The Greatest Frenemies in Political History


It’s never politics as usual with HISTORY’s new late-night series. On this week’s episode of Join or Die with Craig Ferguson, the comedian and his celebrity panelists will discuss the epic rivalries that shaped the course of history. Take Thomas Jefferson and John Adams: The pair was, at least initially, a classic case of opposites attracting. In terms of temperament, upbringing, and physical appearance, these statesmen couldn’t have been more different. And, of course, their competing ideologies helped solidify America’s two-party system. Nevertheless, the odd couple formed a heartfelt bond that would last for decades—albeit, one that was interrupted by several years of bitter political warfare. Read on for more about their tumultuous relationship.


Here’s a surprising fact for you U.S. history buffs: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were the only two presidents who’d also signed this landmark document. In 1775, both men were sent by their respective colonies to serve as delegates in Philadelphia’s second Continental Congress. That summer, Adams and Jefferson crossed paths for the very first time.

Adams never forgot his earliest impression of the younger patriot. “Though a silent member in Congress,” he’d recall in 1822, “[Mr. Jefferson] was so prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees and in conversation … that he soon seized upon my heart.” On July 11, 1776, they were appointed to the “Committee of Five”—a group charged with penning a written statement that would make the definitive case for colonial independence.  

Jefferson was ultimately chosen to draw up the first draft of the Declaration. Why did the Virginian agree to tackle such a monumental task? Adams later claimed that he’d personally persuaded Jefferson, telling him “I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise” and adding, “You can write ten times better than I can.”


Nowadays, we mainly remember them as revolutionaries and Commanders-in-Chief—their diplomatic accomplishments abroad are often overlooked. In 1778, Adams arrived in France to champion the rebel cause. After the war, he’d serve as America’s first ambassador to Britain, from 1785 to 1788.

In 1784, Jefferson was sent to France, where he met up with both Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Here, he befriended future First Lady Abigail Adams (who joined her husband in Paris that summer) along with two of John’s children: John Quincy and Abigail Amelia.

During their stay in Paris, these founding fathers saw a lot of each other. Jefferson frequently dined at the Adams’ residence and vice versa. On September 19, they’d meet up in Tuileries Gardens to watch a manned hot-air balloon begin an airborne journey that lasted nearly seven hours, a world record at the time.

Adams and Jefferson subsequently explored the United Kingdom as traveling companions. Now the Minister to France, Jefferson crossed the English Channel on official business in 1786. With Adams at his side, the Sage of Monticello visited William Shakespeare’s former home. Discreetly, they each sliced off a tiny piece of the Bard’s favorite chair. Souvenirs don’t get any more prestigious than that. 


By the time John Adams was sworn in as America’s second president, a partisan divide had split the electorate. Once in office, the New Englander tried to seem as though he was above the fray. Yet, in practice, President Adams almost always sided with the Hamiltonian Federalists. Meanwhile, his own vice president was the founder and head of the opposing Democratic-Republican party.

Naturally, the two often found themselves at odds. Never was this fact more apparent than during the winter of 1798. Disgusted by the Alien and Sedition Acts spearheaded by President Adams, Jefferson mounted an anonymous attack against them. Behind Adams’s back, Jefferson drafted the creatively titled “Kentucky Resolution,” passing his handiwork along to allies in the Bluegrass State. The resolution passed that November.


Contrary to popular belief, presidential politics have pretty much always been dirty. Consider, for example, the election of 1800, which pitted Adams against Jefferson in a bid for the White House. Adams’s backers released a pamphlet that called his opponent “nothing but a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow.”

On the other side, Jeffersonians pegged Adams as a “hideous … character [with] neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Ouch.

In the end, the straw that broke Adams’s back came when Jefferson hired a professional crisis manager.  By 1799, James Callender had propelled an adultery scandal involving Federalist icon Alexander Hamilton into the national spotlight. With Jefferson’s backing, he set his sights on a far bigger target: America’s current president. Through the Richmond Examiner, Callender published “The Prospect Before Us.” This scathing essay asserted that Adams was hell-bent on instituting a monarchy and starting a war with France.

“Such papers cannot fail to produce the best effects,” Jefferson remarked. In this case, they didn’t. Aided by Callender’s negative tactics, Jefferson emerged victorious.    


After Jefferson was sworn in as America’s third president, he delivered a message of unity and bipartisanship. Partway through an inaugural address that’s now remembered as one of the greatest ever given, the new Chief Executive asserted “we are all Republicans: we are all Federalists.” Meanwhile, the political rival he’d just bludgeoned was nowhere to be seen. Embittered by the loss, Adams skipped the ceremony and left Washington for his native Massachusetts. 


A buried friendship slowly returned to full bloom in 1811. By then, Dr. Benjamin Rush was among the few remaining people with whom both Adams and Jefferson regularly communicated. Another signee of the Declaration of Independence, Rush had long hoped to reconcile the two ex-presidents.

A single, kind comment from Adams helped Rush realize his goal. One day in 1810, the old New Englander confided to a pair of guests that “I always loved Jefferson and still love him.” Hearing this comment, Rush forwarded it along to Monticello. Jefferson was absolutely delighted. “I only needed this knowledge to revive towards [Adams] all the affections of the most cordial moments of our lives,” he told Rush.

The next year, Adams and Jefferson began a new correspondence that would include over 150 letters and last until their deaths in 1826. During this time, the Adams family scored a huge political victory—along with a devastating personal loss. Jefferson weighed in on both. When Abigail Adams passed away in 1818, the third president consoled her husband. Touched by Jefferson’s words, Adams replied, “I seem to have a Bank at Monticello on which I can draw for a Letter of Friendship and entertainment when I please.”

1825 would bring a happier dispatch. That year, John Quincy Adams won the White House. “It must excite ineffable feelings in the heart of a father,” Jefferson wrote Adams Sr., “to have lived to see a son so eminently distinguished by the voice of his country.”


Poetically, death took Adams and Jefferson on July 4, 1826—50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was adopted. Down in Virginia, it would appear that Jefferson couldn’t help but comment on the coincidence. According to several sources, his last words were something to the effect of, “Is this the Fourth?”

Adams followed Jefferson into the great beyond. Those relatives who waited by his deathbed would go on to report that, before expiring, Adams said “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” Adams was mistaken; Jefferson had passed away several hours before.

Catch Join or Die with Craig Ferguson this Thursday, February 25 at 11/10c on HISTORY. For a close look at another epic rivalry, click here to read why Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison were actually history’s best frenemies.

7 of the Most Doomed Presidential Campaigns Ever

Over the course of our nation’s history, hundreds of determined candidates have taken aim at the Oval Office. On this week’s episode of Join or Die with Craig Ferguson, HISTORY’s late-night host and his celebrity panelists will take a look back at candidates who not only struggled to find support, but missed the mark entirely. Read on for more of the longest of long shots in the fight for the presidency. 


Victoria Woodhull’s biggest mistake was being about a century and a half ahead of her time. After amassing small personal fortunes as Wall Street speculators, she and her sister Tennessee Claflin founded an activist journal called Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly in 1870. Later on, it became the first American journal to publish Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto

Over the course of her life, Woodhull fervently promoted such causes as women’s suffrage and sex education. Today, however, she’s primarily remembered for her remarkable White House bid. 

In 1872—47 years before American women won the right to vote—Woodhull became the first female presidential candidate in U.S. history. Nominated by the Equal Rights party (which she’d helped found), Woodhull used her campaign to promote such causes as an eight-hour workday and abolishing the death penalty. 

Unfortunately, the number of votes that she received was never recorded. We do, however, know Woodhull’s election day whereabouts. Accused of distributing obscene material by mail, she and her sister were imprisoned on November 2. Later found “not guilty,” they were released the following month.

6. JAMES B. WEAVER, 1892

Dissatisfied with the two major parties, American farmers responded by creating one of their own in 1892. Known as the Populist or “People’s” party, it opposed monopolies, supported the nationalization of American railroads, and advocated for more robust corporate regulations. 

In 1892, their candidate for the country’s highest office was one James B. Weaver, a decorated Civil War veteran and former congressman. Ultimately, he won more than 1 million popular votes—enough for a distant third-place finish behind Republican Benjamin Harrison and the victorious Democrat Grover Cleveland. After sending several other candidates to congress, the Populists merged with the Democratic party four years later. 


Between 1857 and 1861, Breckinridge served as vice president under fellow Democrat James Buchanan. In 1860, the Kentuckian saw his party splinter over the issue of slavery. During that pivotal year, two competing Democratic National Conventions were held in Baltimore. Breckinridge was eventually selected as the nominee of the party’s vocal Southern faction. 

Central to his platform was the belief that slavery couldn’t be barred or restricted in any government territory. This put him at odds with Stephen A. Douglas, who felt that the territories themselves could outright ban it if they pleased. Douglas became the candidate of choice for northern Democrats. Meanwhile, third-party candidate John Bell and Republican Abraham Lincoln also threw their hats into the crowded ring. 

Had the Democrats been unified, they may well have retained the White House. Instead, Lincoln nabbed it with 180 electoral votes (none of which came from Southern states.) 


As we’ve seen, things generally don’t end well for political parties that field multiple candidates in the same election. Yet, in 1836, the Whigs did so on purpose. 

It was a weird strategy to say the least. Against Democrat Martin Van Buren, the Whigs backed not one, not two, but three presidential nominees: Hugh Lawson White of Tennessee, William Henry Harrison of Ohio, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts.

What exactly was the plan here? Basically, the Whigs were hoping for a repeat of the 1824 debacle. If all went well, their three candidates would collectively win enough votes to deny Van Buren an electoral college majority. Then, the House—which happened to be Whig-controlled at the time—would again step in and select a new president. Alas, this didn’t quite work out. Instead, Van Buren singlehandedly took home more electoral votes than the other three men put together.


The 1820s and 1830s weren’t a great time to be a Freemason. During this period, widespread hostility towards the secretive organization culminated in the birth of a national Anti-Masonic party. In 1832, former Attorney General William Wirt ran for president as neither a Democratic-Republican nor a Whig, but as an Anti-Mason. In the election, his candidacy might have been a complete non-factor—if he hadn’t managed to carry Vermont’s seven electoral votes.


Poor economic policies cost incumbent President Martin Van Buren dearly during his 1840 re-election bid. Having earned the nickname “Martin Van Ruin,” he lost to Whig candidate William Henry Harrison by 174 electoral votes. 

Four years later, Van Buren was at it again. This time, however, he couldn’t even land his own party’s nomination, which instead went to expansionist and one-term wonder James K. Polk. Undaunted, Van Buren tried running on a different ticket in 1848. As a longtime opponent of slavery, he was deemed a perfect candidate for the Free Soil Party—an upstart group of Democrats who wished to prohibit the practice in all new U.S. territories. Van Buren gladly championed their cause. 

Though the former president didn’t secure a single electoral vote in doing so, he maintained a good attitude about the whole thing. The Free Soilers, he later opined, had triumphantly “accomplished… more than we had any right to expect.”


Adams won the presidency in 1824 in a controversial fashion. Four major candidates went head-to-head, with Andrew Jackson securing the most electoral votes by a sizable margin. However, because neither he nor any of his opponents had earned enough to claim a majority (in terms of total votes cast), the winner was chosen by the House of Representatives. Victory then went to Adams—leading Jackson to cry foul.

Over the next four years, he’d paint himself as a rugged people’s man and his political enemies as nothing but corrupt elites. Taking advantage of his nickname, “Old Hickory,” Jackson doubled-down on his personal branding efforts by doling out hickory wood products (toothpicks, canes, etc.) on campaign stops. Jackson’s visible grassroots coalition triggered a massive voter turnout which more than doubled that of 1824. This time around, his hard work paid off: Jackson routed Adams by a whopping 95 votes in the electoral college.

Catch a new Join or Die with Craig Ferguson this Thursday at 11/10c on HISTORY. Disagree with our ranking? Click here to see a different take on hopeless presidential campaigns.

7 of the Most Doomed Presidential Campaigns Ever

Say what you will about our country’s electoral process: presidential candidates know how to bring the drama. On this week’s episode of Join or Die with Craig Ferguson, HISTORY’s late-night host and his celebrity panelists will discuss just some of the (many) White House hopefuls who never stood a chance—but ran unforgettable, and sometimes cringeworthy, campaigns regardless. Read on for more about some of America’s most doomed presidential candidates ever.


Thomas Jefferson’s first term came on the heels of a close (and bitter) race. Four years later, he earned his second in an absolute blowout. Of the 17 states that participated in the 1804 election, Jefferson lost only Connecticut and Delaware. Those two holdouts gave his opponent, Federalist Charles C. Pinckney, a combined 14 electoral votes. Jefferson got 160.


Following a tradition established by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson chose to step down from the presidency rather than seek a third term. So, on January 23, 1808, 89 leaders of his Democratic-Republican party got together in the Senate chambers to pick a nominee for the 1808 campaign.

Before long, a clear frontrunner emerged. Secretary of State James Madison received some 83 votes, while the remaining six were split between James Monroe and Vice President George Clinton. Unsurprisingly, Madison took home the nomination. Clinton decided to run for president anyway (also as a Democratic-Republican). Alas, the bold move didn’t pay off and Clinton was trounced in the general election. Still, he did get a nice consolation prize—under President Madison, the native New Yorker was able to resume his duties as VP before dying in office on April 20, 1812.

5. JOHN BELL, 1860

There was only one core issue defining the Constitutional Union Party: if elected president, their pick would remain aggressively neutral on the slavery issue. In 1860, America looked poised to tear itself apart over this toxic subject. Only by ignoring it could a Civil War be avoided—or, at least, so thought the CUP.

Founded in 1859, the party held its first (and only) national convention during the summer of 1860. A former Whig senator, Bell was chosen as their presidential nominee. With Edward Everett—another ex-senator—as his running mate, he did surprisingly well, claiming the electoral votes of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. Not bad, but not nearly enough.


In politics, momentum can shift in a flash. As the summer of 1864 drew to a close, Abraham Lincoln’s chances for a second term looked grim. With the war going badly, even the president’s longtime allies deemed his defeat inevitable. That August, Republican strategist Thurlow Weed (who’d helped organize Abe’s 1860 campaign) grimly told a colleague, “Lincoln is gone, I suppose you know as well as I.”

Across the aisle, the Democrats were divided into two factions: those who insisted on seeing the war through and the pro-peace “copperheads” who demanded an immediate end to hostilities by any means necessary. After much discussion, the party selected military man George McClellan—one of Lincoln’s former generals—as its nominee. It was agreed that he’d run a pro-peace campaign.

Unfortunately for the Dems, party members fighting for the Union assumed the pacifist stance was a commitment to accepting peace at any cost—a position that felt disloyal after the sacrifices they had made in the fight to reunite the country. Soldiers that might have otherwise supported the Democratic nominee threw their support behind Lincoln.

Not helping matters: On September 6, 1864, Union General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta, thus all but guaranteeing a northern victory in the war. Just like that, McClellan’s fate was sealed—Lincoln triumphed 212 to 21 in the electoral college.

3. RUFUS KING, 1816

King was the last of a dying breed. The Federalist party to which he belonged hadn’t won a presidential race since John Adams bested Thomas Jefferson in 1796. Increasingly, their candidates were seen as elitist and out of touch. The Federalists’ reaction to the War of 1812 only solidified this assessment.

Denouncing this conflict as an expensive waste of human life, New England Federalists threw an anti-war convention in Hartford, Connecticut. Beginning on December 15, 1814, the event raged on into January. Their timing couldn’t have been worse. While the Federalists debated, General Andrew Jackson scored a moralizing victory at the Battle of New Orleans. Shortly thereafter, a peace treaty was signed.

This fortuitous turn of events made those who’d attended the Hartford Convention seem hopelessly detached and even unpatriotic. Now less popular than ever, the Federalist party faded away into oblivion. King would be their final presidential candidate. In the electoral college, Democratic-Republican James Monroe easily crushed him with 183 votes to King’s 34. When Monroe sought re-election four years later, he more or less ran unopposed.


This Midwestern Democrat planted the seeds of his own downfall. Douglas was the main architect of the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act, which sparked a tidal wave of violence between pro- and anti-slavery settlers out in the Kansas territory in 1854.

Throughout the act’s ratification debate, Douglas vocally supported the ideal of “popular sovereignty.” This concept held that new territories should be permitted to decide for themselves if they’d allow slavery within their borders. Southern Democrats didn’t care for the idea, fearing that it could threaten the rights of slave owners. So began a major-league rift. In 1860, the Democratic party threw two separate conventions—northern delegates nominated Douglas as their presidential candidate while their southern brethren backed John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky.

Ultimately, both Democrats ended up running against each other—as well as John Bell of the short-lived Constitutional Union Party, and Republican Abraham Lincoln. His foes divided, Honest Abe emerged victorious—even though 60 percent of the electorate picked somebody else.


When the economy gets rough, voters tend to punish whoever’s sitting in the Oval Office. Just ask Van Buren. Less than a year into his first term, America entered the biggest recession it had ever seen. Nearly 800 national banks folded during the so-called “panic of 1837,” while the country’s unemployment rate skyrocketed.

Most historians hold Andrew Jackson—Van Buren’s predecessor—responsible for setting up the catastrophe. From the start, “Old Hickory” hated the powerful Bank of the United States. In 1832, he dealt it a mortal blow by withdrawing all federal funds from the organization. Altogether, these holdings added up to roughly $10 million, which Jackson deposited in various state and private banks. With the old BUS destroyed, land speculation spun wildly out of control. Before long, this bubble burst and when the new banks started calling in loans, they found that many borrowers simply couldn’t pay up.

By and large, Van Buren kept supporting Jackson’s failed economic policies. On his watch, the recession only worsened. It didn’t help, of course, that amid all this turmoil, Van Buren had developed a reputation for lavish spending. In 1840, President Van Buren was ousted, with William Henry Harrison (a Virginia Whig) defeating him by the hefty margin of 174 electoral votes.

Catch a new Join or Die with Craig Ferguson this Thursday at 11/10c on HISTORY. Disagree with our ranking? Click here to see a different take on hopeless presidential campaigns.


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