May 20, 1804 – October 25, 1804
Jefferson’s daughter, Maria Jefferson Eppes, died on April 17, 1804, two months after giving birth to a daughter. This news prompted Abigail Adams to write to him, sixteen years after their last correspondence. The result is seven letters between the two during 1804.
AA to TJ: “It has been some time since that I conceived of any event in this Life, which could call forth, feelings of mutual sympathy. But I know how closely entwined around a parents heart, are those chords which bind the filial to the parental Bosom, and when snaped assunder, how agonizing the pangs of seperation. I have tasted the bitter cup, and bow with reverence, and humility before the great dispenser of it, without whose permission, and over ruling providence, not a sparrow falls to the ground. That you may derive comfort and consolation in this day of your sorrow and affliction, from that only source calculated to heal the wounded heart—a firm belief in the Being: perfections and attributes of God, is the sincere and ardent wish of her, who once took pleasure in suscribing Herself your Friend[,] Abigail Adams.”
I could, and almost want to, end it right there, because what follows feels unseemly. TJ writes back with predictable graciousness, but AA’s past-tense characterization of their friendship begs a response. So he adds a bit about past tensions between him and JA—water under the bridge stuff. Howevah: “I can say with truth that one act of Mr. Adams’s life, and one only, ever gave me a moment’s personal displeasure. I did consider his last appointments to office as personally unkind.” Oh no you didn’t, Mr. J.
What was the pre-can era version of opening a can of worms? Whatever it was he did it, because AA’s about to defend her man. And her son. And the Federalist party. And the Constitution. And the future of the USofA. There are a lot of grievances to air after sixteen years, and I’m not going to list them, but how about this for a taste of what TJ is served:
AA to TJ: “I have never felt any enmity towards you Sir for being elected president of the United States. But the instruments made use of, and the means which were practised to effect a change, have my utter abhorence and detestation, for they were the blackest calumny, and foulest falsehoods.”
“…may I be permitted to pause, and ask you whether in your ardent zeal, and desire to rectify the mistakes and abuses as you may consider them, of the former administrations, you are not led into measures still more fatal to the constitution, and more derogatory to your honour, and independence of Character? Pardon me Sir if I say, that I fear you are.”
TJ doesn’t just take it, either.
TJ to AA: “My sole object in this letter being to place before your attention that the acts imputed to me are either such as are falsely imputed, or as might flow from good as well as bad motives, I shall make no other addition than the assurances of my continued wishes for the health and happiness of yourself and Mr. Adams.”
It’s classic. Two juggernaut personalities trying to reconcile, but not willing to give an inch. It’s marriage counseling 101. Someone’s got to give first, who’s it gonna be? I suppose TJ wins this one, since he finally stops responding and lets AA have the last word.
I’m having a bit of fun with this, which isn’t fair, because they aren’t joking around and the correspondence actually brings up some great topics about constitutional interpretation. For example, what’s the deal with presidential pardons? Here is one of AA’s grievances against TJ:
AA to TJ: “One of the first acts of your administration was to liberate a wretch who was suffering the just punishment of the Law due to his crimes for writing and publishing the basest libel, the lowest and vilest Slander, which malice could invent or callumny exhibit against the Character and reputation of your predecessor…”
A “wretch” gets locked up for writing crap about President Adams (under the Sedition Act of 1798). When TJ becomes president, he pardons said wretch.
TJ to AA: “I discharged ever person under punishment or prosecution under the Sedition law, because I considered and now consider that law to be a nullity as absolute and as palpable as if Congress had ordered us to fall down and worship a golden image…”
AA to TJ: “With regard to the act under which he [the wretch] was punished, different persons entertain different opinions respecting it. It lies not to me to decide upon its validity. That I presume devolved upon the supreem Judges of the Nation: but I have understood that the power which makes a Law, is alone competent to the repeal. If a Chief Magistrate can by his will annul a law, where is the difference between a republican, and a despotic Government?”
Good point. I have never understood why presidents are allowed to pardon criminals.
TJ to AA: “You seem to think it devolved on the judges to decide on the validity of the sedition law. But nothing in the constitution has given them a right to decide for the executive, more than to the Executive to decide for them. Both magistracies are equally independant in the sphere of action asigned to them. The judges, believing the law constitutional, had a right to pass a sentence of fine and imprisonment, because that power was placed in their hands by the constitution. But the Executive, believing the law to be unconstitutional, was bound to remit the execution of it; because that power has been confided to him by the constitution.”
Now, that is taking separation of powers seriously. It goes beyond my elementary school understanding of the three branches of government. The president can do whatever the hell he wants? I don’t know. But let TJ finish:
“That instrument meant that it’s co-ordinate branches should be checks on each other. But the opinion which gives to the judges the right to decide what laws are constitutional, and what not, not only for themselves in their own sphere of action, but for the legislature and executive also in their spheres, would make the judiciary a despotic branch.”
Ah, “checks and balances,” I know that one! But I’m not sure I follow that logic all the way through. How is the legislative “sphere” any different from the “judicial” sphere when it comes to the law of the land? Still, TJ does raise the uncomfortable issue of an all-powerful Supreme Court. Is the president our last defense if Congress and the Supreme Court take crazy pills and go nuts with the laws? Article 2, Section 2 of the Constitution says the President “shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” If things got really bad, how broadly could the president interpret that? What is an “offense” against the United States? I guess this is the eternal, genius tension of the three branches of government and the dynamism of the US Constitution. So they say.
Remember I mentioned that AA had the last word? Actually, that’s not true, because at the end of her last letter, there’s this postscript from Mr. Adams:
“Quincy Nov. 19. 1804. The whole of this Correspondence was begun and conducted without my Knowledge or Suspicion. Last Evening and this Morning at the desire of Mrs. Adams I read the whole. I have no remarks to make upon it at this time and in this place.”
Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall for that breakfast conversation?
“You did what?!”
I’ve said it before, how can you not love this guy?