“… a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who is a hideous hermaphroditic character” and “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Hard to have a worse start.
So began the late-life correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the founding fathers described in the recent HBO mini-series “John Adams” as “the north and south poles of our revolution.”
Once friends, differences in opinion and political competition had taken a toll.*
Jefferson on Adams: “a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who is a hideous hermaphroditic character with neither the force and fitness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” (Election of 1800)
They, like others in the founders’ generation, had deep philosophical disagreements. But as they went about the business of building a country, an endeavor that if unsuccessful would surely lead to their hanging, they hardly had the luxury to stop talking to each other.
Despite the differences between them and the odds against them, the founders managed to cobble together their opus – and ours – the Constitution, which despite all probability still guides this diverse group of people forward together.
But, alas, “politics ain’t beanbag” and two election cycles later, Jefferson and Adams had no tolerance for one another.
Fast-forward a couple of centuries and most of us are likely to relate to the fix Adams and Jefferson found themselves in. We, like they, have deep disagreement with – and sometimes little tolerance for – one another.
Adams on Jefferson: “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
The two founders ultimately died friends, having given history the gift of their final correspondence. They died on the same day, July 4th, 50 years to the day after the nation they built was born.
“Whether you or I were right,” Adams had written to Jefferson, “posterity must judge. Yet I ask of you, who shall write the history of our revolution?”
The philosophical descendants of Jefferson and Adams are alive and well today in us, in this amazing American experiment “in the course of human events.”
And we are still writing the history of their revolution.
Like the founders, we hardly have the luxury to stop talking to each other.