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.
1. THEY WORKED TOGETHER ON THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
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.”
2. THE TWO PALLED AROUND EUROPE
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.
3. AS ADAMS’S VICE PRESIDENT, JEFFERSON QUIETLY UNDERMINED HIM
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.
4. THEY SQUARED OFF IN ONE OF THE UGLIEST PRESIDENTIAL RACES EVER FOUGHT
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.
5. ADAMS REFUSED TO ATTEND JEFFERSON’S INAUGURATION
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.
6. WHEN JOHN QUINCY ADAMS WAS ELECTED PRESIDENT, JEFFERSON CONGRATULATED HIS FATHER
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.”
7. THEY DIED ON THE SAME DAY
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.