There’s not a lot of good things to say these days about American politics. We can say we “like” or “admire” this or that politician, but I think it’s safe to say that most of us are more than fed up with the partisan politics and career politicians. Not that it has changed much, because it hasn’t. The election of 1800 was one of the most contentious in American history, and that was between two friends: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They were somewhat friendly men who had a falling out, managing to patch things up later in life and become even better friends. Both men were incredibly complex and contradictory in their own way. Both men died on Independence Day, 1826—Jefferson first, then Adams. It would seem to the romantic in me that the destiny of these two men had somehow entwined them, that is, if I believed in destiny, which I don’t. Nevertheless, there is something connecting these two men that defies explanation.
For the last several weeks I’ve kept on my nightstand The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson & Abigail & John Adams, published by The University of North Carolina Press. The letters themselves give the reader invaluable insight into the minds of two of our most famous founding fathers. Juxtaposing the personal and the professional, the letters allow us, two centuries later, to see the inner workings of what made these men who they were. So on these cold February nights I’ve tried to get into the minds of Jefferson and Adams and discovered instead a literary treasure trove.
The letters are themselves a work of art; they constitute literature in the most profound sense. Reading these letters gives one a sense of the complexities of what it meant to be men of power in a new and burgeoning nation. However, beyond the rich content of the letters, we have two men who just knew how to write. Stylistically, the letters are as good as any novel, and better than most. It’s a shame that we have all but lost the art of letter writing. Emailing and texting pale in comparison with the thoughtfulness that letter writing requires. What these letters are teaching me, and they are teaching me a great many things, is that we no longer think with care; we come to thought as if it were a disposable item, to be discarded (or deleted) once the message is received. We would be a poorer nation indeed if Jefferson and Adams had access to email and smart phones. There is an emotional intensity to these letters that defy explanation. Consider the following first sentences of a letter Jefferson writes to Adams on June 1, 1822:
It is very long, my dear Sir, since I have written to you. My dislocated wrist is now become so stiff that I write slowly and with pain, and therefore write as little as I can. Yet it is due to mutual friendship to ask once in a while how we do?
There is more character in those lines than a simple blog post can do justice to. Yet, this reader is in awe of such carefully considered words from one friend to another. The emotional impact these letters contain carry the reader along and down the centuries towards a time that was not necessarily simpler, but certainly more thoughtful. I would argue that we require every high school student to study these letters before graduation. Why? Because they give flesh to marble, supply an electrical current to ideas that may seem light years away, and display an integrity that very seldom comes through in our media-saturated contemporary world.
Jefferson has always been my favorite president. His complexity and contradictory nature make him a hard man to pin down. In his essay, “The Trials and Tribulations of Thomas Jefferson,” Gordon S. Wood writes: “Jefferson scarcely seems to exist as a real historical person. Almost from the beginning he has been a symbol, a touchstone, of what we as a people are, someone invented, manipulated, turned into something we Americans like or dislike, fear or yearn for, within ourselves—whether it is populism or elitism, agrarianism or racism, atheism or liberalism.” Although Wood’s assessment (then and now) of Jefferson borders on hero worship, he nevertheless presents us with a careful consideration of Jefferson from beyond. I would only argue that the Adams—Jefferson letters do turn the two men into flesh and blood figures—warts and all.
Some of the most touching letters are those exchanged between Jefferson and Abigail Adams. Reading these, we get the sense of how much Jefferson valued her friendship, perhaps even more than her husband’s. Abigail Adams is a superb letter writer and is in every way as complex a thinker as her husband and Jefferson.
The heritage of the founding fathers, our heritage, is more than what’s wrapped up in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We should read these letters with the care we fail to give our “sacred” documents. In fact, I would argue that the letters we have from our founding fathers (and mothers), and these letters in particular, are more important and insightful that any other documents we have. I am not saying that documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are not important, that would be absurd. What I am saying is that these letters, by showing us the inner workings of the minds in question, can lead us, more relevantly, toward an understanding of, not only what they might have been thinking, but they can teach us a little about ourselves and our place in the contemporary world.