Review: Friends Divided

Friends Divided, Gordon S. Wood. New York: Penguin Books, 2018.

Summary: An account of the sometimes troubled and unlikely friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

They could not be more different in many respects. One irascible, the other sophisticated. One a modestly successful New England lawyer and farmer. The other a southern plantation owner. One inclined toward aristocracy. The other toward people. One was a prosaic writer, the other had a gift for elevated prose.

They also shared some things in common. Both were inveterate readers, among the most widely read of their times. Both knew tragedy in their lives. They came together around declaring their country’s independence from England. They worked together to foster their country’s relationship with France. Both were part of the first administration of George Washington, and both in turn were presidents.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Gordon S. Wood has written here what may be the definitive account of this friendship that spanned over 50 years, ending July 4, 1826, when both men died on the Jubilee anniversary of the country’s Declaration of Independence, drafted largely by Jefferson and signed by both of them. He traces the parallel courses of their lives, the differences and misunderstandings that frayed their early friendship, and the wonderful reconciliation of their latter years giving us one an exceptional correspondence (perhaps rivaled only by that between John and Abigail Adams).

Wood begins with the very different circumstances in which they grew up, their early careers and marriages and then recounts the crisis that brought them together as signers, and then emissaries for their fledgling country in France. Adams it seemed, never understood French ways, nor had he the skills to negotiate them well. Jefferson did, so much so that he fell in love with the country. Adams always remembered his American commitments. All this becomes evident in their very different assessments of the French Revolution. We see the first signs of strain here–the monarchical tendencies of Adams, the republican ones of Jefferson, who could not see the dangers of revolution.

These strains became worse in Washington’s administration as fault lines between what became known as the Federalists and the Democrat Republicans became evident and worsened when Adams became president and Jefferson vice-president. Adams inclined toward the Federalists, although was never fully one of them, costing him the next election. Jefferson believed in the people. About the only thing the two agreed on is that they both distrusted Hamilton.

Wood covers the campaign of 1800 in which Adams lost to Jefferson. The charges and countercharges appeared to cost them their friendship. It was perhaps the first truly contentious campaign, revealing the emergence of parties. If anything the misunderstandings between Abigail and Jefferson, especially over the Alien and Sedition Act, was even worse. Jefferson and Adams wouldn’t speak for another decade.

A mutual friend, physician Benjamin Rush, played the key role of clearing the way for the famous correspondence of these two men, each explaining himself to the other. Wood recounts this developing correspondence and the most famous passages between the two. He also narrates the shift in fortunes of the two from Jefferson acclaimed while Adams forgotten to Jefferson’s financial difficulties in his last years and Adam’s increasing esteem in the eyes of his countrymen, particularly after the election of John Quincy to the presidency in 1824. Jefferson became more pessimistic about the unfolding commercial trends in the country while Adams became more sanguine.

Wood deeply regards both of his subjects, but in the end is drawn to the expansive mind of Jefferson and his vision of forging one nation out of all the varieties of people that make up our country. Yet I found myself wondering if in fact his book articulates the need we have as a nation for both kinds of leaders, both those with lofty visions and those of rock-ribbed integrity with two feet firmly planted in American soil, both those who believe in the people, and those who value institutions, and recognize the existing inequalities of people who enjoy equal rights. Without Adams, Jefferson was inclined to build “castles in the air.” Without Jefferson, Adams may have tried to fashion himself a monarch. Perhaps what Wood has given us in the story of these two men is a parable for our country, especially in this divided time.

One thought on “Review: Friends Divided

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: October 2020 | Bob on Books

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