What was the source of conflict between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams?

I am a dual citizen, having grown up in the US and but living in Canada since 1975. American children receive a strong grounding in their country’s history. Of course history at that age is taught with a biased boosterism. So, as a child I placed all those founding fathers in some sort off pantheon of Dead White Men where they have, I’m afraid, been gathering dust. I do not recall learning much, if anything, about deep conflicts between these nation builders. I assumed they respected one another and operated from shared values as they shaped the nation. And yet, it seems, that two of the greatest were enemies through much of their public lives.

I am overdue for a another visit to early American history. I plan to learn more about the source of the conflict between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams during our spring trip to Charlottesville, Virginia, and try to figure out where I would have stood on the issues that divided them. Founding Farmer: Thomas Jefferson at Home. In the meantime, here are some fascinating hints about their complementary talents, some conflicting values, efforts at late-life reconciliation, and the most curious coincidence of their deaths.

The following has been gleaned and abbreviated from a kind of homemade website to profile American heroes. www.homeofheroes.com


July 4, 1826

Requiem for an American President

The celebration of the United States’ 50th birthday was saddened this day in history by the death of its second president, John Adams. It was the eloquent Adams who had so persuasively defended Thomas Jefferson’s DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE before the Continental Congress in 1776, ultimately leading to the birth of this new Nation. It may have been the last time Adams and Jefferson agreed on anything.

Jefferson’s Declaration was born on June 7, 1776 when Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee laid before the Congress a resolution calling for the 13 colonies to be “free and independent states, absolved of all allegiance to the British crown.” Moderates argued against the historic resolution, pointing out that the middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware were undecided about complete separation of the colonies from crown rule. By day’s end there was little consensus, but members of the delegation appointed a five-man committee to draft a declaration of independence for consideration at the July 1st meeting.

The task of drafting the declaration should have fallen to elder statesman Benjamin Franklin, but his illness precluded a timely completion of the task. The task then should have fallen to Adams, who argued instead that Jefferson should write it. Jefferson at first attempted to defer to Adams until, in frustration, the Massachusetts delegate grudgingly stated, “You are 10 times the writer I am.” Thus Jefferson prepared the draft with suggestions for revisions coming from both Franklin and Adams. The finished document was presented to the Second Continental Congress on June 28th. A poor speaker, Jefferson’s written work impressed the Assembly, despite some reservations. The more eloquent Adams vigorously defended the work, which was adopted on July 2nd.

Editing of the document continued until it was formally approved by 12 of the 13 colonies on July 4th. (The New York delegation abstained from the vote, but approved the Declaration five days later.) Among the 56 signers were both of the men most responsible for the Declaration’s existence, Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

From that point forward the clashes between Adams and Jefferson were widely known. During Adam’s two terms as vice president under George Washington, more than one conflict arose between him and Secretary of State Jefferson. As a Federalist, Adams found his political views quite at odds with the man who would become the leader of the rival Democratic-Republicans. When Washington left the Presidency the battle for a successor was bitterly fought between Vice President Adams and Secretary Jefferson. Adams defeated Jefferson by a 3 vote margin (71-68 electoral votes), becoming the second president. That bitter campaign was renewed in 1800 when Jefferson defeated Adams to become our third President. So intense was their rivalry that, on the day of Jefferson’s inauguration Adams was carriage-bound out of the new Capitol City when the new president assumed office.

Jefferson served two terms as President after defeating the incumbent Adams, then retired to his home in Monticello. Meanwhile from his retirement farm in Quincy, Massachusetts Adams began to write long and elaborate letters to his old adversary. A grudging admiration for each other may have developed in their later years. Nonetheless, Adams always proclaimed that, though Jefferson was 7 years younger than himself…

“I will outlive Jefferson.”

On his death bed on Independence Day, 1826 John Adams uttered his last words.  They were “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

It is rumored that upon Adam’s death the messenger dispatched to carry the news to Jefferson’s Virginia home actually passed a messenger dispatched from THAT site to Adam’s home, also bearing sad tidings.

Just a few hours earlier Thomas Jefferson had passed away….both architects of the document that gave birth to this new Nation dead, 50 years to the day from the birth of the country they founded.

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