Just another American story


President John Adams felt bitter about the election of 1800.

At 4 a.m. on the day his successor as president and one-time good friend Thomas Jefferson was to take the oath of office, Adams packed up his carriage and left town. He didn’t stay to see Jefferson sworn in.

The contest between Adams and Jefferson was ugly and mean-spirited.

Although, in the spirit of the day, the two presidential candidates stayed above the fray, their supporters neither recognized nor honored many restraints.

Adams’ partisans depicted Jefferson as an atheist, a libertine and a coward. They accused him not only of having a sexual relationship with one of his slaves — a charge historical research has validated — but of assaulting a friend’s wife and abandoning his post as Virginia’s governor during the Revolutionary War to flee in terror as the British army approached.

Jefferson’s followers were no kinder. They depicted Adams — who helped launch the colonies on the path to independence — as a closet monarchist who kowtowed to Great Britain and aspired to create an American throne. They called Adams “His Royal Roundness,” in reference to the second president’s corpulence as he moved into old age.

Then, as now, America’s anguished relationship with race heightened the bitterness.

Jefferson captured the presidency on the strength of his support in the southern states. His vote totals there were swelled by the now infamous three-fifths provision in the Constitution, which allowed slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a person even though they were denied the right to vote. This increased the South’s representation in the U.S. House of Representatives and gave the region more votes in the Electoral College.

Without the three-fifths provision, Jefferson would have lost the election of 1800, and Adams would have won a second term.

That is why members of Adams’ political party, the Federalists, called Jefferson “the Negro president.”

They never tired of pointing out the irony — even the hypocrisy — of having a man who had been anointed “the apostle of liberty” ride into the White House on the backs of enslaved human beings.

This was a fractious moment in American history. The high feelings and high stakes divided families and friends.

Among those who saw their relationships sundered were Adams and Jefferson.

In earlier days, they had been close, almost like brothers.

They served together on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence — Adams, in fact, had championed Jefferson as the person best-suited to take the lead in the writing. They worked together as diplomats in Europe, trying to secure financing to keep an infant nation alive and to prod reluctant great powers to acknowledge and respect the nascent United States of America.

John Adams’s wife, Abigail, served as a surrogate mother to Jefferson’s younger daughter after the Virginian’s wife died. Jefferson at times thought of Adams’ son John Quincy Adams as his son, too.

The politics of a turbulent time drove them apart and encouraged each man to do unkind things to the other — acts that bordered on being dishonorable.

Two days before he was to leave office, Adams made a series of appointments and judicial nominations. The Senate hastily confirmed the appointments, but the commissions weren’t delivered before the end of his term.

Once in office, Jefferson refused to deliver the commissions. One Adams appointee, a fierce Federalist named William Marbury, sued, touching off a constitutional crisis that resulted in the landmark Marbury v. Madison decision that established the Supreme Court as the ultimate arbiter of the U.S. Constitution.

Time moved on.

Jefferson’s party gained dominance over American politics. Even Adams’ son John Quincy Adams became a member of Jefferson’s party.

Some passions cooled.

Americans reconciled, Jefferson and Adams among them. After not speaking for years, late in life they began a remarkable correspondence they styled as two old friends and patriots trying to understand each other.

They reconnected over something universal — the grief at losing loved ones — and thus restored their affection for one another.

They died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826 — the 50th anniversary of a date hallowed in American memory. They died thinking not of the forces that drove them apart but of the loves — for family, for country, for liberty — that united them.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson in all this for us today.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].

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