John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4th, 1826. It was only hours apart.
The friendship had suffered much in the founding of our nation’s history. What started from two personalities who, given their stubborness, seemed unlikely to ever be friends, they regardless managed to cross their respective sides of politics to have a few words. And even when the arrival of parties forced the two into muckraking tactics, they found a way to reconnect.
Today I have been giving some degree of thought to their lives by reading their correspondence in The Adams-Jefferson Letters edited by Lester J. Cappon (which I would highly recommend by the way) 200 years ago they happened to be writing on the state of matter.
“I can concieve thought to be an action of a particular organisation of matter, formed for that purpose by it’s creator, as well as that attraction is an action of matter, or magnetism of loadstone. when he who denies to the Creator the power of endowing matter with the mode of action called thinking shall shew how he could endow the Sun with the mode of action called attraction, which reins the planets in the tract of their orbits, or how an absence of matter can have a will, and, by that will; put matter into motion, then the materialist may be lawfully required to explain the process by which matter exercises the faculty of thinking. when once we quit the basis of sensation all is in the wind. to talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. to say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, & Stewart. at what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism this masked atheism crept in, I do not know.“
-Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 15th 1820
Incredible how, after two centuries, the questions of how a collection of matter could be conscious are hardly closer to being answered. Yet still we go on, as they did.
They seemed to be particularly trained to ask the big questions, and to make the large gestures that sent ripple effects into our nation’s history. Some of the decisions left plenty to critique. Jefferson’s rural flair and his taste for a decentralized nation led to a desire not for a strong fleet of ships, but what was termed the “gunboat navy.” It turned out to be a disaster. America since then has kept up a massive navy, in order to police the waters and safeguard trade at an international level.
And who can forget what many consider to be an early sin of our new republic? John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a low blow that made our nation look much weaker than it already was.
Yet for all the problems our Founding Fathers faced, they still deliberated heavily the path before them. “It is no small thing to build a new world,” Benjamin Franklin tells the two during their time in Paris in the HBO miniseries John Adams, which is something I can unequivocally recommend.
The show follows Adams from his task of defending the soldiers who participated in the Boston Massacre, a situation where beleaguered citizens of the port threw snow, oyster shells, and clubs at them until they fired and killed several. Tensions were high in the period, and Adams’s defense would not be easy. Still, even in the 1770s, and even in the colonies, the court of law prevailed and the men were acquitted. But rather than continue building on a relationship based on that law, England decided henceforth that cases against soldiers in America would be tried overseas.
Adams is traumatized when his cousin, Samuel Adams, along with the “rabble” of Boston, tar and feather a British merchant.
Between these two moments, one of political negligence and the madness of crowds, John rejects an opportunity to be a Tory, and instead agrees to meet with the Philadelphia Convention as a representative for Massachusetts in order to use words and conversation to plead their case.
From there, it is a wild ride to Independence and the first presidency of George Washington, until John Adams takes the mantle. After his term, he retires to Peacefield to live out the remainder of his days.
One of the show’s greatest strengths is in the performance of its actors. Paul Giamatti as the sometimes abrasive Adams gives the historical figure a knack for wit and lovable tirades. His ability to fluctuate volume and pitch in his voice when necessary made him an excellent spokesman for Adams, as well as to be the “fire” to Jefferson’s “ice.” Laura Linney plays the better half in Abigail Adams, bringing to tears anybody who has the chance to see the pressure that the making of the new nation played on their relationship. It is the highly literate romance that many want (though seldom get), and it was in their letters and correspondence that the two leaned on to keep the two informed of each other’s lives. Abigail is harsh but sympathetic. She is an excellent and patient mother. And it was no secret among the Congress that she engaged with John on all matters of politics and prose in a way that improved the debate beyond question.
Another hallmark of the show is in the writing. Whether the founding fathers are debating whether to send an olive branch to King George III, or in the discussions between characters, it’s clear somebody did their research. Many of Benjamin Franklin’s lines are taken directly from Poor Richard’s Almanac, while the correspondence read out loud between Jefferson and Adams were archived for our posterity. While much of the show likely followed David McCullough’s book, still there was much to be done for arranging the lines and scenes in a way that bridged fifty years of Adams’s personal and political history into seven episodes. To do this and do it well is in large part indebted to the writing, which does an excellent job of condensing (without reducing) the steps taken at the beginning of our nation.
The most pressing of the show’s themes concerns discourse and compromise. “You have a lack of faith in your fellow man,” Jefferson says. “And in yourself.”
“And you express,” Adams retorts, “a dangerous excess of faith in your fellow man.”
Such is the foundation for these two men. Adams leans towards Hobbes and Jefferson towards Rousseau, and between the two we have America. In a democracy we learn that we are not our ideas, and when we find better ones we can make repairs or cast out entirely old notions of how society is constructed. The process is much slower as a result, compared to command economies of Stalinist Russia or in modern China. But the miniseries makes an excellent case for why such a slow and careful approach be taken to build and maintain laws.
After rewatching the series many times over, one of the only explicit criticisms of the show I can give are the Dutch angles. The cinematography of the show unfortunately dates the piece as a product of its time, and the awkward and jaunty turns of the camera are annoying from the outset. Whether it is in the shakier, handheld model of the Bourne movies, or in the Dutch angles of John Adams, each era believes it has to speak a visual language with the camera. While the Bourne movies used this to great effect by making the viewer appear as a secretive onlooker to matters of national security, there is no purpose in my mind for what John Adams does with its camera and why.
It is a small maligned point in an otherwise incredible miniseries. Right now, in 2020, we are clearly living history. We know that in a decade, they will make additions to school textbooks based on these moments, and hundreds of years from now we will be derided for behaviors we did not even know were brutish.
Perhaps our questions of consciousness that Adams and Jefferson postulated between each other will finally be solved.
But each pressing moment in our nation’s history also gives us the opportunity for compromise, for discourse, and for finding the middle way. As painful as it can be, John Adams reminds us to listen to our opponents, in the strange event that they can actually turn out to be friends.