Gordon Wood, the dean of historians of the American Revolution, has been chasing John Adams his entire career. From his Bancroft Prize-winning The Creation of the American Republic (1969) to his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992) and beyond, Adams has been a favorite source. Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson is Wood’s first book-length study of Adams, along with his friend and rival Jefferson.
The new book is a study in contrasts. Many accounts of Adams and Jefferson begin with Benjamin Rush’s comment that they were “the North and South Poles of the American Revolution.” Wood does not see it that way. Rather, Jefferson is American and Adams is, well, un-American. The two patriots, “remained divided in almost every fundamental way: in temperament, in their ideas of government, in their assumptions about human nature, in their notions of society, in their attitude toward religion, in their conception of America, indeed in every single thing that mattered.” Wood presents the two men as ideological types, though he does not completely ignore their personal stories. My favorite part of Friends Divided might be its close reading of Rush’s efforts to reconcile his two old friends, after Jefferson retired from the presidency in 1809. Rush’s epistolary diplomacy consisted of saying A to Jefferson and B to Adams, or quoting X but not Y from Adams when writing Jefferson. Wood’s inner humanist shines through in these meticulous, inspired interpretations of people, events, and writings, interpretive passages that are unsurpassed in his formidable body of work. Yet Wood’s bias as a historian is cultural or ideological. Hence his focus is not on the Adams-Jefferson friendship or even on their famous correspondence, but, rather, on what they represent for America.
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On one side Wood gives us Jefferson, “the slaveholding aristocrat [who] emerged as the apostle of American democracy.” The Virginian became the “optimistic exponent of American equality and the promoter of the uniqueness of the nation and its special role in the world.” Elsewhere Wood calls Jefferson’s view “American exceptionalism.” Slavery helped. “Southern aristocrats could claim to be full-fledged republicans without fearing the populist repercussions.” On the other side was Adams, “the representative of a crusty conservatism that emphasized the inequality and vice-ridden nature of American society, a man who believed that ‘Democracy will infallibly destroy all Civilization.’” In Wood’s opinion, “Jefferson told the American people what they wanted to hear—how exceptional they were. Adams told them what they needed to know—truths about themselves that were difficult to bear.” In this, Friends Divided reaches back to the conclusion of Wood’s famous chapter on “The Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams” in The Creation of the American Republic: “for too long and with too much candor he had tried to tell his fellow Americans some truths about themselves that American values and American ideology would not admit.”
Jefferson was America’s legislator-prophet, and Adams the nation’s cynical critic. “There was nothing inspiring” about Adams’s vision, however accurate it may have been: “Could Americans become the ‘one people’ that Jefferson promised in the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence” without the mythic Americanism that came from Jefferson’s pen? Short answer: no. “To be an American is not to be someone, but to believe in something. And that something is what Jefferson declared.” Jefferson, in other words, created America’s civic religion. For attacking it, Adams was “a heretic,” to use a term Jefferson liked to apply to people who disagreed with him.
Why did Adams and Jefferson think differently? Wood traces convictions to irrational sources, suggesting that the differences between Adams and Jefferson grew, in part, from their characters, which the book sketches with considerable insight. Jefferson “knew more about more things than any other American.” More than Benjamin Franklin? Wood sometimes follows the old journalistic chestnut: first you simplify and then you exaggerate. A self-described “enthusiast on the subject of the arts,” he “loved to sing, even when he was alone.” Jefferson became a talented architect. “[H]e aimed at nothing less than becoming the supreme connoisseur of the best that was thought and known in the world.” Adams, by contrast, was interested in the study of man, but was not sure he liked what he found. Jonathan Swift was one of his favorite authors. That said, Wood recognizes that Adams was not a dour neo-Puritan: “his bleak view of human nature and his irascibility were leavened by his often facetious joking, his droll stories, and his sense of the absurdity of things.” Wood notes Adams’s humane sensibility seen, for example, in his talent for caricature. Delaware’s Caesar Rodney was “the oddest looking Man in the World,” Adams wrote. “He is tall—thin and slender as a Reed—pale—his Face is not bigger than a large Apple. Yet there is Sense and Fire, Spirit, Wit and Humor in his Countenance.” Wood describes Adams as “the most sensuous of the founders,” an echo of Bernard Bailyn’s brief for Adams’s “sensuous apprehension of experience.” “Unlike Jefferson, whose sensibility was predominantly intellectual,” writes Wood, “Adams’s was largely visual.”
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In Wood’s view, class mattered a great deal. “Jefferson never felt snubbed in his life,” Wood notes. He was “the connoisseur informing his college friends what was to be considered fine in the world and what was to be dismissed as ‘indifferent.’” In Paris Jefferson was a great shopper, spending a fortune to bring the best of the Old World to his American home. “As a good aristocrat, Jefferson inevitably had expensive tastes, and he denied himself few comforts.” Jefferson was above caring much about the bottom line.
Adams, by contrast, “never felt himself to be fully part of the Massachusetts aristocracy and thus came to criticize it ambivalently from a position of social inferiority.” As a young man he “had so often felt the arrogance and pretensions of the so-called great families.” John and Abigail were flinty New Englanders who tried to live within their means, even in Paris and London, perhaps to the detriment of his diplomatic work, which was inseparable from social life.
There is insight in this portrait, yet it probably pitches Jefferson a bit too high and Adams a bit low. The Jeffersons were not Tidewater but Piedmont gentry. Also, Jefferson’s Randolph line was maternal, not paternal, another distinction that mattered in that milieu. Perhaps his tastes, manners, and ambition grew from a desire to move to the top rung. In The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Wood notes that Jefferson “was the son of a wealthy but uneducated and ungenteel planter from Western Virginia” and was “the first of his father’s family to go to college.” He was not, in short, to the manor born. Conversely, Adams’s father did indeed make shoes in the winter—Puritans and idle hands—but he was a deacon in the local church and was elected several times to serve as town selectman. Deacon Adams was, Wood recognizes, respectable enough to marry into the Boylston family. Some scholars argue that within the small world of the New England town, the Adamses were as prominent as Albemarle County’s Jeffersons. Though probably an exaggeration, that’s not entirely off the mark.
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It is worth noting that what Jefferson supported was modern exceptionalism, and not American exceptionalism. Jefferson’s early enthusiasm for the French Revolution suggests a vision not confined to one nation or continent. After the French Revolution crashed (as Adams had predicted it would), Jefferson said, in an 1816 letter to Adams, “old Europe will have to lean on our shoulders.” The notion that there is no such thing as a unified, worldwide “modernity” was foreign to his point of view. As Wood presents him, Jefferson wished to be in the vanguard, pushing international progress. America, no less than Virginia, was to be his vehicle. In foreign policy, Wood notes that Jefferson hoped that economic coercion and, ultimately, embargo could render war unnecessary, or, at least, extremely rare. (In his volume for the Oxford History of the United States, Empire of Liberty: A History of the American Republic, 1789–1815 , Wood downplayed the radicalism of the Jeffersonian vision.) Adams, like George Washington, believed that so long as humans roamed the earth there would, from time to time, be war. While Jefferson believed in transformative progress in politics, Adams was skeptical about man’s potential for progress. He was skeptical of any global theory of historical movement. It is perhaps not a coincidence that it was Joseph Stalin who put the term “American exceptionalism” on the map, calling it a “heresy”—the heretical idea that Marx’s idea of History was false. Like the Baron de Montesquieu and most men of the Enlightenment, Adams had great respect for British liberties and the British constitution, hoping that America would retain and improve upon them.
At the end of the book Wood points to Abraham Lincoln to explain “why we honor Jefferson and not Adams.” Yet Jeffersonian optimism drew close to the line that separates idealism from misanthropy. The world was tragic because we can never purge it of evil. By contrast, there was a cosmic optimism in Adams. He was freer, more content with the world as God had created it, and, hence happier. On Christmas Day 1813, he wrote Jefferson: “The fundamental principle of all philosophy and all Christianity is ‘Rejoice always in all things. Be thankful at all times for all good, and all that we call evil.’” Even the tragic element of life, which we call evil, was somehow part of the goodness of Creation. There is, in some ways, more Adams than Jefferson in Lincoln.
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The challenge Adams presents Wood comes through in his treatment of John Locke. Wood pays little attention to Locke’s Two Treatises of Government and doesn’t note that Jefferson paraphrased it in the second paragraph of the Declaration. Instead, in Friends Divided he focuses on the Essay on Human Understanding. In Wood’s summary of Locke, “the mind originally was ‘a white Paper, void of all Characters, without any Ideas,’ and it was filled up through time by ‘Experience.’” That conclusion, Wood argues, pointed to human equality. Hence, “[i]f all human beings were indeed equal at birth…what separated one person from another was simply cultivation and education.” Adams was perfectly willing to deny there are innate ideas. But at the heart of his politics was the conclusion that human nature is a robust and important force in history. Moreover, Adams had an institutional streak. Political culture is often an artifact of the regime. The latter conclusion grew from the former. Input human nature into a particular circumstance and the result is often predictable. That baseline of human nature as a cause is absent from Wood’s brilliant body of scholarship.
In his view, Adams moved from agreement with Locke to disagreement. The evidence, however, is wanting. Wood notes that a young Adams wrote his friend Jonathan Sewell that Locke had “discovered a new World.” According to Wood, Adams learned from Locke “the idea that only cultivation separated one person from another.” That was, “he [Adams] said, ‘the true sphere of modern genius.’” Is that a fair reading of the words in context? Adams wrote Sewell:
In Metaphysicks, [Locke] has steered his Course into the unenlightened Regions of the human Mind, and like Columbus has discovered a new World…. But in Mathematicks, and what is founded on them, Astronomy and Phylosophy, the Modern Discoveries have done Honour to the human Understanding. Here is the true sphere of Modern Genius.
Adams’s reference to “modern genius” seems to have much more to do with “mathematicks” and such other disciplines as Astronomy and “Phylosophy,” which he seems to be saying are “founded on” mathematics. Note that Adams seems to be contrasting “Modern Genius” with ancient genius, which he also respected. The passage doesn’t prove that Adams accepted a radical construction of the tabula rasa.
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What about Adams’s idea of equality? Wood quotes his statement in a 1767 newspaper essay that “all men are born equal.” When Adams used the phrase “all men are born equally free and independent” in his draft Declaration of Rights for Massachusetts, it represented, in Wood’s view, a change. Perhaps. But it’s conjecture. The latter phrase, after all, is from the 1776 “democratic” constitution of Pennsylvania, and was itself a reworking of language from the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Wood’s evidence for what he takes to be Adams’s earlier position is thin. Here is the full sentence from 1767: “All men are born equal; and the drift of the British constitution is to preserve as much of this equality as is compatible with the people’s security against foreign invasions and domestic usurpation.” As in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Wood highlights Adams’s resentment of the would-be elite of his home state who looked down on him as the son of a shoemaker. “He had so often felt the arrogance and pretensions of the so-called great families.” Adams held that the “meanest and lowest of the people,” “were ‘by the unalterable laws of God and nature, as well intitled to the benefit of the air to breathe, light to see, food to eat…as the nobles or the king.’” Similarly, Adams held, they should not be “ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep.” All that is hardly incompatible with the 1776 Pennsylvania language. It is much more likely that Adams preferred it because it clarified the meaning of “all men are born equal.”
Wood’s bias is to trace ideas to sub-rational sources. He points to Adams’s tendency “to borrow heavily from writings that seemed to answer his emotional needs at the moment.” Hence he seldom presents Adams explaining or elaborating, or, ultimately, thinking. He does, however, recognize his insight. Of Adams’s extract from Adam Smith, Wood notes that his “account of the passion for distinction seems actually richer than Smith’s treatment.”
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Wood’s account of Jefferson’s radical egalitarianism is similarly wanting. Wood maintains that Jefferson believed “what separated one person from another was simply cultivation and education.” Even so, when discussing 1776, Wood recognizes that Jefferson suggested that biological differences between men from Africa and men from Europe were significant, a rather radical limitation upon the tabula rasa. Meanwhile Wood waits nearly a hundred pages to concede that “Jefferson knew that people differed from one another.” He does not mention until much later in his book the educational scheme that Jefferson suggested in the Notes on the State of Virginia, according to which, in Jefferson’s words, “twenty of the best geniusses will be raked from the rubbish annually.” When Wood turns to study Jefferson’s 1813 letter to Adams on natural aristocracy, he conveniently skips over Jefferson’s comment that “experience proves that the moral and physical qualities of man, whether good or evil, are transmissible in a certain degree from father to son.” Read closely, the letter as a whole suggests a troubling eugenic streak in Jefferson’s thought.
On the other side, Wood recognizes Adams’s belief that “in America there were no political and moral inequalities of rights and duties. Everyone was equal before the law.” But, Wood argues, “these were superficial equalities. What really mattered in America, and, in fact in every nation, said Adams, was the overwhelming presence of real and fundamental inequalities—inequalities of wealth, of birth, of talent.” Even so, Wood allows that Adams never wanted “to follow Aristotle…in excluding working people from citizenship.” Adams was emphatic on the point in his Defence of the Constitutions (1787):
The moral equality that nature has unalterably established among men, gives these an undoubted right to have every road opened to them for advancement in life and in power that is open to any others…. The dogma of Aristotle, and the practice of the world, is the most unphilosophical, the most inhuman and cruel that can be conceived. Until this wicked position, which is worse than the slavery of the ancient republics, or modern West Indies, shall be held up to the derision and contempt, the execration and horror, of mankind, it will be to little purpose to talk or write about liberty.
When he quotes this passage, Wood skips Adams’s brief for the “moral equality” of men and his comments about the “right to have every road opened to them for advancement.” He also cuts Adams’s reference to slavery. Elsewhere he mentions Adams’s opposition to slavery, but says it is relatively unimportant. Wherefore these omissions and distortions?
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Early in the “Discourses on Davila,” which Adams penned during his vice presidency, he turned, “to the constitution of the human mind.” Thirteen essays later Adams began his extracts from and commentary on Davila’s history. According to Wood the prefatory essays “had nothing to do with Davila.” A revealing reading. It is one thing to believe that history is not philosophy teaching by example, but quite another to be unable to recognize philosophy and examples when staring them in the face. Wood quotes Adams’s reply to Jefferson in which Adams notes “the existence of Inequalities, not of rights, but of moral intellectual and physical inequalities in Families, descents and Generations.” Yet Wood ignores the context. There is a great deal of room in Adams’s letter for the view that a moral man is more likely than an immoral one to raise an honest child. What’s more, Adams’s main point was political. In the next sentence he suggests that “descent from, pious, virtuous, wealthy literary or scientific Ancestors is a letter of recommendation…in a Mans favour.” He continues: “Aaron Burr had 100,000 Votes from the Single Circumstance of his descent from President Burr and President Edwards.” Aaron Burr was, as it were, New England royalty. His grandfather was the great New England divine Jonathan Edwards, and his father, Aaron Burr, Sr., had been the president of Princeton. In The Radicalism of the American Revolution Wood quotes Paine on the subject: “Virtue…is not hereditary.” Adams’s point was that history demonstrates that men will nonetheless often act as if it is. That will never change, Adams thought. Statesmen, therefore, had to account for it.
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The real question with regard to Wood, Adams, Jefferson, and Locke, therefore, concerns history and human nature, not equality. Wood’s approach to the study of history takes the tabula rasa as a premise. Actually, he comes close to treating human nature, and not merely the mind, as a blank slate. Given that premise, history becomes the study of the evolution of “culture.” And that explains Wood’s decades-long wrestling match with Adams. Adams believed that history was the school of statesmen precisely because it allows us to study human nature in action, to anticipate how the underlying constants would present themselves in different circumstances. Wood suggests in The Radicalism of the American Revolution that the rise of republican ideas in the Enlightenment weakened monarchy. “All those French nobles who in 1785 flocked to the Paris salon to ooh and aah over Jacques-Louis David’s severe classical painting The Oath of the Horatii had no idea they were contributing to the weakening of the monarchy and their own demise.” Given the history of such experiences, and given how common they are across time, Adams thought, history can teach us to recognize precisely such things. Wood does not. (History also teaches that few will be wise in that way.) Wood recognizes that Adams had real insight. In The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (1932), German philosopher Ernst Cassirer notes the challenge Blaise Pascal (one of Adams’s favorite writers) presented the philosophes: “French philosophy of the Enlightenment recurs to Pascal’s Thoughts again and again as if it were impelled from within, and that it repeatedly tests its critical strength on this work.” Adams presents Wood with a similar challenge.
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In the final chapter of Friends Divided, Wood notes that Jefferson grew depressed as his retirement years passed, drawing inward and retreating to an ever smaller political circle. He read only Thomas Ritchie’s Richmond newspaper, the one most congenial to his politics. Meanwhile, he looked on as his beloved “country,” Virginia, diminished in importance, and the rise of market farming, cities, banks, and stock-jobbing betrayed his republican vision. Under a mountain of debt, he realized that there was precious little of his patrimony to pass on to his heirs.
Adams, by contrast, grew much more content. That his son rose to the presidency didn’t hurt. He was not heavily in debt, either. Although he, according to Wood, shared Jefferson’s dislike of banks and financial speculation, he was much less surprised and worried about the future than his Virginia friend.
And that returns us to Wood’s history. In his essay on Theodor Mommsen (CRB, Spring 2018), Joseph Epstein noted that the greatest historians, those whose work endures, “are philosophic in the sense of being interested in human nature as it plays itself out on the ample fields of political and military affairs, of culture and economics.” Gordon Wood is the most talented historian of his generation. The misfortune is that, for all his accomplishments and accolades, his method presumes that there is not a robust or transhistorical human nature. From that perspective the classic understanding of history—as philosophy teaching by example—remains unintelligible or is reducible to “ideology.” Given Wood’s premises about the nature of history, the line from his work to the postmodern methods he often deplores is much shorter than he would like to admit. Indeed, it is precisely the turn that a wise student of history, and human nature, would expect.