Out of Left Field: Jefferson, Adams exchanged over 672 letters

Out of Left Field: Jefferson, Adams exchanged over 672 letters
Daughters of the American Revolution visit Port’s Historical Society / Photo by Robbie Lager


Epistolary Joys: Part 2

This discussion extends and deepens my first column on how people benefit from written exchanges with each other.  You are cordially invited to offer responses and your own views and experiences.

(An advisory note to my dear readers: as with my extended series of columns about happiness, I am clearly headed for several epistolary joys entries).

In past years – and centuries – handwritten letters connected many people in many ways: romantically, in friendship, culturally, politically. Later discussion will examine whether new modes of communication will have similar salutary effects (email, text, Facebook, etc.).

The decline of personal handwritten mail has prompted politicians to develop machine-generated script, sometimes having volunteers do the envelope addresses by hand to convey the sense of personal connection. Does this work with voters?

One of the most impressive aspects of epistolary exchanges is the depth of feelings when writers rarely get to see each other — sometimes for years. That is certainly the case in the remarkable exchange of letters between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams for the last 12 years of their lives, culminating on the day both men died: July 4, 1826 (several contemporaries believed there was a providential message in that these two great leaders died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, each with final words thinking of the other).

Jefferson and Adams met at the Second Continental Congress in 1775. Beyond their in-person leadership, they corresponded during the Revolution when  each served as ambassadors in European nations. Their friendship was disrupted by the controversial 1800 election when Jefferson defeated Adams for the presidency.

But thanks to the encouragement of mutual friend Benjamin Rush, they began an exchange of letters, reflecting on their Revolutionary experiences and their views on American values and exceptionalism. As John’s remarkable son, John Quincy, was welcomed to work with Jefferson’s party, and when he was elected president himself in 1820, the writings sweetened as both men were inclined to celebrate family as the nation advanced, in their judgment, to be a model “for posterity.”

Seldom have any leaders expressed such a keen sense that that they were acting not only for their time but for the future. Not surprisingly, they highlighted key enduring themes of the Revolution: quests for virtue, liberty and the public good (“res publica” in Latin). A major discussion was how to foster virtue: both were powerful advocates of public education. Suffice it to say that Jefferson can be considered the father of the American public education system: first educate the population at large with free, common public education for boys – and girls. Then the brightest boys would go on to university education, fostering a “natural aristocracy” (of ability, not just wealth or family) to work with the expanded citizens.  More complete feminism was slower arriving.

Somewhat surprising for readers of these letters is the point that while John Adams had valued personal religion as a path for virtue, both agreed that “organized religion was a bane for the nation as a whole.” Both advocated the end of state established churches. Indeed, Jefferson listed his bill for “religious freedom” (not merely “toleration”) as one of the three accomplishments he wanted included on his gravestone.

Both men had a love of history; they saw “wisdom as the proper use of knowledge.” In all of his school proposals, Jefferson replaced the study of religion with the study of history!

Beginning this correspondence in 1812 (Jefferson was 69; Adams was 77), not surprisingly they included discussions of aging and health. Jefferson was always more private than Adams and sometimes complained that he could not keep up with all the letters he felt he needed to write.

Readers of this correspondence come away with higher appreciations of Adams, of his “wicked wit” and his generosity in saying of Jefferson “each of his letters was worth four of mine.”

These exchanges fill 672 pages with printed copies of the letters. One reviewer offers this advice: “This correspondence is like great red wine. To understand and digest the full context it should be given the kind of time it deserves. Reading 10 pages a day will allow time to digest the essence. Remember the caveat from Dostoyevsky: “If you understand too quickly, you may not understand well.”

Absent from these exchanges are the remarkable romantic, love letters Jefferson exchanged with Maria Cosway over a span of 33 years. This emotional aspect of Jefferson’s life deserves special attention, including a letter he wrote in 1786, often considered among the greatest love letters in American history: “A Dialogue between the Head and Heart.”  A reviewer describes this as “one of the notable love letters in the English language.”


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