Thursday, July 4, 2013

Founding a Friendship Over the Fourth

Today is the day the nation celebrates the signing of Declaration of Independence.

(It was actually approved by a vote on July 2, which was the day John Adams always thought would be the one celebrated, but I digress.)

But it is also the day we should celebrate two men, without whom the Declaration would never have been written or adopted, and who poetically died 50 years after its adoption, within hours of each other.

It would be hard to find two men more different in character than John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Adams: irascible, brilliant and often over-compensating for his inexplicable self-confidence problem.

Jefferson: urbane, equally brilliant and with the unusual capability of believing two opposing things at the same time without being destroyed by the conflict between them.

The two men shared two things -- a common belief in the need for independence, and a common experience both in Philadelphia and Paris.
John Adams

For most friendships, this is an either/or situation, but Adams and Jefferson had both, this despite having personalities which did not exactly mesh.

In political circles at least, Jefferson almost exclusively acted through others, most famously James Madison, his chief political operative, and James Callender, the scurrilous scribe who turned on Jefferson and alerted the world to his affair with slave Sally Hemmings after Jefferson refused to get him out of jail.

Adams, on the other hand, was more hands-on and addressed political matters in a head-on manner, often a bull-headed, head-on manner.

As Benjamin Franklin, who had the work of the American delegation in Paris in common with both, once said of  Adams: "always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses."

Perhaps not surprisingly, it was not the drive for independence, nor the conduct of the war to ensure it, that drove a wedge between the two presidents.

It was the more difficult problem of how the country should be governed, and by whom.

And isn't that always the way?

It's easy enough to rally around an idea, but much harder to find constant agreement over how that idea should be implemented, particularly if it has never been done before.

After the apex of their friendship -- their time together in Paris as emissaries working to get French troops and money to the fledgling United States -- came the nadir, the inexorable growth of political parties.
Thomas Jefferson

Both said they hated what they called "factions," but both ended up as the leaders of one; Adams the aristocratic Federalists, whose avatar was Alexander Hamilton, a man Adams did not trust; and Jefferson the Republicans.

Both men were, arguably better patriots then they were presidents, although each managed to make a major contribution to the young nation while in office.

Adams had the unenviable task of following in George Washington's footsteps and, unsure of the protocol of doing so, made the mistake of keeping much of Washington's cabinet, men kept in check largely by their loyalty to Washington, a feeling they did not extend to Adams.

But that did not excuse his approval of the Alien and Sedition Act against his better judgement, which outlawed speech against the government and which is what put Callender in jail, who had all the time been doing Jefferson's bidding.

It occurred during a panic when most of the country was convinced we were about to be invaded by France, but principles ignored during times of stress are not principles at all.

However, Adams refusal to succumb to popular opinion, a trait often on display with Adams, resulted in his skillful handling of the XYZ Affair and an agreement that kept the young nation out of a war with France.

Jefferson's election in 1800 essentially spelled the end of the Federalists' time in power and, never one to pass up an opportunity to coin a phrase, Jefferson insisted on calling it America's second revolution.

Unfortunately for the American economy, Jefferson believed that diplomacy and national interests could be conducted economically rather than militarily.

So his 1807 trade embargo with Britain, America's primary trading partner, nearly crippled the economy, particularly New England where manufacturing was beginning to take hold.

And of course the primary contradiction within Jefferson, a freedom fighter who held slaves, also manifested itself with his temporary dissatisfaction with the Constitution, written while he was serving in France, which evaporated when as president he realized that its three-fifths clause gave disproportionate power to the south.

As outlined in Garry Wills' convincing treatise, "Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power," it resulted in seven of the first 10 presidents and 14 of the first 25 Speakers of the House being from the south; this despite significantly smaller populations of eligible voters.

But of course, without Jefferson, we would not have expanded as we did through the Louisiana Purchase, a move Jefferson himself thought to be outside of his Constitutional authority. Like Adams, his principles could be flexible depending on circumstances.

By the time both had left office, they were bitter enemies, each having committed crimes against the other that each considered unforgivable.
Benjamin Rush

It was Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, also a signatory to the Declaration, who finally cajoled the two of them to begin corresponding again.

Adams went first, sending Jefferson a letter on New Year's Day, 1812, wishing him many happy new years to come -- a wish which was fulfilled -- and Jefferson wrote back recalling them being soldiers in a common cause.

What resulted was just one more gift to the nation from these two remarkable men -- 14 years of correspondence by two people who really knew how to do it.

Subjects ranged from the current governments, to old friends, to philosophy, religion and science.

I came to my fascination with this period and these people through the David McCullough biography of Adams which was the basis for the excellent HBO series.

At the same time, my father was editing a book on Jefferson's letters and diary writings while serving in Paris called "Travels."

We discovered that each was an advocate for our chosen subject.

While my father admired Jefferson's facility of intellect, his love of books and his nearly universal array of interests; I admired the constant self-examination of motives and methods to which Adams subjected himself and the self-awareness it brought. He was a flawed human being, he knew it, but achieved greatness anyway.

We exchanged several months of e-mails in mock debate and I've been hooked ever since.

(As a bow to Adams willingness to examine all sides of an argument, I allowed my father to recommend several books on Jefferson, including his own of course, through which I began to see some of Jefferson's admirable qualities.)

As everyone knows, in a mythic coincidence which cemented their legend in American history, the two men died within hours of each other, each in his beloved home, on the Fourth of July at the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration's release upon the world.

Adams was 90. Jefferson was 82.

And so when I watch the parade go down High Street today, I will be thinking not only of the Declaration of Independence, that singular product of Enlightenment thinking, but also of two men whose deep, unexpected friendship was nearly broken by running the nation they had helped to found.

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