by Thomas Mills, Politics NC, July 2, 2015.
One of the great stories in our country’s history is the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They were two of the American Revolution’s intellectuals and political theorists. Their writings and thoughts helped shape the principles on which the country was founded and guided the structure of our government. Their philosophical disagreements were also largely responsible for the birth of the two-party system.
Adams was a New Englander who built his career as a lawyer in Boston. Jefferson was a Virginian who owned a large plantation. They met as representatives to the Second Continental Congress and built a strong friendship based on mutual admiration and their agreement on the need for independence from Great Britain. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence while Adams, serving on the draft committee, edited it.
However, once the colonies had successfully defeated Great Britain and achieved independence, Jefferson and Adams differed on how the government of the new country should operate. Adams believed in a strong central government and was wary of populist sentiment. Jefferson was an advocate for a weaker federal government and stronger state governments and had more faith in broader democratic rule.
These competing sentiments laid the groundwork for the two party system still in place today. However, they also strained the friendship of Jefferson and Adams. Adams defeated Jefferson for president in 1796 but Jefferson defeated Adams in an ugly re-election campaign in 1800. Adams and his Federalist Party were concerned that Jefferson’s affinity for populist politics would bring the excesses of the French Revolution to America. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans denounced Adams for broadening the powers of the Federal government, including passing the Alien and Sedition Acts that limited personal liberty.
Jefferson’s succession of Adams was the first peaceful transition of power from one party to the other. After the election, though, the two men ceased communication. Adams retired to private life in Massachusetts while Jefferson went on to serve two terms as president.
Twelve years later, at the insistence of fellow Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush, the two reestablished correspondence. It began a remarkable series of letters that spanned the next 14 years. Jefferson and Adams reminisced about the formation of the country, explained their thoughts and actions, discussed current events, consoled each other in loss, and complained about aging. Most importantly though, they realized that their shared love of the country they founded and the ideals on which it is based were more important than their disagreements about its administration and governance.
Jefferson and Adams died on the same day, July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after they signed the Declaration of Independence.
Have a happy and safe Fourth of July.