Books History

The Parallel Lives of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams: Gordon S. Wood’s “Friends Divided”

“If Thomas Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If America is right, Thomas Jefferson was right.” Beside George Washington, none of the other Founding Fathers holds such prominence in American historical memory and mythology than Thomas Jefferson. This was not always so. While largely forgotten today, in his own time John Adams was among the most influential and important Founding Fathers. He also carried on a life-long, though at times fraught, friendship with Thomas Jefferson. Though friends, the two men couldn’t be more different.

Gordon S. Wood is the sage of early American history. Writing a biography of two of America’s most important Founding Fathers, then, is a task worthy of his eminence and skill; even more-so that it implicitly evokes Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. On July 4, 1826, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died—about five hours apart from each other. Jefferson famously said, “This is the fourth.” Adams is supposedly to have said, “Thomas Jefferson lives.” Jefferson actually died five hours earlier; but Adams’s remark that Jefferson lives is, in ways, true. Yet once the nation knew of the death of both men, eulogies and newspaper editorials gushed over both men who were friends, revolutionaries, presidents.

Friends Divided is Wood’s attempt to resurrect the importance of Adams while maintaining the cultural hagiography of Jefferson—even if the Sage of Monticello has fallen on harder times of late. Covering their lives from love-life to revolutionary era politics to diplomatic work overseas to cabinet work under the Washington Administration and their respective presidencies and views on human nature, Wood brings to life both men in a comparative-contrast of their tense friendship.

We think America is partisan and divided today. This was perhaps truer in the early days of the American republic more-so than even now. Despite that early division in America’s history, two men defied that division with their friendship. Jefferson and Adams became friends through their work in the revolution. Both, at the time, were committed republicans fighting the tyranny of the British Crown. Here, Wood notes, both men conjured up their own political theories for independence. Adams identified the Protestant Reformation and the dissenting tradition as the root of American liberty and progress; Jefferson, meanwhile, the mythic Anglo-Saxon past which was revived when Englishmen voluntarily sailed to the New World to find the freedom the Norman Yoke had imposed over them. Though radically different, both served to advance the cause of separation and independence from Britain.

Despite differences in every walk of life: Jefferson was licentious whereas Adams prudish; Jefferson an optimist in the people whereas Adams skeptical of the passions of the mob; Jefferson ambivalent toward organized religion whereas Adams—though a Unitarian congregationalist—saw the value in religion for social stability and virtue, Jefferson and Adams maintained a public friendship amid their divisions before a brief rupture occurred because of the election of 1800. In Wood’s estimation, the friendship of Jefferson and Adams is a symbolic instantiation of the friendship of the regionalist sections of American political culture and ambitions. Jefferson was the southern aristocrat, republic, and enemy of commercial interests. Adams was the new man, a middling middleclass child who became an elite through merit, emblematic of New England industriousness and stinginess.

Both learned men, it’s not hard to see why they enjoyed each other’s company and correspondence despite their tremendous differences. They fed off each other. For Jefferson, Adams was the only revolutionary patriot that could come close to matching his breadth of learning. For Adams, Jefferson was the most learned man in the country—even surpassing himself, he acknowledge—yet his learnedness was what Adams tried to assail to bring him back to reality. For all his learning, Jefferson was wildly unrealistic about the world.

The major portions of the book deal with the differences Jefferson and Adams took regarding the American Constitution and French Revolution. Though Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, he wasn’t much a friend of the Constitution. Jefferson considered the Constitution a gross step toward monarchy, the imposition of a new, stronger, far more centralized federal government than what the ideals of republican self-government were about. Adams, meanwhile, lauded the new Constitution as a step in the right direction. Adams’s political theory rested on a strong executive, a quasi-monarchical individual able to keep the peace in a world of violent and turbulent passion from the masses and the ruthless ambitions of politicians (like Alexander Hamilton). Both men, however, thought themselves republicans in the sense that government was meant for the public good and rule by law. Both differed, however, in what the pubic good was: for Jefferson it was self-governance and individual liberty whereas for Adams it was social order and individual virtue.

Their competing visions of republicanism led to their divided outlooks on the French Revolution. Jefferson was its most enthusiastic American supporter (with the exception of Thomas Paine). Adams was terrified by the revolution and what it portended: French militarism and aggression that threatened American stability and possible existence. Even as heads rolled and friends arrested, even killed, Jefferson refused to change course. The blood of violent revolution was necessary for liberty—after all, hadn’t the American Revolution done the same? Adams, meanwhile, was proven historically right: Adams foresaw the cheap façade of republican liberty in France cracking, despots rising, then a monarch (in the form of Napoleon) reemerging to ensure order and uniformity under a new nationalism.

The election of 1800 brought the divided friends to their brief divorce. Adams was terrified by the prospects of a republican victory under Jefferson’s stewardship. All the work Adams and the Federalists had done—despite Adams’s misgivings over Alexander Hamilton’s financialism—would be undone by Jefferson his quasi-Jacobin Republicans. The two eventually ended their long friendship and correspondence when Jefferson won the election and the Federalists trounced.

Benjamin Rush steps in to amend the broken relationship. For the last decade and a half of their lives, they rekindled their friendship and correspondence. Thus emerged the greatest exchange of letters in American culture. The correspondence of Jefferson and Adams is a treasure into the minds of America’s leading revolutionary Founding Fathers on everything from science, philosophy, religion, literature, politics, and American law.

Jefferson, despite his problems today, is still the preferred Founding Father because he spoke to the American Dream: belief in the people; the eternal optimist; “all men created equal”; the uniqueness of the American experiment; education will banish superstition and ignorance; America is different than the rest of the world. Adams, meanwhile, became forgotten because he spoke to the sobering realities of human nature: America isn’t different from the world; Americans are not inherently better than Europeans; all humans harbor deep and dark ambitions that would lead them to trample their fellow man; belief in education banishing ignorance is itself a naïve and ignorant belief. Jefferson, then, believed liberty in the hands of individuals would produce the best outcome. Adams, meanwhile, thought too much liberty in the hands of individuals could lead to anarchy—a strong central authority (the presidency) was necessary to check the passions of the people.

Yet as America aged, America leaned on Thomas Jefferson’s vision for its own sense of self. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln invoked the spirit and vision of Jefferson in fighting to preserve the Union and abolishing slavery (just as southern secessionists did the same). Yet there is an irony in this: To achieve Jefferson’s dream of a united America under equality and liberty a strong central authority—the presidency—was needed. America is a product of both men and their visions: liberty and equality (Jefferson) and a strong presidency (Adams). But we prefer to love Jefferson, even in his naivety, than acknowledge the sobering wisdom of Adams in its darkness. To be an American, even today, is to believe in what Jefferson believed: the possibility of a better tomorrow built upon the pillars of equality and liberty. Even those who slander Jefferson still implicitly believe in that vision. “That’s why we honor Jefferson, not Adams,” as Wood says to conclude his magisterial history.

Friend Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson
By Gordon S. Wood
New York: Penguin Press; 502pp.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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