Jefferson and Adams: Contentious politics that continue to resonate

We still live with the dispute begun by Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The debates around the ratification of the Constitution are arguments that continue to define American politics.

Politics have always been contentious, even during the American period I most love, the founding of our Republic. Gordon S. Wood’s latest book, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, is an excellent study of politics, divisions, and vivid personalities. Wood is a respected and prolific historian from Brown University. Notes one admirer, Wood “has been writing history as long as Jefferson and Adams knew each other.” That is a good long while.

It is the aftermath of the Revolution that intrigues me most, that and the early constitutional phase. The Battles of Lexington and Concord, April 1775, ignited the colonies in a Revolution that was over in a relative flash. Colonial governors fled, British agents hightailed it, and royal courts were supplanted.

All this occurred long before independence was formally declared. The revolutionary Second Continental Congress had to catch up to the colonies that now thought of themselves as states. The Revolutionary War followed but that, so to speak, was only incidental. The real revolution had already happened.

In the summer of 1776 Adams and Jefferson were serving together in the Congress, fast friends and compatriots, having only met two years previous. They did diplomatic stints after Independence in France (Jefferson) and England (Adams). They were together again throughout most of Washington’s two presidential terms (1789-1797), Adams as vice president and Jefferson, until 1794, as secretary of state. This was the period their rivalry emerged, sharpened, and almost fatally severed their friendship. It revolved of course around their individual ambitions and, importantly, the nature and character of American government, an area where many Americans experienced the same distress.

We still live with the dispute begun by Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The debates around the ratification of the Constitution are arguments that yet define American politics. While party labels have changed, our entire political history is still wound up in that founding contentiousness that divided Adams and Jefferson. Why did we fight a revolution in the first place? Was it to construct a big federal system forming a “more perfect union”? Couldn’t a simple, smaller confederation do just as well?

The constitutionalists, Federalists as they came to be called, wanted a government with “energy,” able to collect internal taxes (something the British tried to do), pay off its debts (something the confederation of states never managed), support a decent standing army (that colonialists fought the British to remove), and become a respected nation among nations. These folks wanted a constitution binding the states to a central government.

The Anti-Federalists (they never did think of a better brand until 1796 when Democratic-Republican came to be used) feared a centralized authority and saw standing armies as a threat to liberty. That’s why, short story, Americans fought the British.

One may explore these two alternatives largely by examining the Founding Fathers. The first thing to say is that each Founder was a politician. There is a joking claim: “I’m a true American first and a politician second.” The sardonic reply observes: “Spoken like a true American politician.” Strangely, both the claim and the observation are true.

Each of our Founders was an elected politician; that’s how they got the Founding Father job. They were elected by their respective state assemblies, composed of other elected politicians, to attend Congress. When the Second Continental Congress declared American independence, it was as elected congressional members, doing what other elected politicians delegated them to do. It was politics. (Self-disclosure: I was once a congressional staffer; I like politicians, as a whole.)

So it should not be a surprise that the ratification of the US Constitution in 1788 was political. Nor, politics being politics, should it be a surprise to discover that adoption was a close thing. The contending political factions made it so. The several state conventions called to ratify it were composed—yet again—of elected delegates, and they treated the proposed Constitution as a political document, to be voted up or down and debated accordingly.

It is also important to note that the Constitution would have failed if Jefferson’s Virginia and Adams’ Massachusetts had turned it back. Home to the first and third largest populations, there would not have been much point in forming a Union without them both.

Massachusetts ratified in early February 1788. It was a 19-vote margin among 355 delegates. The Anti-Federalists put up a stiff fight. Federalists won ratification only after they grudgingly allowed the Anti-Federalists to propose amendments to new the proposal. That gesture, however reluctant, did convince enough Anti-Federalists to switch.

Things were even tighter four months later in Virginia’s convention. Ratification won on a 10-vote margin (168 delegates) with a public gallery of observers and newspaper correspondents looking on. Federalists won the convention vote, but Virginia too offered amendments and later had the distinction of electing the only two Anti-Federalists to the first Senate (one of whom had the further distinction of being the first senator to die in office).

Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and John Adams of Massachusetts represent the contentions of the time as the Constitution worked its way into practice: Jefferson, Democratic-Republican; Adams, Federalist.

Both men were central to the Declaration of Independence but neither man had anything to do with drafting the Constitution, and they missed the fireworks from the political fight over its ratification. Adams was minister to Great Britain; Jefferson to France. When Jefferson saw the proposed Constitution, he gave it a tepid endorsement. The office of the president to him sounded half-monarch and potentially all-dictator. Adams, so it appears, saw it as not monarchial enough and perhaps too “democratical.”

The two were revolutionary compatriots during the War of Independence and close friends on the diplomatic scene. By the third presidential election in 1796, they were adversaries. A twitch in the Constitution made Adams president by three electoral votes and Jefferson, runner-up in the Electoral College, vice president. Jefferson predicted Adams would not be elected a second time.

In the election of 1800 they had became not mere rivals, but bitter political rivals, a seemingly impossible breech to mend. The only thing they held in common was their mutual hatred of Alexander Hamilton, but even here they might have disagreed on which hated him most.

Their political thinking started from different places and, despite renewing their friendship in late retirement, they remained in different places. They could not agree on American outcomes because they had fundamentally different though highly romanticized stories of America’s political beginnings.

From an aristocratic slave-holding Virginia family, Jefferson regarded himself as a family patriarch. He likely accepted his liaison with his slave, Sally Hemmings, as his due. He knew luxury, and as Wood puts it, “told the American people what they wanted to hear—how exceptional they were.” He was, as a contemporary put it, “learned and genteel and possessing perfect self-control and serenity of spirit,” everything an 18th-century gentleman should be and everything Adams was not. He also became the first administration leak, dropping confidential tidbits from Washington’s cabinet meetings to partisan anti-administration editors.

America, for Jefferson, harkened back to a mythic time where noble Saxon farmers settled England, long before the Norman Conquest of 1066. The Normans brought their feudal laws with lords and titles, saddled free men—yeomen of the earth—with the burdens of tyranny, and destroyed a utopian world. This was what the American fight was about, restoration of what was lost—this, from a dewy-eyed aristocrat and one of Virginia’s largest slave holders. (To give him his some credit on slavery, during his first term in the Virginia colonial legislature he introduced an emancipation bill.)

Adams’ approach came from a much different background. Born to a “middling” Massachusetts family, the son of shoemaker farmer, he had few important connections. His rise in becoming a well-known and sometimes over-worked attorney and political theorist was “due almost exclusively to merit.” Says Wood, he “became the representative of crusty conservatism that emphasized the inequality [of life] and vice-ridden nature of American society.” When Adams condemned “Democracy” he meant the unchecked passion-ridden, one-man/one-vote variety that rose up in a passionate fit and sentenced Socrates to hemlock. “Democracy will infallibly destroy all Civilization,” as Wood quotes Adams. If Jefferson told Americans what they liked to hear, Adams was daring enough to tell them what he thought they needed to hear.

Where Jefferson saw noble Saxon farmers, Adams saw potential brutes struggling to throw off the even more brutish claims of religious superstition and kingly tyranny, to cast aside the connection of Church and monarch and popery. He saw America as the culmination of human exertion to lighten the grim darkness of society. “As long as this confederacy between kings and clergy lasted and people kept in ignorance, Liberty, and with her, Knowledge, and Virtue too, seem to have deserted the earth, and one age of darkness succeeded another.’” Until, of course, the Protestant Reformation, which loosened the tethers of ignorance. After attending a Mass in Philadelphia, he left wondering “how Luther ever did it.”

For Jefferson, the Reformation meant little; the Revolution was so Saxons could till their gardens. For Adams the Reformation was freedom’s awakening. Religiously, both men were similar. Neither believed in the biblical miracles and neither accepted the divinity of Christ. Both were deeply anti-Catholic, a prejudice not uncommon in America, but Adams was more than a little vocal about it. Adams, unlike Jefferson, did not disdain the popular religiosity of Americans, though he did regard hierarchical Anglicans as only a marginal improvement over Catholics.

Jefferson believed a limited national government and states-rights were needed to balance Federal overreach and preserve American liberty. He was all sunny-side-of-the-street for what a liberal democratic society might achieve for human liberty. Adams wanted a strong national government to keep the rowdy states from ruining the Union, and as a check against the popular, unrestrained “demos.” He walked Liberty’s path ever alert to hidden cracks that might trip him on the sidewalk.

As his term was ending, Adams, thanks to the lame-duck Federalist congressional majority, tried to stack the courts with Federalist judges for newly created judicial districts. Once in office, Jefferson, with his new Democratic-Republican majority, toyed with using Congress to remove all Federalist judges by impeachment, replacing them with Democratic-Republicans. Of the new judicial districts, the Democratic-Republicans settled on repealing the act that created them. Remember, they were politicians.

While they brought us the Declaration of Independence (and Adams always gave full credit to Jefferson), it was probably the election of 1800 that reflects the worst of both men and their partisans. 1800 really was the first true presidential race, the template for all that have followed. George Washington, a closet Federalist, had died the year before, but not before letting it be known that, his opinion, a Democratic-Republican would stop at nothing to overturn the government. The horses ran wild; the traces were off the harness.

As I wrote in another place:

[In the election of 1800] we have hyper-partisanship, personal rancor, attack ads, slanted media coverage, over-the-top accusations against one candidate and ferocious counter-attacks from the other. There is backroom political intrigue, shameless machinations, political betrayal, slander, party campaign committees, and prison terms for anti-administration newspaper editors (okay, we don’t do that anymore).

The gross hyperbolic accusations flying back and forth by Jefferson and Adams supporters are embarrassing today. Jefferson, Federalists charged, was a French atheist who would not scruple to introduce the French Terrors to America. Adams, Democratic-Republicans charged, was only biding his time before declaring himself king of America, riding around as he did in his four-horse presidential carriage—or was it six? There is always somebody to believe whatever is most outrageous. It was all nonsense of course, no less nonsense as that hurled in 2016 or in any presidential election year you choose to explore.

Adams sadly foresaw future elections as discordant, hostile competitions between contending factions that would leave Americans forever divided; roughly half prepared to believe the absolute worst of the other half. He has been proven right, of course. But if this contention brings out our worst, I think it might also bring out our best. Isn’t it is a good thing that we argue yet so passionately for a national future?

Of the two it is Jefferson’s optimism we remember best, despite Sally Hemmings and slavery. If he told Americans the exceptional things they wanted to believe about themselves, it is very likely because he wanted first to believe them of himself.

Just as their lives were singular to the United States, so also were their deaths. Both died on July 4th, 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was issued. It is impossible to conceive of anything more fitting, unless it is that they died having renewed their friendship some many years before.

Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson
by Gordon S. Wood
Penguin/Random House, 2017
Hardcover, 512 pages

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About Russell E. Saltzman 16 Articles
Before entering seminary and becoming a Lutheran pastor (before becoming Roman Catholic), Russell E. Saltzman was a newspaper reporter, press secretary to a member of Congress, and deputy secretary of state of Kansas.


  1. Excellent article. However I’m not so sure that the notion that Jefferson wouldn’t have favored a taste of French Revolutionary style violence here if he thought circumstances warranted it. After all he remarked in a letter to a colleague:
    “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”
    Doesn’t sound like he would have been averse to seeing bloodshed from time to time. Further he was quoted telling James Madison that periodic revolution”at least once every 20 years” was necessary for sound government.

    Being a deist, the claim of atheism is misplaced though it’s a small distinction, since the deist acts as if God doesn’t exist without proclaiming it as true, as does the atheist.

    • That, to be clear, was a political charge lodged against him during the presidential campaign of 1800. It may be taken with a large dose of salts. The short of it is, Federalists like Adams saw our international future with England; Republican-Democrats like Jefferson, with France. The Federalists were right.

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