mentioned were visionaries.  The progressives of their time.  Adams and Franklin were well rooted in the fundamentals of life and state.  Jefferson while a well known inventor, always seemed to me as being philosophicly conflicted from what I've read of the man.  

I ask you though 1st...… is it easier to form accurate opinions and judgements from across time, or in the current?

4.1.1  JohnRussell  replied to  FLYNAVY1 @4.1    last year

In the era that you bring up, most of the people who ran the country were men of letters, they wrote voluminously , read constantly, and thought about the nature of government and society. 

We have someone today whose major success in the past has been to create a personal "brand" based on his being a television game show host and a blowhard.  There is no evidence Trump has ever written anything longer than a tweet. And judging by his "knowledge" of history and other topics, there is little evidence he has ever read anything beyond newspaper stories about himself.

 Positive comparisons between Trump and the founding fathers are futile. 

4.1.2  seeder  FLYNAVY1  replied to  JohnRussell @4.1.1    last year

Hell John, our entire government has "devolved" over the last 30 years.  Personally I think it has a lot to do with losing those that fought in WWII being in office.  They were able to compromise as they understood that the good of the country eventually came before party.  Today we have very few in congress that have ever "sacrificed" in any manner like those that learned that their lives depended on those around them.  What we are left with today are a bunch of self serving narcissists with the goal to get more than their share every chance they can.

4.1.4  JohnRussell  replied to  FLYNAVY1 @4.1.2    last year

In general you are probably right, but Obama read and can write a little, Bush read, Clinton read, even Reagan read and could express himself in full and cogent sentences. 

I think it's more than coincidental that a Trump emerges as soon as social media is in its fullest bloom. No one needs complete thoughts anymore. 

4.1.5  seeder  FLYNAVY1  replied to    last year

Wally, you do realize that the founding fathers were progressives don't you?  They sure as hell weren't conservatives because if they were, we'd be a commonwealth of England.

5  badfish    last year

Wait, we can learn something from the founding fathers? I thought this was the era of tearing down statues and dismissing their lives because of slavery? 

5.1  seeder  FLYNAVY1  replied to  badfish @5    last year

Fighting ignorance should always start at home don't you think....?

5.2  JBB  replied to  badfish @5    last year

Wrong War. Wrong Century. Wrong Headed. Confederate generals were not founding fathers of the United States though some are considered father's of a traitorous rebellion in support of slavery and against our sacred Union, The United States of America. Maybe you need to learn something...

BTW, Adams was staunchly anti-slavery and he predicted its demise...

Transyferous Rex
5.2.1  Transyferous Rex  replied to  JBB @5.2    last year

Jefferson was, and it seems there has been protests over his likeness, in several places, because of the slavery issue. 

5.2.2  seeder  FLYNAVY1  replied to  Transyferous Rex @5.2.1    last year

With the possibility to research any topic faster and more accurately than ever before with the internet, I fear we as a nation have become evermore ignorant out of laziness to look for the truth.

And then there are those that knowingly lie about the facts to suit their agenda.  I hold special contempt for people like that.

Sean Treacy
6  Sean Treacy    last year

Personal attacks like those described above between opposing political leaders are probably an inevitable result of a democratic system.  Certainly they existed in the ancient democracies, England  and from the dawn of the republic.  The personal animosity and attacks between Hamilton and Jefferson and the creation of proto parties around them began almost from day 1 of the Washington administration.

But the problem facing us today is much deeper than the traditional personal disdain between rivals, it is the descent of the entire populace into factions that so worried the founders, knowledgeable as they were of ancient and recent (to them) history, such as the English Civil War. Its one thing when politicians attack their rivals, it's another when that animosity seeps down to their supporters and gets transferred to all supporters of the "other."

As has been observed, politics is downstream of culture and lags behind events. Culture changes slowly and often due to unintended consequnces, to the point where you notice how different things are then 10 or 20 years ago, but can rarely point to a distinct point of rupture. We are still trying to grasp the enormity of the damage Social media has done to our society and politc.  It's emboldened and  rewarded the extremes, to the point where the extremist wings of both parties can dictate policy to the more numerous middle of both parties, even polices that hurt the party's electoral chances. 

We are also still dealing with the Daily Show effect. Jon Stewart, and is enablers in the MSM, effectively weaponized fake news as political propaganda.  Using dishonest editing and  crudely drawn strawmen for laughs, Stewart changed the game to make a subset of the American people ( poor whites, conservatives, and religious people) the target of his savagery mockery, as much as Republican politicians.. 

While partisan entertainment was not new, the reaction of our cultural gatekeepers was.  Rush Limbaugh, for instance, was constantly identified as a right wing provaceteur by the MSM, his bias was broadcast to everyone every time his name came up.  But Stewart,just as partisan, was deified by the supposedly objective media.  When called out by his victims for his dishonest methods, he hid behind the "just a comedian" card while the useful idiots in the liberal media lionized him as a truth teller as more and more Americans claimed to be getting their (fake) news from him.

And success breeds imitators.  Institions that tried to mock both sides like SNL and the late night talk shows became full fledged partisan cheerleaders. To the point that a new term has been introduced, "claughter" for when the "comedian" regurgitates a democratic talking point and the crowds claps in support, rather than actually laughs at something funny.

People don't like to be demonized, and that help explains the appeal of Trump. The same people who imbibed the Daily Show propaganda hated Trump, but he pushed back.  People attacked as "bitter clingers" and effectively "othered" by elitist bigots wanted someone to stand up for them and Trump, attacked by the same people who denigrated them, became a stick to use against their persecutors.



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