Founding Brothers

Adams and Jefferson had conflicting visions of the American Revolution. Explain the essentials of this difference.

Chapter 6

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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.

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.