Today’s post accompanies “Partisans: The Friendship and Rivalry of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson” episode 193 of Ben Franklin’s World.
by Edith B. Gelles
Abigail Adams adored Thomas Jefferson. “He is one of the choice ones of the earth,” she wrote to her sister after meeting him in 1784. Thomas Jefferson, in return, admired Mrs. Adams and ranked her among his closest women friends. They became acquainted in Paris where the two Americans were displaced as foreigners, struggling with language and cultural uncertainty. Mrs. Adams, prim, proud and still provincial, had never travelled more than thirty miles from her Quincy home. Thomas Jefferson, recently widowed and still grieving, was more worldly and accustomed to the vicissitudes of travel. For nine months, Abigail lived in the suburb of Auteuil before John Adams’s diplomatic reassignment to London. Jefferson, who had arrived in France as the new minister, became a frequent visitor in the Adams household, but not just for business. He was lonely, and Abigail was isolated from friends in a social world that she neither understood nor approved of. They bonded, joining ranks as expatriates and providing each other with a sense of comfort in an alien world.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had first met in Philadelphia as delegates to the Continental Congress. Although it had been a long decade since they had seen each other, the two Americans resumed a close friendship in Paris that was based as much on personal sentiments as their combined missions as diplomats. Abigail’s relationship with Jefferson was personal. He had come to Paris with a young daughter, Martha, and his personal (bonded) servant, James Hemings. He now found a home away from home among Adamses that included John Quincy who became to him “almost a son” and Nabby, their twenty year old daughter. Together they explored the sites of Paris and attended theatrical and musical events. Abigail and Tom discovered a compatibility of taste and temperament. And both loved to shop. Jefferson, the tall red-haired, forty year-old Southerner, and Mrs. Adams, petite, somewhat naïve and proper New Englander, became good friends.
Those nine months together were the longest and only period where they sojourned as companions. This time provided the foundation for their sincere and devoted friendship that lasted—with one glaring interruption—for the remainder of their lives. It became the legendary idyll for the Adams-Jefferson friendship.
Then the Adamses departed for London. A sad Jefferson accompanied their coach to the city limits and soon wrote that “The departure of your family has left me in the dumps—my afternoon hangs heavily upon me.” Within days of her arrival at London, Abigail wrote to Jefferson that she had missed his company at a performance of Handel’s Messiah at Westminster Abbey. “Only conceive six hundred voices and instruments perfectly chording in one word and one sound,” she described to the friend whom she knew would comprehend her emotions upon hearing that Hallelujah Chorus. “I was one continued shudder from the beginning to the end of the performance.”
Fast forward two decades: In the interim the Adamses and Jefferson saw each other infrequently. A Constitution was adopted for the new United States; John Adams served for two terms as vice president while Thomas Jefferson terminated his position as Secretary of State in the new government to return to Monticello; political factions began to develop; John Adams became president with a reluctant Jefferson serving as vice president; political differences escalated with Adams leaning to the Federalists and Jefferson becoming a leading Anti-federalist. Finally Jefferson replaced Adams in the highest office, and a disgruntled Adams departed from the capital city in the dawn hours before the inauguration of his successor. Communications between the Adamses and Jefferson ceased for a dozen years. Except for one breach.
In 1804 the younger daughter of Thomas Jefferson, Polly, who had stayed with Abigail in London on her voyage from Virginia to join her father in Paris, had died after childbirth. “Reasons of various kinds withheld my pen, untill the powerfull feeling of my heart, have burst through the restraint,” she explained, “and called upon me to shed the tear of sorrow over the departed remains of your beloved and deserving daughter, an event which I most sincerely mourn.” Abigail broke the silence between them to write a letter of condolence. “It has been some time since that I conceived of any event in this Life, which could call forth, feeling of mutual sympathy,” she continued,. “I have tasted the bitter cup,” she referred to the death of her son Charles that John Adams had learned about on the very day that the vote of the electoral college had signaled the end of his presidency. Abigail reminisced about Polly: “The tender scene of her seperation from me rose to my recollection when she clung around my neck and wet my Bosom with her tears saying ‘O! now that I have learnt to Love you, why will they tear me from you.’”
Jefferson warmly responded and for almost one year, the former First Lady—no longer the modest New England matron of their earlier friendship, but a wise, learned, astute and cosmopolitan woman—and the sitting President of the United States corresponded. The purpose of their exchange quickly shifted from expressions of condolence for the death of Polly to the demise of their former friendship. In a series of letters that violated polite conventions of eighteenth century letter-writing between a man and a woman, each accused the other of misdeeds that shattered their friendship. “One act of Mr. Adams’s life, and one only, ever gave me a moment’s personal displeasure, I did consider his last appointment to office as personally unkind.” The appointment of the “midnight judges,” the president argued, was his only grievance with his predecessor. Not to be outdone, Abigail had her own list of transgressions committed by Jefferson, most salient of which was his pardoning of James Callendar, who had been jailed by the terms of the Sedition Act. “If the chief Majestrate of a Nation, whose elevated Station places him in a conspicuous light. . . so far forgets what is due to his Character as to give countanance to a base Calumniater, is he not answerable for the influence which his example has upon the manners and moral of the Community?” Neither Abigail nor Jefferson minced words.
But that was not the issue.
Missing from this exchange was the one voice that mattered. The correspondence, in fact, was about John Adams, and Abigail had written to Jefferson in confidence. She had not informed her husband about the correspondence until it was concluded. But his was the voice that mattered. Several times during this exchange, Jefferson had proffered friendship. Several times Abigail rebuffed his offering. “Faithfull are the wounds of a friend,” she wrote, knowing that the ultimate cause of the gulf between them had to do with another grief, the grief of John Adams over his defeat for the presidency by a rival he fundamentally cared for. He had been betrayed. His affection for Jefferson had been displaced by his anger and frustration. No one understood this better than Abigail. She could not repair, nor had she intended to repair the friendship because she better than anyone sympathized with her husband’s intransigence. Nor would she; John Adams merited her primary loyalty.
When he was ready, in 1812, John Adams initiated the resumption of their historic friendship by writing a note to Thomas Jefferson that accompanied a little gift, a pamphlet written by John Quincy, whom he referred to as “our son,” reminding Jefferson of their idyllic months in Paris, when all their friendships flourished. Over the ensuing six years to the time of her death in 1818, Abigail remained on the sidelines, penning now and then a postscript to one of John’s letters or a brief note to her former friend. Abigail had been a third party in a triangular friendship in which her loyalty to John was primary.
Edith B. Gelles is Senior Scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University and the author of Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).
Cappon, Lester, ed. The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. 2 volumes. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.
Gelles, Edith B., Portia: The World of Abigail Adams. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1992.
Gelles, Edith, ed. Abigail Adams: Letters. The Library of America, 2017.
Ryerson, Richard Alan et al. eds., Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 6, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1993.
“Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale,” face to face, National Portrait Gallery, May 14, 2009.
“John and Abigail Adams,” Revolutionary Art and Artifacts, Massachusetts Historical Society.