Reconciling John Adams and Thomas Jefferson
“What book is that in your hands?” said I to my son Richard [who later became the Secretary of State under President James Monroe] a few nights ago in a dream. “It is the history of the United States,” said he. “Shall I read a page of it to you?” “No, no,” said I. “I believe in the truth of no history but in that which is contained in the Old and New Testaments.” “But, sir,” said my son, “this page relates to your friend Mr. Adams.” “Let me see it then,” said I. I read it with great pleasure and herewith send you a copy of it.
“1809. Among the most extraordinary events of this year was the renewal of the friendship and intercourse between Mr. John Adams and Mr. Jefferson, the two ex-Presidents of the United States. They met for the first time in the Congress of 1775. Their principles of liberty, their ardent attachment to their country. . . being exactly the same, they were strongly attracted to each other and became personal as well as political friends. . . . A difference of opinion upon the objects and issue of the French Revolution separated them during the years in which that great event interested and divided the American people. The predominance of the party which favored the French cause threw Mr. Adams out of the Chair of the United States in the year 1800 and placed Mr. Jefferson there in his stead. The former retired with resignation and dignity to his seat at Quincy, where he spent the evening of his life in literary and philosophical pursuits, surrounded by an amiable family and a few old and affectionate friends. The latter resigned the Chair of the United States in the year 1808, sick of the cares and disgusted with the intrigues of public life, and retired to his seat at Monticello, in Virginia, where he spent the remainder of his days in the cultivation of a large farm agreeably to the new system of husbandry. In the month of November 1809, Mr. Adams addressed a short letter to his friend Mr. Jefferson in which he congratulated him upon his escape to the shades of retirement and domestic happiness, and concluded it with assurances of his regard and good wishes for his welfare. This letter did great honor to Mr. Adams. It discovered a magnanimity known only to great minds. Mr. Jefferson replied to this letter and reciprocated expressions of regard and esteem. These letters were followed by a correspondence of several years in which they mutually reviewed the scenes of business in which they had been engaged, and candidly acknowledged to each other all the errors of opinion and conduct into which they had fallen during the time they filled the same station in the service of their country. Many precious aphorisms [truths], the result of observation, experience, and profound reflection, it is said, are contained in these letters. It is to be hoped the world will be favored with a sight of them. . . . These gentlemen sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country.” 1
At the time this letter was written, Jefferson and Adams were still vehement opponents. None of what was described in this letter had begun to come to pass, nor did it seem likely that it ever would. Nevertheless, Adams received the dream from his dear friend with an open heart and candidly responded:
Your prophecy, my dear friend, has not become history as yet. I have no resentment of animosity against the gentleman [Jefferson] and abhor the idea of blackening his character or transmitting him in odious colors to posterity. But I write with difficulty and am afraid of diffusing myself in too many correspondences. If I should receive a letter from him, however, I should not fail to acknowledge and answer it. 2 [To see the entire John Adams to Benjamin Rush letter click here.]
Shortly after this letter, Rush, who was also a dear friend of Jefferson, initiated a correspondence with Jefferson on the same topic, attempting to reconcile the two. Jefferson, too, listened to Rush with an open heart, and tentatively reached out to Adams with a gracious letter. Adams, as he had promised, did “not fail to acknowledge and answer the letter,” and thus began a cordial renewing of a warm and sincere friendship between the two.
In retrospect, the amazing accuracy and future fulfillment of several parts of Dr. Rush’s dream are absolutely astounding. As accurately described in his dream, Adams and Jefferson did again become close friends, and there did indeed follow the “correspondence of several years” described in the dream. Furthermore, the “world was favored with a sight of the letters” as entire volumes were eventually published which contained the letters written between those two in their latter years. Interestingly, seventeen years after his dream, they did “sink into the grave nearly at the same time” as the two men died within three hours of each other on the same day: July 4th, 1826 – the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence! Finally, both expired “full of years and rich in the gratitude of praises of their country.” It would appear that Providence had indeed given this dream to Dr. Rush since, although extremely unlikely at the time, it all eventually came to pass. (For similar Providential involvement in dreams, see Genesis 41:25+ and Daniel 2:28+).
In 1812, some three years after Dr. Rush had related his amazing dream to John Adams, Dr. Rush gratifyingly noted that a reconciliation between the two had begun:
I rejoice in the correspondence which has taken place between you and your old friend, Mr. Jefferson. I consider you and him as the North and South Poles of the American Revolution. Some talked, some wrote, and some fought to promote and establish it, but you and Mr. Jefferson thought for us all. I never take a retrospect of the years 1775 and 1776 without associating your opinions and speeches and conversations with all great political, moral, and intellectual achievements of the Congresses of those memorable years. 3
Shortly after this letter, Dr. Rush wrote with similar excitement to Jefferson, also expressing to him his pleasure over the rekindled friendship:
In a letter which I received a few days ago from Mr. Adams, he informs me, with a kind of exultation, that after a correspondence of five or six and thirty years had been interrupted by various causes, it had been renewed, and that four letters had passed between you and him. In speaking of your letters, he says, “They are written with all the elegance, purity, and sweetness of style of his youth and middle age, and with (what I envy more) a firmness of finger and steadiness of chirography [handwriting] that to me are lost forever.” It will give me pleasure as long as I live to reflect that I [Dr. Rush] have been in any degree instrumental in effecting this reunion of two souls destined to be dear to each other and animated with the same dispositions to serve their country (though in different ways) at the expense of innumerable sacrifices of domestic ease, personal interest, and private friendships. Posterity will do you both justice for this act. If Mr. Adams’ letters to you are written in the same elevated and nervous style [at that time, the word “nervous” was defined as “possessing or manifesting vigor of mind; characterized by strength in sentiment or style”], both as to matter and language, that his letters are which he now and then addresses to me, I am sure you will be delighted with his correspondence. Some of his thoughts electrify me. I view him as a mountain with its head clear and reflecting the beams of the sun, while all below it is frost and snow. 4
On the death of Adams and Jefferson on the very same day, some 17 years after Benjamin Rush has seen that event in his dream, the Rev. Edward Everett (a U. S. Representative & Senator, Governor, Diplomat, Secretary of State, and President of Harvard) delivered an oration in remembrance of the two in which he noted the great impact on America of their dual influence, both before and after their reconciliation:
Having lived and acted and counseled and dared and risked all, and triumphed and enjoyed together, they have gone together to their great reward. . . . Forgetting the little that had divided them and cherishing the communion of service and peril and success which had united, they walked with honorable friendship the declining pathway of age; and now they have sunk down together in peace into the bosom of a redeemed and grateful country. . . . They were useful, honored, prosperous, and lovely in their lives, and in their deaths they were not divided. 5
4. Benjamin Rush, Letters of Benjamin Rush, L. H. Butterfield, editor (Princeton: The American Philosophical Society, 1951), Vol. II, pp. 1127-1128, to Thomas Jefferson on February [i.e., March] 3, 1812. Letter was actually received on March 19, 1812.
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