Carrie's Reviews > Adams-Jefferson Letters

Adams-Jefferson Letters by Lester J. Cappon
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Jul 22, 09

Read in July, 2009

When I started this book, I assumed I would slog through it, and learn some useful things, and get some enjoyment out of reading these Founding Fathers' own words instead of those of historians. I did not expect it would return to my bookshelf as one of the most beloved books there.

The letters delve deep into the expected — the inner workings of a young democracy, the establishment of a fledgling economic power on the world scene. And yes, there are points of mundane bureaucracy, passages about whale oil, salt fish, loans, insurance. Especially in the early years, much of John Adams' and Jefferson's correspondence was taken up with matters of business.

Yet even within these passages, there are delightful gems, and in Jefferson and Abigail Adams' correspondence, there are far more abundant examples of the mutual friendship and admiration between the Adamses and Jefferson. Their personalities emerge, in a different and generally richer way than they do in even the best history books.

As expected, Jefferson's prose stands out. Were there nothing else of value in the collection, it would be worth a read just to see him pepper even the most mundane topics with bits like calling an ambassador a "torpid uninformed machine," much less the longer passages that show his eloquence was not limited to important documents. But while Adams doesn't achieve the same frequent elegance, his letters are filled with reminders that he was an excellent statesman, and right more often than history gave him credit for (although Jefferson does in later letters).

And then there is a lull in the correspondence, where the history books and the useful, concise chapter introductions of this book must fill in the blanks. The Adamses and Jefferson return to the United States. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson become political rivals, candidates in one of the most bitter election campaigns this country has known, leaders for a generation that agreed on independence, but not what to do after independence was won.

For all the highlighter-worthy lines before this point, the greatness comes when John Adams sends a letter and a package after both are retired, initiating a torrent of letters that lasted until the two men died. Their topics range from education to metaphysics to aristocracy, but Adams' and Jefferson's late-in-life correspondence is far more a story about a seemingly impossible reconciliation. Somehow, both men found the capacity to either forgive, or forget, and a willingness to listen.

"You and I ought not to die, before We have explained ourselves to each other," Adams writes. And they do, tiptoeing sometimes, and always explaining, not attempting to convince.

The politics and the history are there in abundance, but to me, this collection of letters is more about a human drama where the cast of characters are some of the most important names in American history. I've read at least one historian that presented the letters as Adams and Jefferson posing for posterity. They were surely aware that these letters might be published someday, but posing for posterity doesn't account for the clear joy both express in having one great mind to converse with, one friend left from the generation of 1776. Scribbling out these letters with aging hands, they long for an hour of conversation, difficult to imagine in our age of cell phones and jet travel.

These letters combine to tell a story about life, but also a story of death. In later years, facing their own mortality, Adams and Jefferson are unafraid of the topic. Religion, the afterlife, the rights of the next generation to take over. By the time I reached the final letters, the impossible timing of their deaths started to seem less impossible, and I found myself glad that neither had to deal with the loss of his dear correspondent.

Not surprisingly, Jefferson sums it up better than I have managed to in this review:

"A letter from you calls up recollections very dear to my mind. It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us and yet passing harmless under our bark we knew not how, we rode through the storm with heart and hand, and made a happy port."
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