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'Friends Divided' Digs Into The Bumpy Bonds Between 2 Presidents

It remains one of the oddest coincidences of American history. On July 4, 1826, the 50th birthday of the Declaration of Independence, former President Thomas Jefferson died in his Virginia home. Five hours later, John Adams, his predecessor as president, passed away in Massachusetts; word of his longtime friend's death hadn't yet reached him.

The timing was unlikely, but so was the friendship between the second and third American presidents, which, at the time of their deaths, had survived an 11-year-long estrangement. The two men could hardly have been more different, both in temperament and politics, but they always had respect — grudging, at times — for each other. The sometimes fraught relationship between the two presidents is the basis for Gordon S. Wood's excellent new dual biography, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Wood's book sets out to answer a question about the reputations of the two presidents: "Over the past two centuries or so, Jefferson's star has remained ascendant while Adams's seems to have virtually disappeared from the firmament," he writes. He's not wrong — Jefferson has always been more admired than the more obscure Adams — but he slightly overstates his case with regard to the second president, who was fairly recently the focus of a popular miniseries based on David McCullough's biography.

Still, it's a fair question, and Wood takes a deep look into the lives of the two men in search of an answer. He covers their respective upbringings and educations; Jefferson grew up privileged, Adams did not. Both became lawyers, and were drawn to politics just as dissatisfaction in America over British rule became widespread.

For the most part, the similarities end there. "[Jefferson] always dreamed of a new and better world to come; by contrast, Adams always had qualms and uncertainties about the future," Wood writes. He isn't afraid to critique the men; Friends Divided is far from a hagiography. Wood calls attention to Jefferson's misogyny and racism — hardly unusual for a man of his time, but still notable for a man who is routinely lionized in American society.

Wood is particularly caustic when writing about Jefferson's sexual relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings: "Sally seems to have represented for him a medically necessary outlet for his sexual needs, and little more." Adams comes under fire for his prickly personality and outsize arrogance: "During his long service abroad, Adams increasingly felt that his fellow Americans were showing less and less appreciation of virtue, particularly his virtue."

Jefferson served as Adams' vice president, a dynamic that informed their relationship for the rest of their lives. "Adams regarded the Virginian as his protégé, and Jefferson tended to assume that role," Wood writes, although their growing political differences — Adams was a Federalist who esteemed the English constitution; Jefferson was a Democratic-Republican who loathed all things British — would eventually lead to the 11-year-long estrangement during which the two didn't correspond at all.

One of the most fascinating parts of Friends Divided is Wood's account of the two presidents' reconciliation, which was engineered by founding father Benjamin Rush, and made possible by Jefferson's patience, a quality which Adams famously lacked. He quotes generously from the late correspondence between the two; the passages provide insight into the personalities of these very different men.

Wood concludes that Jefferson remains more well-loved by Americans today for a simple reason: Jefferson was a good politician, and Adams was a terrible one. "Jefferson told the American people what they wanted to hear — how exceptional they were. Adams told them what they needed to know — truths about themselves that were difficult to bear," he writes. "Over the centuries Americans have tended to avoid Adams' message; they have much preferred to hear Jefferson's praise of their uniqueness."

Wood concludes that Jefferson remains more well-loved by Americans today for a simple reason: Jefferson was a good politician, and Adams was a terrible one.

Wood's account of the final years of the two presidents is also enlightening. He argues that Adams was at peace before his death, his "cynicism and low expectations of human nature" having shielded him from disillusionment. By contrast, Jefferson, who died in debt, had grown pessimistic about the state of the country, which had become "more democratic and more money-minded" than he'd hoped: "Ultimately, he had been victimized by his own rosy temperament, by his absolute confidence in the people, and by his naïve hopefulness in the future."

Friends Divided is an engaging book that's sure to appeal to anyone with an abiding interest in Revolution-era America and the leaders who shaped the country. Beautifully written and with real insight into Jefferson and Adams, it's a worthy addition to the canon, and yet another compelling book from Wood.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub
Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.