What John Adams really thought about Thomas Jefferson: “I shudder at the calamities"

The friendship between the ex-presidents was tested when Adams' private trash-talking letters were published

Published February 19, 2018 6:00AM (EST)

Thomas Jefferson; John Adams (Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)
Thomas Jefferson; John Adams (Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)

Excerpted with permission from "Agony and Eloquence" by Daniel L. Mallock. Copyright 2016 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.

The brisk, late autumn winds blowing inland from the Atlantic, and the bitter cold air streaming south from Canada, howled through the cracks in every structure in Quincy, Massachusetts. During that particular early morning, most citizens of the town would have been at their breakfast tables near a warm hearth trying to avoid the chill New England winds of approaching winter that, rolling in off Quincy Bay, made their windows rattle and floors and walls cold to the touch as the first meal of the day was served. So it was at "Peace field," the solid and comfortable but not ostentatious home of John Adams, retired second president of the United States.

Mr. John Adams, or "the president," as his grandchildren preferred to address him, was 89 years old in November, 1823, unusually long-lived for a man of that or most any time. Most of his friends, and his beloved wife Abigail, had, by then, preceded him to their rewards. Adams, made of sterner stuff than even he had suspected (and sometimes perhaps likely desired) remained, and waited. Perhaps one of his grandchildren brought the morning's mail to the elderly statesman that day. All the family assembled around the table would have recognized the now familiar handwriting on the envelope; it was from former President Thomas Jefferson, then Adams's most important correspondent—his greatest and oldest living friend. His eyes failing, Adams likely asked a favored family member to read the letter to him. Sometimes his correspondence was read to him privately but, for this important missive, Adams could not wait; it must be read aloud, now.

John Adams had rekindled his old friendship with Thomas Jefferson late in 1811 at the incessant yet creative urgings of their mutual friend and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania. Rush, who had died in 1813, was delighted that he had been the instrument to bring his two old friends back to one another after over a decade of silence between them. Now, at breakfast and with his extended family in his old family home, once called Stoney Fields, then Peace field, then "Montezillo" as a humorous homage to his greatest friend's stately and famous home, Monticello, Adams must have felt some trepidation as the envelope from Jefferson was displayed at the table.

The cold autumnal winds blowing in from the Atlantic over the low hills of Quincy, much of it Adams land, beating on the hardy frames of Montezillo located on what is now Adams Street in Quincy, Massachusetts, must have been particularly portentous for the former president. An old error in judgment, harsh bitter opinions and recriminations, and an excess of rhetoric and partisanship over a decade old that Adams had hoped and expected would never see the light of day until after his death, if ever, were about to invade his usually peaceful morning meal. Jefferson had no doubt learned of these things; this, then, must be the subject of the letter that Adams's granddaughter now held in her hand, waiting for the patriarch's nod to open and read it aloud.

Described by one noted biographer as "rude, tactless, and hot-tempered," John Adams was sometimes injudicious and excessive in his written communications, particularly in his retirement years. Jefferson was also guilty of occasional heated rhetorical indulgences in his correspondences. Like many subjects of mutual interest, this habit of epistolary backbiting and overheated language was an unfortunate indulgence practiced by both men, however much to their own later frustrations and disappointment. Adams's vanity, irascibility, and garrulousness were widely acknowledged by friends and family; Adams himself admitted to these traits (particularly vanity). His colleagues and enemies were also not unaware of them. His brilliant and supportive wife Abigail had always done her best to keep this part of her husband's character in check.

Jefferson was also aware of Adams's lesser qualities. Weighing them against the better parts of Adams's nature, Jefferson had found his old friend's more challenging traits forgivable. In a January 1787 letter to James Madison, Jefferson wrote that Adams "is vain, irritable and a bad calculator of the force and probable effect of the motives which govern men. This is all the ill which can possibly be said of him. He is as disinterested as the Being who made him. He is profound in his views, and accurate in his judgment, except where knowledge of the world is necessary to form a judgment. He is so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him, if ever you become acquainted with him."

Seated at the breakfast table with his family around him, a little hand held an as-yet unopened letter from Thomas Jefferson. With his failing eyesight, Adams perhaps looked around him at his large extended family, gripped the arms of his chair just a little tighter, and thought back over a decade to another family breakfast in which the words of a very different correspondent had been the subject of conversation.

* * *

In their retirement years Adams and Jefferson had both taken extraordinary pains to assure that the historical record would present an accurate representation of them to posterity. Adams's concern for his historical reputation might now be seen as a kind of neurosis, though he was not in any way alone in his concern for how he would be viewed and judged by later generations of Americans. This obsession with posterity prompted many letters, both public and private, from Adams's pen.

In an August 1812 letter to his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush, Adams asked rhetorically, "How is it that I, poor, ignorant I, must stand before posterity as differing from all the great men of the age? Priestley, Price, Franklin, Burke, Fox, Pitt, Mansfield, Camden, Jefferson, Madison!" Believing his historical reputation already permanently sullied, Adams speculated that he would be "judged the most vain, conceited, impudent, arrogant creature in the world. I tremble when I think of it. I blush. I am ashamed."

Once retired, Adams had engaged in a lengthy and very public defense of his political career by submitting extensive essays and letters to the Boston Patriot newspaper from 1809 to 1812.

One Adams historian describes these lengthy, often caustic and critical essays as "the final installment in Adams's long effort to exorcise his personal demons, all undertaken in the guise of 'setting the record straight.'" Few readers of the Boston Patriot—and there were many in Massachusetts and beyond—were favorably impressed by Adams's essays. Expecting many repercussions and public denunciations, Adams found the reaction to his essays was far more muted than he had supposed. Shortly after the first essay was published, a distant relative wrote to him in an elevated and personally complimentary style expressing interest in his political career, and declaring his support for Adams's Boston Patriot efforts.

Favorably impressed by this writer's positive reaction to his very public self-defense, Adams began a correspondence with this distant cousin that would later result in unpleasant repercussions and put his most important friendship at risk.

* * *

John Adams and William Cunningham had corresponded intermittently since 1803. Cunningham, a Federalist journalist and lawyer, was a distant relative of Adams. It was not however until Adams's first essay appeared in the Boston Patriot that their correspondence became regular. They mutually agreed that their letters were to be kept confidential and never published until after Adams's death, if at all.

In an 1804 letter to Cunningham, written during Jefferson's first term as president, Adams harshly criticized Jefferson and implied that his friendship had been false. Adams also wrote, "I shudder at the calamities, which I fear his conduct is preparing for his country: from a mean thirst of popularity, an inordinate ambition, and a want of sincerity." At the close of this letter, Adams reminded his correspondent that "I write in confidence in your honor as well as your discretion."

Adams used both the Boston Patriot and his private correspondence with Cunningham as outlets to defend himself from what he perceived as a pervasive negative view of his character and his political record. Hypersensitive, Adams gave his pen and his anger free reign. He would sometimes hit a positive note, however, as he did in this compliment of Jefferson's political motives. "I have great reason to believe, that Mr. Jefferson came into office with the same spirit that I did—that is, with a sincere desire of conciliating parties, as far as he possibly could, consistently with his principles."

The Boston Patriot essays were an important tool for Adams through which he could accuse his enemies with his understanding and interpretation of historical events, and gain a victory by their deafening silence. He explained his purpose to Cunningham in July 1809. "I am in a fair way to give my criticks [sic] and enemies food enough to glut their appetites," Adams wrote. "They spit their venom and hiss like serpents. But no facts are denied, no arguments confuted. I take no notice of their billingsgate. Let it boil and broil. I have had their secret hatred for ten years, for twenty years, for all my life indeed. And I had rather have their open hostility than their secret."

Over time, however, Cunningham became less a flatterer than a critic of Adams, taking particular umbrage at his repeated and often harsh criticisms of Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Cunningham's shift from favor to enmity started slowly before finally arriving at a critical mass. His rhetoric struck such a pitch as to finally overshadow Adams's own self-indulgence of his ire at his many targets and cause him to pause, and presciently wonder as to Cunningham's mental stability. The first hint of serious trouble was Cunningham's letter of June 14, 1809, in which he somewhat inappropriately, via hearsay and gossip, introduced the former president's family into the discussion.

"An elderly and respectable clergyman, on his way home from Boston," Cunningham wrote, "called on me last Friday, and continued over night. He informed me without any reserve, that Mr. Whitney, your Minister, represented to him, that your resolution to rescue your reputation from reproach, is regarded by your whole family as an unfortunate determination, but that you are inexorable to their entreaties to desist."

Adams replied on the twenty-second of the same month. Not yet cognizant of the growing schism between them, and still then not fully aware of Cunningham's growing ire, Adams responded to the suggestion that his family disapproved of his public essays in the Boston Patriot with kindness and jocular humor. Making matters worse without realizing it, Adams sarcastically described to Cunningham the scene of laughter when he broached the subject at the dinner table.

I most sincerely thank you for your excellent letter of the fourteenth. It contains an abundance of matter that deserves, and shall have my most serious consideration. But at present I have not time to be serious. I had a delicious laugh with my family. I said nothing till we were all at table at dinner: My wife, my two daughters in law, my niece, Miss Louisa Smith, and my two grand daughters, misses, just entering their teens. My son was at Cambridge. I assumed a very grave countenance, and said I had received information, from fifty miles distance, that I had given offence to my family. I was very sorry to hear it, I wished to know which it was, that I might make my apology or give some satisfaction. Lord! Who? What? Why? what, sir, can you mean? sounded instantly from all quarters.

I learn that my family is grieved at my Letters in the Newspapers, and have intreated me to desist, but that I obstinately go on to their mortification. The whole table was in a roar at this. My Wife had read every line, I believe, but one letter, before it went to the press. She was not alarmed. My two daughters declared they had never said a word . . . Never, sir, was a more groundless report or a more sheer fabrication. Mr. Whitney never could have said any such things.

Adams's hilarity at Cunningham's expense was graciously received. But Adams did not realize until too late that his correspondent's once strong support for him and his public attacks on others was changing mightily.

Upset by Adams's harsh criticism of Jefferson, and of the tragically deceased Alexander Hamilton, Cunningham's tone changed from flattery to one of deep, bitter anger. Eventually, Cunningham threatened to publish their correspondence. Horrified at Cunningham's catastrophic shift against him, and alarmed at his harsh, threatening rhetoric, Adams soon realized the dangerous situation he himself had created by opening his unedited heart and soul to this distant relative and one-time friend.

Replying to a flurry of three letters in which Cunningham asserted that he would breach their agreement of confidentiality and go public with the letters, Adams wrote on January 16, 1810, "I have received your three last letters. The correspondence and conversations which have passed between us have been under the confidential seal of secrecy and friendship. Any violation of it will be a breach of honour and of plighted faith. I shall never release you from it . . ."

Believing that Cunningham's argumentative, accusatory, and alarming tone signaled not only personal and political disagreements but perhaps a profound mental disturbance or break, Adams continued, "I hope you will consider, before you plunge yourself into an abyss, which the melancholy and disturbed state of mind you appear to be in seems to render you at this time incapable of perceiving before you." Adams signed this letter, "In hopes you will soon be more calm, I am your well wisher, John Adams."

Despite his threats, William Cunningham kept his original promise to Adams and did not publish their letters. Cunningham's final letter to Adams was sent in January of 1812. Cunningham wrote, "I have been cruelly and unjustly treated by you—I have, nevertheless, in all that I have done, been sparing." This concluded their communications; there is no record of Adams having replied. Adams's fears that his trust in Cunningham had been misplaced would rest for ten years.

Confirming Adams's concerns for his emotional stability, William Cunningham was swallowed by the abyss. Cunningham committed suicide in 1823. His death would not, however, put the matter of their unfortunate correspondence to rest.

When Cunningham died, the 1824 presidential election campaign was underway. Adams's son, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, was running against war hero and populist General Andrew Jackson in a heated political environment in which partisanship was the order of the day. In 1823, the abyss reached out for John Adams through Cunningham's son.

Soon after his father's death, Cunningham's son Ephraim May Cunningham, a partisan Jackson supporter, published the confidential and damning correspondence between his late father and John Adams.

When Thomas Jefferson's expected letter arrived at Montezillo in Quincy, Massachusetts, on that November morning in 1823 as Adams was sitting for breakfast, the Adams-Cunningham correspondence had already by then been widely distributed. Adams fully understood that what he had written to Cunningham could be used to undermine his son's presidential aspirations, as well as do significant damage to his own admittedly limited future (not to mention his historical reputation). More personally significant, as the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the republic approached, his most important friendship was now at stake—a friendship that pre-dated the republic.

* * *

"A letter from Mr. Jefferson, says I, I know what the substance is before I open it. There is no secrets between between Mr. Jefferson and me [sic], and I cannot read it; therefore you may open and read it," Adams wrote to Jefferson on November 10, 1823. He was describing the scene in his kitchen as Jefferson's letter of October twelfth was received, and opened.

Though his vision had by then become so poor as to make reading difficult, perhaps in having his grandchildren read the letter aloud he was quietly communicating his fear also; he couldn't bear to read the letter himself knowing that it might include Jefferson's ire at his ill-tempered and unfortunate correspondence with Cunningham. There is humility and fear in Adams, and regret; the renewed Adams-Jefferson friendship, which, by 1823, was then eleven years old, had become for Adams his most important correspondence and non-family relationship; he did not want it to die.

"I do not write with the ease which your letter of September 18 supposes," began Jefferson. "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 antient [sic] times, when youth and health made happiness out of every thing. I forget for a while the hoary winter of age . . . until the friendly hand of death shall rid us of all at once."

The child continued reading aloud, the entire company enraptured by the prose of the sage of Monticello. As Jefferson described his efforts to create the University of Virginia, Adams must have been distracted with suspense, but not for long.

"Putting aside these things however for the present," Jefferson continued, "I write this letter as due to a friendship co-eval with our government, and now attempted to be poisoned." This was the signal to Adams that Jefferson was, at least, aware of the Cunningham letters. "I had for some time observed," continued Jefferson, "dark hints and mysterious innuendos of a correspondence of yours with a friend, to whom you had opened your bosom without reserve, and which was to be made public by that friend, or his representative. And now it is said to be actually published. It has not yet reached us, but extracts have been given, and such as seemed most likely to draw a curtain of separation between you and myself."

Jefferson acknowledged that throughout their lives their friends and supporters had "placed us in a state of apparent opposition, which some might suppose to be personal also." More importantly, there were those who "wished to make it so, by filling our ears with malignant falsehoods, by dressing up hideous phantoms of their own creation, presenting them to you under my name, to me under your's." Jefferson wrote that men "who have seen the false colours under which passion sometimes dresses the actions and motives of others, have seen also these passions subsiding . . . dissipating, like mists before the rising sun."

Embracing this idea that schemers, partisans, and men without honor and compassion could not destroy their friendship, Jefferson concluded this extraordinary letter of forgiveness and affection with assurances and loyalty. "Be assured, my dear Sir, that I am incapable of receiving the slightest impression from the effort now made to plant thorns on the pillow of age, worth, and wisdom, and to sow tares between friends who have been such for near half a century. Beseeching you then," Jefferson continued, "not to suffer your mind to be disquieted by this wicked attempt to poison its peace, and praying you to throw it by, among the things which have never happened, I add sincere assurances of my unabated, and constant attachment, friendship and respect." The response at Montezillo's breakfast table to Jefferson's sincere letter of appreciation, friendship, and forgiveness was electric.

Replying on the tenth of November, Adams wrote that when the reading of the letter "was done, it was followed by an [sic] universal exclamation, The best letter that ever was written, and round it went through the whole table—How generous! how noble! how magnanimous! I said it was just such a letter as I expected, only it was infinitely better expressed. A universal cry that the letter ought to be printed. No, hold, certainly not without Mr. Jefferson's express leave." Adams concluded his grateful letter to Jefferson with, "I salute your fire-side with cordial esteem and affection. J. A. in the 89 year of his age and still too fat to last much longer." Though it was clear to Adams that there could be little time remaining to him he had no fear of death.

Fully aware that he was then at the conclusion of his life and that the final act must be fast approaching, Adams welcomed life's next phase. Jefferson, too, at age eighty, was keenly conscious of his mortality, and felt his increasingly fragile health heavily. Both men notably retained their intellectual vigor to their very last days, with Adams reasonably expecting to precede Jefferson in death. "I am now the oldest of the little Congressional group that remain," Adams wrote Jefferson in 1821. "I may therefore rationally hope to be the first to depart; and as you are the youngest and most energetic in mind and body, you may therefore rationally hope to be the last to take your flight."

By Daniel L. Mallock

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