Rebirth of Reason

John Adams & Thomas Jefferson

Craig Ceely

Two lawyers - both future Presidents - argued for American independence from Britain well before many of their contemporaries did. John Adams was building a successful law practice in Boston and was also the younger cousin and political protege of radical agitator Samuel Adams, a Puritan who hoped to see Massachusetts become an American Sparta. Thomas Jefferson, scion of the Virginia plantation gentry, was essentially radical in many of his beliefs and was influenced by European political thinkers, including John Locke. The two would be bound by radical events all their lives.

Like William Pitt and Edmund Burke in Parliament, John Adams in the 1760s would have been described as a moderate Whig: while not an outright advocate of independence from George III's England, he clearly sided with his fellow colonists in the many tax and sovereignty disputes with the mother country. The Stamp Act controversy could have ruined him: patriots in Massachusetts refused to buy stamped paper, and the Royal Governor refused to accept or recognize legal documents without the required stamps. And John Adams was, after all, a lawyer. Still, his position favored his fellow colonists.

Although he defended the British soldiers involved in the March 1770 Boston Massacre (he won acquittal for the commander and most of the troops involved; two were convicted of manslaughter), Adams was clearly on the patriot side by then. He wrote approvingly of the Boston Tea Party, in which Americans disguised as Indians boarded British ships and dumped the tea into Boston Harbor rather than pay a hated tax. By August 1774 he was making his first trip outside of the Massachusetts colony: colonial legislators had elected to send him to the (illegal) Continental Congress. He wasn't yet forty years old. He had already decided on a course of independence for America.

On this trip Adams was awed by New York, a city far grander than his own Boston, and by Philadelphia, one of the largest cities in the English-speaking world. For the first time in his life, he laid eyes on a Roman Catholic church. But he didn't see Thomas Jefferson. The Virginian had written A Summary View of the Rights of British America to honor the occasion of the first Congress, but he wasn't selected to attend it: members of Virginia's House of Burgesses felt that his views were too radical.

But events were moving too fast for either Congress or Parliament to control. By the spring of 1775 the first battles of the American Revolution had been fought and a second Continental Congress had been called. John Adams served on approximately ninety committees in Congress, and chaired twenty-five of them. And in these committees, the radical agenda was strongly represented. Congress decided that a Continental Army should be created, and Adams nominated George Washington - a colonel in the Virginia militia and a member of the Virginia delegation to Congress - to be its commander in chief. The nomination was seconded and Adams' nominee was easily elected.

This Congress had also posted Adams to a small committee charged with drafting a statement of revolutionary intent. Adams served on this committee with Thomas Jefferson, now a member of Congress. A list of colonial grievances against King George III was drafted in committee and Jefferson went to work on writing the document itself.

On July 1, 1776, Adams was the last speaker to address the Congress. He spoke for hours, arguing that Congress should declare, on behalf of the thirteen American colonies, independence from Great Britain. The vote was taken and the resolution passed the next day. Adams wrote to his wife that Americans in the future would celebrate July 2 as the day of their country's independence.

John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, and Charles Thomson, its secretary, signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 - the only members of Congress to do so. The document was published that day. Congress officially declared independence on July 8 and on August 2 most of the remaining members of Congress signed as well.

Jefferson was dissatisfied with his Declaration, as was Adams. Jefferson felt that Congress had rewritten so much of it that it was ruined; to the end of his long life he would force visitors to read his original drafts, in which he fixed the slave trade and slavery itself on George III. Adams, a Puritan and lawyer, simply didn't agree that all men were created equal.

Independence declared, neither man served out the rest of the war in the Continental Congress. Adams was sent on diplomatic missions to Holland and France, and remained in Europe for several years. Jefferson had wanted to leave the Congress in the summer of 1776, without writing the Declaration of Independence, because back in Virginia the House of Burgesses was writing a new constitution for the state - but that body ordered him to remain in Philadelphia and finish the job.

Jefferson did leave the Congress and served in the Virginia legislature, repeatedly trying and failing to be elected as speaker. He left the legislature in June 1779 when he was elected governor. He was a weak governor, although in his defense the war was still going on and by that time much of it was being fought in the South, particularly Virginia. He was still the republican radical, however: when Congress authorized the Army's quartermasters to confiscate goods in order to provision its troops, Jefferson fought that authority and sought to limit it where he could.

Adams fared better in Europe. Sent to Holland in the summer of 1780, he achieved a number of important aims for the American cause: diplomatic recognition from The Hague, Dutch declaration of war against Britain (now the Royal Navy would have to worry about American, French, and Dutch ships of the line), and a loan of five million guilders from a Dutch syndicate. In the fall of 1782 he was sent to Paris, along with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, to negotiate peace terms with the British.

Both Adams and Jefferson endured difficult presidencies. In Adams' case, most of his cabinet consisted of appointees left over from George Washington's administration. Many of them felt more loyalty to Alexander Hamilton and other out-of-office "High Federalists" than they did to President Adams. One appointment of his own, however, stands as possibly his greatest presidential achievement: the appointment of the articulate and strongly pro-property John Marshall as Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. But continued British and French involvement on the North American continent caused many Americans to desire war again, some with Britain, some with France. A Congress with a Federalist majority passed the tyrannical Alien and Sedition Acts, which, sadly, met no veto from President Adams. Adams himself was even seen as urging war with France, and many powerful members of his own Federalist party favored such a war.

The prospect of raising and maintaining a 50,000 man Army brought Adams' latent classical republicanism to the fore, and he instead sent an emissary to France and avoided war. This angered the pro-war Federalists, who maneuvered against him in his bid for re-election, and he was defeated by his vice-president: Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson, far more of a radical republican than Adams had ever been, could have been expected to introduce no innovations at all during his presidency. But it was Jefferson who, with no Constitutional authority at all, agreed to double the size of the United States by paying France fifteen million dollars for the Louisiana Territory. He was denounced for this by his own southern Republican allies in Congress - but he insisted that he had acted under the treaty-making authority of the presidency, and the purchase was ratified by the Senate. Jefferson's second term in office was marred by the treason trial of his vice-president, Aaron Burr, and by more war fever such as Adams had endured. When he left office in 1809, he was glad to return to Virginia.

By then, Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, who'd known both Adams and Jefferson in the Continental Congress, had been trying to effect a rapprochement between the two former friends for about two years. He succeeded: Adams and Jefferson exchanged letters and began a correspondence which lasted for Years - Adams, the strong Federalist who yet insisted on civilian control of the military and avoided war when powerful interests in his own party demanded it; Jefferson, the strict republican who nevertheless, when he had the chance, stretched the Constitution to its limits as far as he could. Their letters touched on each man's respective writings, their careers, and on contemporary affairs. Both agreed that posterity would judge them by what they'd done in 1776. In February 1825 Adams wrote to Jefferson, "I wish your health may continue to the last much better than mine....The little strength of mind and the considerable strength of body I once possessed appear to be all gone, but while I breathe I shall be your friend."

John Adams died peacefully on July 4, 1826 - the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the Declaration of Independence. His last words were, "Thomas Jefferson still survives." A few hours later, Thomas Jefferson was gone.

  1. As French interest in the War of Independence heightened, a number of European noblemen volunteered to serve as officers with the American army. Almost all of them were frauds, including Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who claimed to have been a lieutenant general in the Prussian Army of Frederick the Great. He wasn't a baron and he'd never been promoted past major - but his skills as the Army's first quartermaster general made him invaluable to George Washington. Another volunteer was more authentic: nineteen-year-old Gilbert du Motier actually was, as he claimed, the Marquis de Lafayette.
  2. Does Twelve Equal Twenty-seven? As is well known, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. Congress submitted the Bill of Rights to the states for ratification on September 25, 1789. But there were more than ten amendments considered. The first amendment dealt with questions of representation in the Congress and was rejected. The next ten were ratified and became effective on December 15, 1791 - these are the ones known since then as the Bill of Rights. That twelfth proposed amendment, which reads, "No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened," received only six of the eleven votes necessary at the time. The amendment was ratified by Michigan and became the 27th Amendment on May 7, 1992.