Last updated: April 10, 2015
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams shaped the history of this country and changed the world. These men's similarities and differences led them on intertwining paths to destiny.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were born in the first half of the 1700s to fathers who were farmers. Jefferson's father was a wealthy and landed gentleman farmer of Virginia while Adams' father was a New England farmer of little material wealth. Both went to college: Adams to Harvard and Jefferson to William and Mary. Both decided to study law and both were 24 years old when they passed the bar. Both men also married at the age of 28 years. Both had a deep love of books and reading, and both were avid writers. They were different, however, in that Jefferson carefully presented varied versions of himself to friends, colleagues, admirers and adversaries as he wanted to be seen. John Adams, on the other hand, wrote with self-criticism and introspection.
Both men were political, principled and controversial, and lovers of their country. Fittingly, they were destined to meet one another during the difficult times that led to the American Revolution and the 13 colonies declaring independence from their mother country, Great Britain. Taxation without representation in the British Parliament, combined with Americans' ideals of self-government and the unfair treatment by the British government of its American Colonies led to open warfare in 1775. The conflict started on April 19th in the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord when British regulars fought with local militia. English and Colonial relations would never be the same after that fateful day.
Both Jefferson and Adams were elected to the Second Continental Congress in 1775. The two men became friends in Philadelphia, where the Congress was meeting, and both supported the radical independence position.
On June 7th, after independence was proposed by Virginia's Richard Henry Lee, Jefferson and Adams served together on the five-member committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence, along with Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. The committee chose Jefferson to draft the declaration. The resulting document was subjected to edits by Adams and Franklin, and then the rest of the Congress. On July 2nd 1776, the Congress voted unanimously for independence from Great Britain and on the 4th they formally adopted the revised declaration.
Jefferson and Adams continued to serve the country they helped create for many years. Adams served in Congress and twice was sent to France. During his second visit he helped draft the treaty to end the Revolutionary War. Adams was later the first United States minister to the Court of St. James's in England. Jefferson served as governor of Virginia and then as U.S. minister to France. In France, Adams and Jefferson renewed the friendship that they had formed in Philadelphia.
After George Washington and John Adams were elected, respectively, first president and vice president of the United States, Jefferson served as the first secretary of state. After Washington's two terms and retirement from the presidency, both men sought the top office. Adams was elected president in 1796 and Jefferson as vice president. In the 1800 election, Adams lost to Jefferson, who served as president for two terms.
Because of politics, the two men had a falling out that left hurt feelings and bitter resentment for many years. It was not until 1812, after both had retired to their farms, that they renewed their friendship through correspondence, the renewal lasting until the end of their lives.
Oddly, their friendship and love of country were so intertwined that they passed away on the same day, on July 4th 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The Adams family reported that John Adams' dying words were, "Thomas Jefferson survives." Jefferson actually had died earlier that day; Jefferson was 83, Adams, 90.
The lives of Jefferson and Adams converged 236 years ago as these two men from seemingly different worlds helped forge a new nation and set it on course to last long into the future. They continue to inspire people from all over the world to think about freedom and self-government, and to follow the American example.
Edited by Michael T. Kelly and Nathan King