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The Mystic Chords of Memory

In one of those interesting coincidences of history, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both passed on the same day: July 4, 1826. It was exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which they both had worked to create.

In 1776, both men were bound by the task before them, the intricacies and dangers of declaring independence from Great Britain. Both had served on the committee that drafted the Declaration, though Jefferson did most of the writing and Adams, along with Benjamin Franklin, offered amendments. During much of their lifetimes after, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were fast friends.

The only cloud on their friendship was that they disagreed profoundly about politics. This did not seriously affect their friendship until both became involved in presidential politics. By an eccentricity of the Constitution as originally written, when Adams narrowly defeated Jefferson for the Presidency in 1796, Jefferson became his Vice President. Their political differences made a working relationship impossible. Jefferson believed that Adams and others of like mind, particularly Alexander Hamilton, were actively working to destroy the country; to turn it into a monarchy. Adams, for his part, believed Jefferson’s ideas to be dangerously radical. Jefferson was intent on steering the country in a more liberal direction, to the point if necessary of a new revolution.

In 1800 Jefferson again ran for President against Adams. It was a vicious campaign. In those days people did not campaign for the Presidency but allowed proxies to speak for them. Jefferson’s followers described Adams as having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” In return, Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” And worse.[i]

The election nearly broke the country, and when the Federalists reluctantly surrendered the outcome to Jefferson, Adams, on his last day in office, filled the Federal judiciary with Jefferson’s enemies, and then left town before Jefferson could be inaugurated. Their friendship seemed hopelessly damaged. In fact, they did not communicate again for over ten years.

Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, worked through those years for a reconciliation between the two men who he called “the North and South Poles of the Revolution.”[ii] In the end Jefferson learned through Rush that despite their differences Adams still professed affection for him. Subsequently a letter correspondence was begun that spanned the remaining years of their lives. Adams wrote to Jefferson in 1813, “You and I, ought not to die, before We have explained ourselves to each other.”[iii] Their relationship once again blossomed into an intimate friendship.

What had separated these two men was an absolute certainty of the correctness of their own political ideas and a disregard for those of the other. The disregard in the end deteriorated to the point where each could only perceive the worst in the other. For the sake of their political ideas they allowed themselves, in a sense, to discount each other’s humanity. History is littered with countless similar episodes. In 1775, on the eve of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin wrote to his former friend William Straham, “You and I were long Friends : You are now my Enemy, and I am, Yours, B Franklin.”[iv]

The story of Adams and Jefferson is fitting for this Fourth of July, because our country is more divided now than at any time since the Vietnam era, and perhaps even since the eve of the Civil War. It is rather obvious that what these men hated was not each other, but each other’s ideas. We too have seen our civil society tattered by the collision of incompatible ideas. It is a clash of ideas, as this episode demonstrates, as old as the country itself.

For the most part our differences have, rather than leaving us weaker, been the bedrock of our strength as a people. There was only one occasion when the conflict of ideas became so hardened as to be insurmountable, and that occasion resulted in the Civil War. It should serve as a lesson that if we become unmovable in our self-righteousness we put the entire American experiment at risk. In 1800, Adams’ and Jefferson’s rivalry put the country at risk, but in the end a reluctant compromise saved the country. It was the inability to compromise that led to the opposite result in 1861.

Jefferson noted this as he assumed the Presidency after the bitter election of 1800. In his inaugural address, he was conciliatory.

[E]very difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.[v]

He noted that though there was fierce disagreement it was over how best to serve the country. Americans need to remember that those who are our political opponents have the best interests of the country at heart, even if they seem woefully misguided. When we begin to deny the other the same love of country we have, then we reach the impasse we are in.

The United States, in some ways, has always been a diverse nation. As time has passed the nation has become ever more diverse, often through painful struggle. But the wisest among us recognize that diversity is our source of strength. We bring to the table every point of view, every culture, every religion, every ethnicity. Each brings a unique strength to what unites us: our devotion to enact the principles of the Revolution as expressed in our founding documents. And though there are those who fear more inclusion, we have become very skilled at celebrating diversity.

What we are not good at is celebrating our unity. As we rejoice in our differences we have lost sight of what binds us together. That is our humanity. If each of us can come to see that those we oppose politically are not our enemies but our friends, we can survive through these trying times, as we have in the past. In the end, what brought Adams and Jefferson back together was the recognition that they both loved the country, even if they could not agree on how best to express that love.

I leave you with the inaugural quote of another President in a time of deep division, on the eve of a cataclysm he could not prevent.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.[vi]

I wish the best celebration of independence for all who love the United States, no matter the beat of our different drums.

[i] Kerwin Swint, “Adams vs. Jefferson: The Birth of Negative Campaigning in the U.S.,” Mental Floss, September 9, 2012, 1, accessed July 2, 2017, http://mentalfloss.com/article/12487/adams-vs-jefferson-birth-negative-campaigning-us.

[ii] Benjamin Rush, “To John Adams from Benjamin Rush, 17 February 1812,” National Archives: Founders Online, September 17, 1812, accessed July 2, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5758..

[iii] John Adams, “John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 15 July 1813, with Postscript from Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson, [ca. 15 July 1813],” National Archives: Founders Online, July 15, 1813, accessed July 2, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-06-02-0247.

[iv] Benjamin Franklin, “From Benjamin Franklin to William Strahan, 5 July 1775,” National Archives: Founders Online, accessed July 2, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-22-02-0052.

[v] Thomas Jefferson, “Thomas Jefferson First Inaugural Address,” The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, accessed July 2, 2017, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/jefinau1.asp.

[vi] Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln,” The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, accessed July 2, 2017, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp.

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