Founding Brothers

Founding Brothers Summary and Analysis of Chapter Six: The Friendship


Adams returned to Quincy, Massachusetts as a defeated man. At the age of sixty-six, the former president decided to trade politics for farming, hoping to quiet his inner turmoil. Ellis suggests Adams never succeeded at doing so.

By July of 1801, Adams was working the fields alongside his hired hands, “swinging his sickle and murmuring obscenities at his political opponents” (206). He considered his foremost enemy to be Hamilton, who would have gladly plunged the U.S. into war had Adams not facilitated a treaty with France. However, he was perhaps most plagued by thoughts of Jefferson, who had not only antagonized Adams but had also betrayed their personal friendship.

For many years, the men did not correspond at all. In 1804, Abigail wrote to Jefferson with condolences for the loss of his daughter, Maria Jefferson Eppes, who died in childbirth. Her motive was personal - she knew Maria, and considered it her duty to write. Jefferson mistakenly assumed the Adamses wanted to reconnect, and he wrote back to Abigail in anticipation of that. In his letter, he insisted that although he and Adams had competed twice for the presidency, that their personal respect had persisted. The one exception that Jefferson noted was Adams's last minute appointment of John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Jefferson and Marshall notoriously hated one another, and when Adams appointed Marshall as one of his final acts as president, Jefferson considered it a personal slight. He was, however, more than happy to forgive this grievance for the sake of a reconciliation with Adams.

Abigail was outraged by Jefferson's tone. She defended her husband’s right to appoint Marshall to the Supreme Court, and condemned Jefferson’s own treachery and slander during the election of 1800. She even mentioned Jefferson’s liaison with Sally Hemings. Jefferson had never received such a letter in his life, and he responded by denying any and all wrongdoing, insisting he had never slandered Adams through James Callender or anyone else. Abigail neither trusted nor believed his protestations. Months later, Adams read this brief correspondance between his wife and Jefferson for the first time, but did not add to it. Silence between Monticello and Quincy endured for another eight years.

During this period, Adams and Benjamin Rush, a longtime friend and fellow Founding Father, enjoyed a lively volley of correspondence. Their letters were existential and dream-like; Ellis describes them as “Adams and Rush in Wonderland” (214). Adams, ever mindful of posterity and certainly writing with the belief that his words would later be studied, recognized the difference between history as it is experienced, and history as it is remembered. In the correspondence, Adams considered how certain events of the Revolutionary period had become legendary, while others had been forgotten. For instance, Jefferson's role in the Declaration of Independence was well-known, while the sense of anxiety in the period had already been glossed over. Adams felt compelled to tell the entire truth about the period in his letters to Rush. However, he was also full of resentment because his central role seemed doomed to be forgotten, while Jefferson's was progressively more underlined. His letters to Rush are a mixture of considered fact and ego-driven resentments. Ellis proposes that Adams’s letters to Rush were therapeutic for the former president, whom Ellis believes was chronically unhappy.

Adams certainly saw evidence of his concerns in the world. While Jefferson was busy managing the affairs of the government - finalizing the Louisiana Purchase in his first term, and facing a slew of foreign mistakes in his second - Adams noticed how Jefferson was nevertheless considered a figure of legend. Adams believed that Mercy Otis Warren's 1805 book History of the American Revolution downplayed his role, and so he published his own memoirs in the Boston Patriot. His emotional upheaval was only exacerbated when the memoirs received scant attention. To some extent, this was a result of their form - though the memoirs were honest, they were also disjointed, creating a patchwork of his remembrances instead of a steady narrative.

Ellis believes that Jefferson had the unique ability to make himself believe anything, even when it was wrong. For instance, he supported the French Revolution until Napoleon revealed himself to be a dictator. Jefferson thought England would fall to France, but when facts proved otherwise, he was undaunted. Instead, he simply changed courses, and his political reputation did not suffer because of it. As a result, Jefferson became the illustrative hero of the Revolution, to himself and to the public.

By 1807, Adams was regularly writing to Rush about Jefferson, whom he had not directly discussed before. He grew more and more explicit about his resentments. When Rush in 1809 told Adams about a dream he had in which Adams and Jefferson reconciled their friendship and “sunk into the grave at nearly the same time,” Adams insisted that Jefferson would have to take the first step towards reconciliation if it were to happen (20). Rush was also corresponding with Jefferson, and knew that the chances of such a reunion were slim.

However, in 1811, one of Jefferson's associates, Edward Coles, visited Adams in Quincy. During that time, Adams confessed to Coles, “I always loved Jefferson, and still love him” (221). Adams knew that Rush had been subtly attempting to broker a friendship, and likely said this hoping it would reach Jefferson. It did, and Jefferson replied that he still had respect for Adams. On January 1, 1812, Adams sent a short letter to Jefferson, who had been out of office for 4 years. The note began a fourteen year correspondence of ideas, remembrances, apologies, and insights. Their exchange includes 158 letters.

Ellis considers why Adams would recommence the correspondance at this point. His first proposed answer is that Adams wished to directly “challenge the Jeffersonian version” of the American Revolution, to basically win the argument (223). The second answer is that he wished to be recorded appropriately for history. Ellis indicates that both men knew they were writing for posterity, and shaped their language for that purpose. He notes how Adams frames himself in the letters as an equal partner to Jefferson in the Revolution. However, Ellis also notes how Adams could not stay dispassionate for long, and how his emotional tone often overtakes his otherwise deliberately constructed letters. Ellis laments the following about Adams: “If he could only control himself, if he could speak the lines that history wanted to hear, if he cold fit himself into the heroic mold like a kind of living statue, he might yet win his ticket to immortality” (224).

Their communication remained awkward for a time, but Adams was eventually writing twice as many letters to Jefferson as vice versa, all in hopes that he could find middle ground. Though it can be read on several letters, the correspondance is at its core a historical reflection composed by “two American icons” well past their prime and beyond controversy (224). In the letters, they both enact a certain pose, one they believed posterity would expect from them. Ellis notes that it is almost too perfect, especially considering that the men would die on the same Independence Day. Rush’s prediction, that they would “follow one another to the grave,” actually came true.

Many of the issues they discussed were conversational. Safe subjects - such as the aging process - merely offered both men opportunity to showcase their verbal wit and linguistic skill. Most modern readers know something about Jefferson’s eloquent writing style, but many are unaware that Adams was equally adept. Their styles perfectly reflect their personalities - Jefferson wrote with fluid candescence, whereas Adams wrote with raw emotion and excitement.

The friendship was officially reconciled by 1823. Jefferson forgave Adams for an earlier insult involving scathingly critical letters which had been published about Jefferson’s politics. Adams was overjoyed to be forgiven, but he later demanded Jefferson apologize to him over a similar situation. Jefferson’s private letters, written in 1801 to his associates, were published around 1824. In them, he accuses Adams of being opposed to progress, and refers to him as an “ancient.” When he read these published letters, Adams sent thirty letters to Jefferson, defending his policies before and during his Presidency. Jefferson responded with five letters, stressing that the offending epistle was never meant to be shared publicly, and that his mind had been dominated by the “party wars” during that period. He admitted that he was somewhat responsible for the Alien and Sedition Acts, as he had been the Vice President during their ratification. Adams mulishly accepted Jefferson’s semi-apology, and their friendship was once again reestablished.

The tone of their exchange shifted in 1813, when the former presidents began to speak of their own reflections on the Revolution. Ellis calls this shift the “defining moment in the correspondence,” since Adams and Jefferson here present their competing versions of the revolutionary legacy for the sake of future generations (230). They were only able to address this central topic because their mutual respect had been reestablished.

The Jeffersonian version of the American Revolution depicts Adams and Jefferson fighting alongside one another against England, all to help form the new government. However, a line of division was drawn between them when they each headed to a different political party. For Jefferson, a clash of dichotomies has always existed: Tories vs. Whigs; America vs. Europe; Republican vs. Federalist; the forces of light vs. the forces of darkness, etc. Jefferson easily cast the Federalists in the role of the villains whose corrupt theology catered to the “few,” while Jefferson’s own Republicans favored the “many.”

Adams, however, did not truly fit into Jefferson’s version of history. He was never technically a Federalist, nor did his political ideals differ so greatly from Jefferson’s. Jefferson urged Adams to tell his own version of history, so that posterity could judge which was correct.

Adams’s story was unfortunately jumbled in the retelling. His accounts of history were realistic and grounded, but lacked the romantic quality of Jefferson‘s. Yet the conversational give and take of their correspondence offered Adams the chance to oppose this romanticized view even if he could not compose it into a single narrative. Jefferson’s idealistic version ultimately triumphed for posterity, but from 1813 onward, Adams dominated the framework of their celebrated correspondence.

The major themes throughout the 1813-1814 phase of the correspondence are social inequality and the role of elites in American governance. Indirectly, the men are talking about themselves, and others of the Revolutionary generation. Jefferson posed the question, “Whether the power of the people, of that of the aristori should prevail” (233). Adams insisted that the elites were an inevitable and intricate part of every society, and certainly occurred naturally in America. Jefferson reflected that the “Band of the Brothers of ‘76” had been selected by skill, and in the republican tradition, rather than by breeding or wealth. He also stated that the aristocracy had been left behind in Europe. Adams argued that it is wealth - or the lack of it - which creates inequality, especially in America, and therefore called Jefferson’s hope for human equality an impossible dream. In short, for Adams, the source of the problem was not European feudalism, but human nature.

Ironically, the slave population of the South was a classic example of feudalism, one in which Jefferson took part even as he attacked the idea of feudalism. Adams recognized the irony of the situation, and expressed it in a letter to John Taylor, a Virginian planter, when he called attention to the fact that he, Adams, the son of a New England farmer and shoemaker, was being accused of aristocratic allegiances by the owner of a vast plantation which he inherited from his wife’s family. Jefferson accused Adams of violating the revolutionary legacy by questioning the existence of a "republican aristocracy," a group superior by their merits rather than wealth. Ellis notes that it was the Republican ability to recognize and speak in this manner that secured the success of their party, while the Federalists faded away.

Another argumentative theme of the correspondence was the French Revolution. Jefferson broached the subject by admitting that Adams’s “prophesies” about France proved truer that his own. Adams joyfully mentioned the subject as validation for much of his foreign policy, which Jefferson had attacked in the election of 1800. Jefferson apologized for undermining Adams’s presidency through the Republican pro-French propaganda that ultimately tarnished Adams’s reputation and led Jefferson to the executive office. Jefferson had apologized at last for his most deliberate and personal slight against Adams, and Adams graciously received it.

Both men anticipated the growing sectional crisis between the North and the South. Slavery was not a subject they discussed at length, and they in fact agreed it was a topic best reserved for the next generation to handle. The issue of the Missouri Compromise, which was being debated in the House of Representatives at the time of their correspondence, did spark a discussion between them. Jefferson believed that each state should determine whether to admit slavery. Adams, on the other hand, believed the federal government should eradicate it as a reflection of the spirit of the Revolution. Their philosophies would later be influential as the Civil War approached. Mostly, the men paid heed to the "silence" of slavery in their correspondence.

Eventually, their correspondence resumed a conversational tone, except for a 1819 incident in which Jefferson was accused of plagiarizing the Declaration of Independence by a newspaper article. It cited a certain document from Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, which had many similarities to the Declaration. Jefferson denied the accusations to Adams, who did privately confess some curiosity about the similarities. Of course, the possibility of plagiarism only confirmed Adams's belief that any history was created by many people, places, and events, and not by singular, mythic events like Jefferson's document. Eventually, the Mecklenburg document was proven to be a forgery.

By 1820, the men were writing primarily about death and the afterlife. Adams had been deeply affected by Abigail's death in 1818. Jefferson reflected that “each generation should not linger beyond its allotted time,” believing older generations had an obligation to make way for the new. Looking back on his life, Jefferson noted that “All, all dead: and ourselves left alone amidst a new generation whom we know not, and who know not us” (243). They both looked forward to the hereafter, not to see God, but to reunite with one another and with the other Founding Fathers. Adams concurred that their reunion in heaven would bring opportunity to laugh at themselves, but insisted he would not speak to Franklin until the other man did penance for his sins. Neither Adams nor Jefferson actually put much stock in the existence of an afterlife, but both believed in preserving their legacy for posterity. Ellis notes that they never truly resolved their differences; “they simply outlived them” (244).

Like living statues, Adams and Jefferson were relics of a bygone age by the 1820s, and were treated as such. In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette visited Monticello and Quincy, drawing large crowds to the homes of his hosts. John Henri Browere, an American sculptor, made life masks of both men.

As the fiftieth anniversary of Independence Day approached, Adams and Jefferson were called upon to share their memories of the American Revolution. Jefferson, although ill with the intestinal disease that would later claim his life, wrote an eloquent epitaph which described the American Revolution as a departure from both England and the past. He encouraged future Americans to “assume the blessings and security of self government,” and to celebrate their independence each year on the 4th of July (246). This romanticized view is the one that would persist throughout history.

Adams's message was less generous; to the reporter, he said simply, “I will give you INDEPENDENCE FOREVER,” and refused to elaborate (247). To his family, he explained he meant to say that posterity would have to judge the truth of the period. He also meant to suggest that America's legacy would be determined by its relationship to slavery.

On July 3, 1826, Jefferson fell into a coma. His last coherent words were “Is it the Fourth?” He died the following day, at almost the exact time that Adams, who far away in Massachusetts collapsed in his reading chair. His last words were either “Thomas Jefferson survives” or “Thomas Jefferson still lives.” Ellis concludes that, “Whatever the version, he was wrong for the moment but right for the ages” (248). Jefferson died shortly before him, though Jefferson does remain one of the defining myths of American history.


Ellis continues to express a fond affection for Adams, both as man and image. At the beginning of this chapter, he provides the striking image of Adams working in the fields while yelling obscenities about his political rivals. Despite his marked success, the man had returned to his remote home, facing the possibility of irrelevance.

The motif of letters dominates Chapter Six. Even before the friendship was resumed, letters provided a way for these men to define themselves and work out their problems. Adams found therapy in his correspondence with Rush, while Jefferson was a prolific letter writer who maintained correspondence with dozens of people. It is a picture of the age, one in which people considered their words as more permanent than we do today. When these figures of the Revolution wrote a letter, they were aware of its form. Someone might read this one day, and attempt to discern their personalities from what they wrote. Therefore, they had to be very deliberate in crafting an image that could survive the ambiguities which time would certainly bring.

Ellis also more explicitly considers the nature of history in this chapter, largely because Adams himself was obsessed with the question. Ellis mentions Tolstoy's theories in War and Peace, in which Tolstoy discusses how society tends to think of history as a collection of great events led by great men, rather than as an incessant flow of men, moments, decisions, and mistakes, all of which add up to what happens. Adams was obsessed with the latter philosophy. He could not divorce himself from the anxieties and grounded realities of the period in which he lived, but he also discovered the near impossibility of clearly relating that reality. What made Jefferson so much more successful is that he knew what people wanted - they wanted the former type of history, one that is more emotionally satisfying and easier to digest. As a result, his version of history endured, while Adams's remains confusing and unsatisfying for many.

In many ways, this conforms to Ellis's own philosophy in the book - the distinction between foresight and hindsight. Every historical figure in this work had to balance these two competing approaches, deciding how to shape himself for posterity, and how to make sense of what came before.

That Jefferson and Adams would have such different philosophies conforms to their personalities. Jefferson’s writing was elegant prose that created a narration of events and ideas to supplement his political position. Adams’s form lacked narrative cohesion; it was a patchwork of remembrances and witticisms that in itself revealed an intelligence often ignored in historical retrospect. In other words, Jefferson sought clarity and symbols, while Adams reveled in the messiness of actual reality. Ellis notes that scholars believe Adams's letters more sophisticated and interesting, even though Jefferson's provide the baseline for the version of the Revolution that most of the public uses.

Interestingly, Adams stayed more relevant to posterity through these letters because of his responses to current events. His feelings on slavery would influence Abraham Lincoln, for example. Much of Adams's surviving legacy is due to the complexity and intelligence he expressed here.

By ending his book on this episode, Ellis returns to the question of the “band of brothers.” Despite their political differences, Adams and Jefferson eventually found a way to resume their friendship. Age and time reminded them that they had shared an experience that was greater than their personalities. Ironically, of course, the preceding book has been about how the personalities were a huge part of why history proceeded as it did. They both ended up accepting themselves as men - which is what Adams always wanted - albeit men who had shared and facilitated a major part of world history.