For as long as there have been friends, there have been frenemies.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are perhaps America’s most famous pair of feuding friends. Their storied relationship began in 1775 and ended abruptly on July 4, 1826, when the two ex-presidents died within hours of each other – on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Historians believe Adams’ last words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives,” muttered in his dying breaths before typhoid overcame him. Jefferson had actually passed away several hours earlier, so Adams’ proclamation was incorrect.
Whether or not Adams’ mention of Jefferson arose out of spite, bitterness, love or camaraderie, historians will never know. But what is clear is that the men held a mix of respect and contempt for each other and maintained an on-again off-again relationship for five decades.
Many at the time saw their Independence Day deaths as a sign of divine providence. Today, their intertwined July Fourth passings serve as a convenient metaphor for an American legacy of boundless disagreement and unlikely accord.
Historians, including Gordon S. Wood in his book “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson,” have long focused on the two rivals’ volatile relationship.
Their friendship began in the early days of the nation, despite their vastly different political views. Adams believed in a strong central government whereas Jefferson championed states’ rights.
Surprisingly, their contrasting views brought them together, thanks to a deep mutual respect and esteem.
Adams was elected vice president under George Washington while Jefferson was appointed secretary of state. It was here that their kinship began to splinter.
After Washington chose not to seek a third term, a power vacuum formed. Adams and Jefferson ran against each other, split on issues like their views of the French Revolution.
Adams squeaked by with three more electoral votes and won the presidency. In an awkward technicality, the 1796 system called for the second-place contender to become vice president.
Adams asked Jefferson to join him in forming a strong, bipartisan administration. But Jefferson turned him down.
In 1800, Jefferson and Adams faced off again. Things got nasty.
Members of Jefferson’s camp said Adams had a “hideous hermaphroditical character,” while Adams’ supporters called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow.” (Despite the vitriol, there was no mention of nasty women or deplorables.)
Jefferson won, and Adams was bitter. He left town and skipped the inauguration ceremony.
The rivals didn’t speak for 12 years.
Another Founding Father, eager to reunite the two statesmen, hatched a plan to bring them back together. Benjamin Rush, a civic leader and fellow Declaration signer, wrote to both men, saying the other wanted to rekindle their friendship. (And thus a timeless comedy trope was born).
Rush sealed the deal by telling them he had a dream in which they revitalized their friendship through letter-writing before they later “sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country.”
He kind of nailed it.
In 1812, the two started writing again and eventually mailed more than 185 letters to each other. But their friendship was still tense at times and their political divisions remained ripe.
A year after their communication was reopened, Adams wrote, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”
Over the next few years, a tenderness crept back into the founders’ relationship. As he grew older, Jefferson even wrote, “Crippled wrists and fingers make writing slow and laborious. But while writing to you, I lose the sense of these things, in the recollection of ancient times, when youth and health made happiness out of everything.”
We’ll never know exactly where they stood in the end or what Adams was thinking on that fateful Fourth of July 192 years ago. But we know that Jefferson was on his mind until his last moments.
A month later, wordsmith Daniel Webster was called to deliver a joint eulogy. In commemoration of July Fourth and the life of the two politicians, he said:
“Adams and Jefferson are no more. On our 50th anniversary, the great day of national jubilee, in the very hour of public rejoicing, in the midst of echoing and re-echoing voices of thanksgiving, while their own names were on all tongues, they took their flight together to the world of spirits.”