April 20, 1790 – July 29, 1791
TJ to JA: “I have a dozen times taken up my pen to write to you and as often laid it down again, suspended between opposing considerations. I determine however to write from a conviction that truth, between candid minds, can never do harm.”
Who is what:
United States Vice President John Adams
United States Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson
Before you protest any of the following contextless quotations I throw at you, keep this in mind from Lester J. Cappon, editor of these letters: “The correspondence between Adams and Jefferson during the 1790’s provides something less than even a bare outline of their participation in the political events which profoundly affected the development of the United States. The paucity of correspondence may be accounted for during the early years of the decade by their close personal contact in public affairs which made letters unnecessary, during the later years by their political differences.” So there. Biographies and history books await you.
Fortunately, Cappon offers a summary of the 1790s correspondence and I, helpfully, offer a summary of that summary in one sentence: TJ’s public endorsement of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man is seen as an implicit attack on JA’s political philosophies, which angers JA’s son, John Quincy Adams, who writes a pseudonymous attack on Jefferson, which people think was written by JA, resulting in a maelstrom of political gossip and rumor pitting TJ and JA against each other, prompting TJ to write JA a letter of explanation, which prompts JA to write him back, and they make nice with each other, at least for the time being.
I hope not to end up reducing much of this correspondence to a series of maxims, but it will be a temptation, and not always a bad one. The opening line in TJ’s letter to JA is a good one (quoted at the top), both because of the “truth, between candid minds” line and also because I think we can all relate to picking up our pen and putting it down, or hanging up the phone more than once, or writing and deleting an email draft in our own battles for courage.
And here is some good advice, again from TJ in the same letter: “I never did in my life, either by myself or by any other, have a sentence of mine inserted in a newspaper without putting my name to it; and I believe I never shall.” Anonymous Webisphere commenters take note.*
Of course, “and I believe I never shall” could be interpreted as a cop-out. According to Cappon, “Jefferson the politician occasionally aided the hack writer James Thomson Callender in his published abuse of Federalist leaders [e.g. John Adams].” But now we’re getting into too much history (who the heck is James Thomson Callendar? you ask. So do I). I suppose the banal yet important point here is about human inconsistency. Heroes aren’t perfect, or always heroic.
And as far as political maelstroms, inconsistency, and antagonism go, things are going to get worse for TJ and JA.
*Hmm, this blog is “anonymous” on the surface. My excuses are 1) my audience for now is so limited that identity is irrelevant, 2) my audience probably includes only people who know me, 3) I am not commenting on anything of immediate contemporary concern, 4) I’m not posting hateful content.