Reconciliation: Correspondence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson
EDITED BY PAUL WILSTACH
SOME people believe that all the books have been written, but I know of a book that should be — as the pen comes to the word it falters and halts, for that book too has been written. The material is all there, waiting not even for an editor; it is so completely there that anyone with eyes and a sense of order could strike it into form.
It would bare two souls, the souls of two of the greatest of all Americans, two men who had early been friends, who were tossed apart on the fork of politics, each believing the other to have been at the end of the handle, each blaming the other in a silence of years, until brought together at the end of their long lives — not together in the corporeal sense, not that they ever saw each other again, but in the better and fuller sense of understanding. The reconciliation came to one in his seventyseventh year, to the other in his sixtyninth year. The highest honors that life could have offered them had been theirs. Ambition had no further bait for them. They waited in the twilight, gossiped, speculated, and criticized, and gave their ideas such free rein as only completely liberated men dare.
What they uttered was uttered in the most religious privacy, one confidant to another, whispered low so that no one else should hear — not even whispered, but written in the form of an epistolary duet, by turn impish, eloquent, humorous, and profound. A strange enough duet, the composerperformers out of sight and unseen of each other for a decade, never to see each other again; the elder and more alert secluded on the shore of his Northern ocean, a romping octogenarian; the younger galloping his horse through his threescore and second ten over his Southern mountain. Already it is evident that these transparent references are to John Adams of Quincy and Thomas Jefferson of Monticello.
These men had lived most of their lives under the terror which political careers impose on free utterance. Both of them had thought much on the problems of life — of both lives, this one and the hereafter. They both outstripped a dogmatized philosophy and ranged high and free and unt rammeled — that is, untrammeled except by the spectre of conventionality with which expediency yet harnessed their tongues for a while, but never their minds. Even in their later leisure, when these gorgeous letters were written, they were not wholly free of another ogre, this one a public opinion whose prejudices would give them their position in history.
The correspondence was so regular, and extended over a term of so many years, that it attracted the attention of the postriders and postmasters along the long route between Massachusetts and Virginia. It began to be talked about. The very mystery of it begot a fame for that of which nothing was known except that it was. There were Barnums among publishers even then. Adams and Jefferson, titanic figures, the last of the Revolutionists, were too good as headliners to be overlooked, no matter what their performance might be. So, ignorant of a single letter or line or word, an offer was made to publish the great epistolary mystery of the period. It is difficult even to write of it except in terms of the theatrical poster. The letters were, however, too full of the nakedness of two wise old souls. They were both men with a solid sense of decency, and they hung indignant rejection of the proposal on that peg, whatever they may have feared would be the effect on their reputations if their delightful heresies got out.
Curiously, not much attention has since been given to this correspondence. The letters have been available for over three quarters of a century. They are public property, property of the same public that burned with unsatisfied curiosity while the packages of sealed brimstone traveled up and down the coast. Nobody who has curiosity about the inside of two wise old heads should fail to find a lark in these letters.
Jefferson and Adams had an early correspondence between 1777 and 1796. The latter year Jefferson was Adams’s nearest political opponent for the Presidency. Adams won; Jefferson took the Vice-Presidency. In 1800 they were pitted against each other again. This time Jefferson won, but their friendship lapsed. Twelve years later a reconciliation was effected and the correspondence was resumed about the first of the year 1812.
It was, however, of a wholly different character from the early letters, excellent as those were along more conventional lines. Now the long intimate unbridled confidences suggest two starved aloof intellects, suddenly finding each other at the deep well of refreshing understanding. They had kindred curiosity, kindred doubts, similar intellectual hobbies, and they wrote with such spontaneity that one might have supposed the letters those of young men, if it had not been for the experiences of life they disclosed, and if they had not made one of their favorite topics the question of what they would do with their lives if they had them to live over again.
From the time they resumed writing, letters passed between them every one of their remaining fifteen years. What the entire number was cannot be stated with certainty. They each acknowledged receiving letters of certain dates, which do not appear to have been preserved, so one or both of them may have performed operations on their files, which they preferred not to trust to the discretion of an unknown editor. Of those letters that do survive there are one hundred and two from Adams and forty-eight from Jefferson. In 1813 Adams wrote twenty-nine, Jefferson, seven. This does not necessarily imply that Jefferson destroyed more of his letters, for in the midst of that orgy Adams began one of his own: ‘Never mind if I write four letters to your one, your one is worth more than my four.’
Each of them expended prodigious effort or was impelled by prodigious exuberance. The letters were usually more than one thousand words in length. If Jefferson wrote fewer, he at any rate generally wrote the longer letters. But Adams topped him handsomely several times — once with a single letter of four thousand words.
The long middle silence was broken in 1812 on New Year’s Day, as if the result of a good resolution, when Adams wrote Jefferson that he was sending him two pieces of homespun. The very day the letter arrived Jefferson wrote, thanking Adams for the homespun before it reached him, referred to his habits in retirement, and concluded politely: ‘No circumstances have lessened the interest I feel in these particulars respecting yourself; none have suspended for one moment my sincere esteem for you; and I now salute you with unchanged affection and respect,’ and the old boys were figuratively, if not literally, back in each other’s arms.
The first communications were on the subject of the Indians and their historians. Nothing much there to hold the attention, unless it be for a glance at this personal paragraph from Jefferson: —
Another of our friends of seventy-six is gone, my dear sir, another of the co-signers of the Independence of our country. And a better man than Rush could not have left us, more benevolent, more learned, of finer genius, or more honest. We too must go; and that ere long. I believe we are under half a dozen at present; I mean the signers of the Declaration. Yourself, Gerry, Carroll and myself, are all I know to be living. I am the only one south of the Potomac. Is Robert Treat Paine or Floyd living? It is long since I heard of them, and yet I do not remember to have heard of their deaths.
When Jefferson let slip a Greek phrase or two, Adams came back with: —
Lord! Lord! What can I do with so much Greek? When I was your age, young man, i.e., seven, or eight, or nine years ago, I felt a kind of pang of affection for one of the flames of my youth, and again paid my addresses to Isocrates, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, etc., etc. — In this way I amused myself for some time; but I found that if I looked a word to-day, in less than a week I had to look it again. It was to little better purpose than writing letters on a pail of water.
They ranged back and forth on history and politics, the men they knew and the writers they did n’t, sage and gay, at great lengths. Said Adams: —
Whenever I sit down to write you, I am precisely in the position of the woodcutter on Mount Ida: I cannot see woods for trees. So many subjects crowd upon me, that I know not with which to begin.
And soon again: —
The woodcutter on Ida, though he was puzzled to find a tree to chop at first, I presume knew how to leave off when he was weary. But I never know when to cease when I begin to write to you.
When Jefferson remarked that ‘the same political parties which now agitate the United States have existed through all time,’ it instantly kindled Adams to roar back: —
Precisely. While all other sciences have advanced, that of government is at a stand; little better understood; little better practised now, than three or four thousand years ago. What is the reason? I say, parties and factions will not suffer or permit improvements to be made. As soon as one man hints at an improvement, his rival opposes it. No sooner has one party discovered or invented an amelioration of the condition of man or the order of society, than the opposite party belies it, misconstrues, misrepresents it, ridicules it, insults it, and persecutes it. Records are destroyed. Histories are annihilated, or interpolated, or prohibited : sometimes by popes, sometimes by emperors, sometimes by aristocratical and sometimes by democratical assemblies, and sometimes by mobs.
Aristotle wrote the history of eighteen hundred republics which existed before his time. Cicero wrote two volumes of discourses on government, which, perhaps, were worth all the rest of his works. The works of Livy and Tacitus, etc., that were lost, would be more interesting than all that remain. Fifty gospels have been destroyed, and where are St. Luke’s world of books that have been written? If you ask my opinion who has committed all the havoc,
I will answer you candidly — Ecclesiastical and Imperial despotism have done it, to conceal their frauds.
Why are the histories of all nations more ancient than the Christian era lost? Who destroyed the Alexandrian library? I believe that Christian priests, Jewish rabbis, Grecian sages, and emperors had as great a hand in it as Turks and Mohammedans.
Democrats, Rebels, and Jacobins, when they possessed a momentary power, have shown a disposition both to destroy and forge records as vandalical as priests and despots. Such has been and such is the world we live in.
At the first appearance of the word ‘religion’ in Jefferson’s letters, Adams seized it. Then they battledored and shuttlecocked: Have you read this or this? What do you think of that and that? All the orders of priesthood of all ages and creeds, all the dogmas that ever were set, all the obstacles ever put in the way of an original and speculative mind were put on the anvil. Adams was claimed by the Unitarians. Jefferson was not claimed by nor did he claim the limitation of any church. Their sincerity is not to be doubted. But in so complete a circle did the flail fly that it would be difficult to quote a paragraph without giving offense which neither man intended or wished to give. What they said they said in the complete confidence which both believed in and refused to violate. There is enough else on less tender subjects to illustrate the character of their interchange. What and all they did say is available. The books are on the shelves. To paraphrase a celebrated lady, ‘ the bottle is on the mantle-piege; let anyone put his lips to it who is so dispoged,’and he ‘ll find it quite as stimulating as the contents of Sairey Gamp’s bottle.
They were not vain in their frankness. Adams posed the question, ‘What conclusion do I draw from all this?’
I answer, I drop into myself, and acknowledge myself a fool. No mind but One can see into the immeasurable system. It would be presumption and impiety in me to dogmatize on such subjects. My duties in my little infinitesimal circle I can understand and feel. The duties of a son, a brother, a father, a neighbor, a citizen, I can see and feel, but I trust the Ruler with His skies.
Having written six long letters to Jefferson in seventeen days, he warmed to his enthusiasm for his new-found friend: ‘You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.’ They seemed in a fair way. Adams casually mentioned ‘aristocracy.’ It was a bomb, or perhaps a boon, to Jefferson. He at once let off a fusillade of three thousand words, wiping off the perspiration in this quieter conclusion:—
I have thus stated my opinion on a point on which we differ, not with a view to controversy, for we both are too old to change opinions which are the result of a long life of inquiry and reflection; but on the suggestion of a former letter of yours, that we ought not to die until we have explained ourselves to each other.
He need not have apologized. Adams thrived on controversy. What Jefferson said acted merely as a cocktail to Adams. He tossed it off, smacked his lips, and remarked: —
You very justly indulge a little merriment upon this solemn subject of aristocracy. I often laugh at it too, for there is nothing in this laughable world more ridiculous than the management of it by all the nations of the earth; but while we smile, mankind have reason to say to us, as the frogs said to the boys, What is sport to you is wounds and death to us. When I consider the weakness, the folly, the pride, the vanity, the selfishness, the artifice, the low craft, and mean cunning, the want of ambition, the unfeeling cruelty of a majority of those (in all nations) who are allowed an aristocratical influence, and on the other hand, the stupidity with which the more numerous multitude not only become their dupes but even love to be taken in by their tricks, I feel a stronger disposition to weep at their destiny than to laugh at their folly. But though we have agreed in one point, in words, it is not yet certain that we are perfectly agreed in sense. Fashion has introduced an indeterminate use of the word ‘talents.’ Education, wealth, strength, beauty, stature, birth, marriage, graceful attitudes and motions, gait, air, complexion, physiognomy, are talents, as well as genius, science, and learning. Any one of these talents that in fact commands or influences two votes in society, gives to the man who possesses it the character of an aristocrat, in my sense of the word. Pick up the first hundred men you meet, and make a republic. Every man will have an equal vote; but when deliberations and discussions are opened, it will be found that twenty-five, by their talents, virtues being equal, will be able to carry fifty votes. Every one of these twenty-five is an aristocrat in my sense of the word, whether he obtains his one vote in addition to his own by his birth, fortune, figure, eloquence, science, learning, craft, cunning, or even his character for good fellowship and as a bon vivant.
What gave Sir William Wallace his amazing aristoeratical superiority? His strength. What gave Mrs. Clarke her aristoeratical influence to create generals, admirals and bishops? Her beauty. What gave Pompadour and Du Barry the power of making cardinals and popes? And I have lived for years in the Hotel de Valentinois, with Franklin, who had as many virtues as any of them. In the investigation of the meaning of the word ‘talents,’ I could write 630 pages as pertinent as John Taylor’s of Hazlewood; but I will select a single example, for female aristocrats are nearly as formidable as males. A daughter of a greengrocer walks the streets in London daily with a basket of cabbage sprouts, dandelions, and spinach on her head. She is observed by the painters to have a beautiful face, an elegant figure, a graceful step and a debonair. They hire her to sit. She complies, and is painted by forty artists in a circle around her. The scientific Dr. William Hamilton outbids the painters, sends her to school for a genteel education, and marries her. This lady not only causes the triumphs of the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar, but separates Naples from France, and finally banishes the King and Queen from Sicily. Such is the aristocracy of the natural talent of beauty. Millions of examples might be quoted from history, sacred and profane, from Eve, Hannah, Deborah, Abigail, Judith, Ruth, down to Helen, Mrs. de Mainbenoir, and Mrs. Fitzherbert. For mercy’s sake do not compel me to look to our chaste States and Territories to find women, one of whom, let go, would in the words of Holophernes’ guards, deceive the whole earth.
Time after time he dispatched such and many times longer disquisitions, gasping amiably at the close: ‘I will not persecute you so severely in the future, if I can help it,’ or ‘I cannot write a hundredth part of what I wish to say to you,’ and begins others with ‘As I can never let a sheet of yours rest, I sit down immediately to acknowledge it.’ There followed antiphonal passages of which the following on history, by the makers thereof, is a good sample: —
JEFFERSON: On the subject of the American Revolution, you ask who shall write it? Who can write it? And who will ever be able to write it? Nobody, except merely its external facts, all its councils, designs, and discussions having been conducted by Congress with closed doors, and no members, as far as I know, having even made notes of them. These, which are the life and soul of history, must forever be unknown.
ADAMS: AS to the History of the Revolution, my ideas may be peculiar, perhaps singular. What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people; and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington. The records of thirteen legislatures, the pamphlets, newspapers in all the colonies ought to be consulted during that period, to ascertain the steps by which public opinion was enlightened and informed concerning the authority of Parliament over the colonies. The Congress of 1774 resembled in some respects, though I hope not in many, the Council of Nice in ecclesiastical history. It assembled the priests from the East and the West, the North and the South, who compared notes, engaged in discussion and debates, and formed results by one vote, and by two votes, which went out to the world as unanimous.
Apart from the endless religious broadsides, the other great fun and business of the letters began when Adams started the discussion as to living their lives over again: —
1 cannot be serious? I am about to write you the most frivolous letter you ever read.
Would you go back to your cradle and live over again your seventy years? I believe you would return me a New England answer, by asking me another question: Would you live your eighty years over again?
I am not prepared to give you an explicit answer; the question involves so many considerations of metaphysics and physics, of experience and romance, of tragedy, comedy, and farce, that I would not give my opinion without writing a volume to justify it.
Jefferson in his turn was more immediately definite: —
You ask, if I would agree to live my seventy or rather seventy-three years over again? To which I say Yea. I think, with you, that it is a good world on the whole; that it has been formed on a principle of benevolence, and more pleasure than pain dealt out to us. There are, indeed (who might say nay), gloomy and hypochondriac minds, inhabitants of diseased bodies, disgusted with the present and despairing of the future; always counting that the worst will happen, because it may happen. To these I say, How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened! My temperament is sanguine. I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern. My hopes, indeed, sometimes fail; but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy. There are, I acknowledge, even in the happiest life, some terrible convulsions, heavy set-offs against the other page of the account. I have often wondered for what good end the sensations of grief could be intended. All our other passions, within proper bounds, have an useful object. And the perfection of the moral character is not in stoical apathy, so hypocritically vaunted and so untruly too, because impossible, but in a just equilibrium of all the passions. I wish the pathologists then would tell us what is the use of grief in the economy, and of what good it is the cause, proximate or remote.
Before Adams took up the latter question of grief, which he reserved for a special letter, he paid his addresses to the first inquiry, which he had started, and he put his letter in the form of a dialogue: —•
J. Would you agree to live your eighty years over again? A. —
J. Would you agree to live your eighty years over again forever?
A. I once heard our acquaintance, Chew, of Philadelphia, say he would like to go back to twenty-five, to all eternity; but I own my soul would start and shrink back on itself at the prospect of an endless succession of boules dc savon, vanity of vanities, an eternal succession of which would terrify me almost as much as annihilation.
J. Would you prefer to live over again, rather than accept the offer of a better life in a future state?
A. Certainly not.
J. Would you live over again rather than change for the worse in a future state for the sake of trying something new?
A. Certainly yes.
J. Would you like to live over again once or forever, rather than run the risk of annihilation, or of a better or a worse state at or after death?
A. Most certainly I would not.
J. How valiant you are!
A. Aye, at this moment, and at all other moments of my life that I can recollect; but who can tell what will become ot his bravery when his flesh and his heart shall fail him? Bolingbroke said his philosophy was not sufficient to support him in his last hours. D’Alembert said: ‘Happy are they who have courage, but I have none.’ Voltaire, the greatest genius of them all, behaved like the greatest coward of them all at his death, as he had like the wisest fool of them all in his lifetime. Hume awkwardly affected to sport away all sober thoughts. Who can answer for his last feelings and reflections, especially as the priests are in possession of the custom of making them the greatest engines of their craft? Procul este, profani!
J. How shall we, how can we, estimate the real value of human life?
A. I know not; I cannot weigh sensations and reflections, pleasures and pains, hopes and fears, in money scales. But I can tell you how I have heard it estimated by philosophers. One of my old friends and clients, a mandamus counselor against his will, a man of letters and virtues, without one vice that I ever knew or suspected except garrulity, William Vassall, asserted to me, and strenuously maintained, that ‘pleasure is no compensation for pain.’ An hundred years of the keenest delights of human life could not atone for one hour of bilious colic that he felt. The sublimity of this philosophy my dull genius could not reach. I was willing to state a fair account between pleasure and pain, and give credit for the balance, which I found very great in my favor.
Another philosopher, who, as they say, believed nothing, ridiculed the notion of a future state. One of the company asked, ‘Why are you an enemy to a future state? Are you weary of life? Do you detest existence?' ‘Weary of life? Detest existence?’ said the philosopher. ‘No! I love life so well, and am so attached to existence, that to be sure of immortality, I would consent to be pitched about with forks by the devils, among the flames of fire and brimstone, to all eternity. ‘
I find no resources in my courage for this exalted philosophy. I had rather be blotted out.
Ilfaut trancher ce mot. What is there in life to attach us to it but the hope of a future and a better? It is a cracker, a rocket, a firework at best.
I admire your navigation, and should like to sail with you, either in your bark or in my own alongside of yours. Hope with her gay ensigns displayed at the prow, Fear with her hobgoblins behind the stern. Hope springs eternal, and hope is all that endures. Take away hope and what remains? What pleasure, I mean? Take away fear, and what pain remains? Ninety-nine one-hundredths of the pleasures and pains of life are nothing but hopes and fears.
A sillier letter than my last.
Three days later he sent on his effort to answer Jefferson’s inquiry on the reason or value of grief: —
When I approach such questions as this, I consider myself like one of those little eels in vinaigre, or one of those animalcules in black or red pepper or in the horse-radish root, that bite our tongues so cruelly, reasoning upon the το παν. Of what use is this sting upon the tongue? Why might we not have the benefit of these stimulants without the sting? Why might we not have the fragrance and beauty of the rose without the thorn?
In the first place, however, we know not the connection between pleasure and pain. They seem to be mechanical and inseparable. How can we conceive a strong passion, a sanguine hope suddenly disappointed, without producing pain, or grief? It seems that grief, as a mere passion, must be in proportion to sensibility.
Did you ever see a portrait or a statue of a great man, without perceiving strong traits of pain and anxiety? Those furrows were all ploughed in the countenance by grief. Our juridical oracle, Sir Edward Coke, thought that none were fit for legislators and magistrates but ‘sad men.’ And who were these sad men? They were aged men, who had been tossed and buffeted in the vicissitudes of life, forced upon profound reflection by grief and disappointment, and taught to command their passions and prejudices. . . .
Grief drives men into habits of serious reflection, sharpens the understanding, and softens the heart; it compels them to arouse their reason, to assert its empire over their passions, propensities, and prejudices; to elevate them to a superiority over all human events; to give them the felicis animi immota tranquillitas; in short, to make them stoics and Christians. After all, as grief is pain it stands in the predicament of all evil, and the great question occurs, What is the origin and what the final cause of evil? This perhaps is known only to Omniscience. We poor mortals have nothing to do with it but to fabricate all the good we can out of all inevitable evils and to avoid all that are avoidable; and many such there are, among which are our own unnecessary apprehensions and imaginary fears.
Jefferson bowed to these arguments as to grief: ‘No answer remains to be given. You have exhausted the subject.’ As to living his own seventythree years over again forever, he was hesitant: —
With Chew’s limitations from twentyfive to sixty I would say yes; and I might go further back, but not come lower down. For at the later period, with most of us, the powers of life are sensibly on the wane. If, in its full vigor, your friend Vassall could doubt its value, it must be purely a negative quantity when its evils alone remain. Yet I do not go into his opinion entirely. I do not agree that an age of pleasure is no compensation for a moment of pain. I think, with you, that life is a fair matter of account, and the balance often, nay, generally, in its favor. It is not indeed easy by calculation of intensity and time to apply a common measure, or to fix the par between pleasure and pain; yet it exists and it is measurable. On the question, for example, whether to be cut for the stone: The young, with the longer prospect of years, think these overbalance the pain of the operation. Dr. Franklin, at the age of eighty, thought his residuum of life not worth that price. I should have thought with him, even taking the stone out of the scale. There is a ripeness of time for death, regarding others as well as ourselves, when it is reasonable we should drop off and make room for another growth. When we have lived our generation out, we should not wish to encroach on another. I enjoy good health; I am happy in what is around me; yet I assure you I am ripe for leaving all this year, this day, this hour. If it could be doubted whether we would go back to twenty-five, how can it be whether we would go forward from seventythree? . . . Perhaps, however, I might accept of time to read Grimm before I go. Fifteen volumes of anecdotes and incidents, within the compass of my own time and cognizance, written by a man of genius, of taste, of point, an acquaintance, the measure and traverses of whose mind I know, could not fail to turn the scale in favor of life during their perusal.
Adams is loath to let go so alluring a speculation. He returns to it once more in his next: —
Let us state a few questions sub rosa.
1. Would you accept a life, if offered you, of equal pleasure and pain — for example: one million of moments of pleasure, and one million of moments of pain? Suppose the pleasure as exquisite as any in life, and the pain as exquisite as any; for example, stonegravel, gout, headache, earache, toothache, colic, etc. I would not. I would rather be blotted out.
2. Would you accept a life of one year of incessant gout, headache, etc., for seventytwo years of such life as you have enjoyed? I would not. (One year of colic = seventytwo of boules de savon; pretty, but unsubstantial.) I had rather be extinguished. You may vary these algebraical equations at pleasure and without end. All this ratiocination, calculation, call it what you will, is founded on the supposition of no future state. Promise me an eternal life free from pain, although in all other respects no better than our present terrestrial existence, I know not how many thousand years of Smithfield fevers I would not endure to obtain it. In fine, without the supposition of a future state, mankind and this globe appear to me the most sublime and beautiful bubble, and bauble, that imagination can conceive.
When they drift off to other subjects, books is inevitably one of them. Jefferson let slip a reference to Destutt de Tracy’s three volumes on Ideology, which Adams seized: —
‘Three vols. of Ideology?’ Pray explain to me this neological title. What does it mean? When Bonaparte used it I was delighted with it, upon the common principle of delight in everything we cannot understand. Does it mean Idiotism? The science of non compos mentuism? The science of Lunacy? The theory of Delirium? Or does it mean the science of Self-love? Of amour propre? Or the elements of Vanity?
. . . I verily believe I was as wise and good seventy years ago, as now. At that period Lemuel Bryant was my parish priest, Joseph Claverly my Latin schoolmaster. Lemuel was a jolly, jocular, and liberal scholar and divine. Joseph was a scholar and a gentleman; but a bigoted Episcopalian, a downright conscientious, passiveobedience man in Church and State. The parson and the pedagogue lived much together, but were eternally disputing about government and religion. One day, when the schoolmaster had been more than commonly fanatical and declared if he were a monarch, he would have but one religion in his dominions; the parson coolly replied, ‘Claverly! you would be the best man in the world if you had no religion.’
Twenty times in the course of my late reading I have been on the point of breaking out, ‘This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.’ But in this exclamation I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Claverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite society: I mean Hell.
This year of 1818 Adams’s letters were fewer; the reason was the failing health and death of his dear Abigail. Next year the letters picked up again, and they continued to flash with interest and vivacity, but they were less frequent as the few remaining years spun on. Tenderness crept in more frequently. Jefferson wrote: ‘I am satisfied and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence. I am sure that I know many, many things, and none more surely than that I love you with all my heart, and pray for the continuance of your life until you be tired of it yourself.’ And again: ‘Crippled wrists and fingers make writing slow and laborious. But while writing you, I lose the sense of these things in the recollection of ancient times, when youth and health made happiness out of everything.’ ‘You see,’ said Adams, ‘as my reason and intellect fail my imagination grows more wild and ungovernable, but my friendship remains the same.’
Jefferson’s last letter was handed to Adams by the Virginian’s grandson, ‘who, being on a visit to Boston, would think he had seen nothing were he to leave without seeing you. . . . Like other young people, he wishes in the winter nights of old age to recount to those around him what he has heard and learnt of the heroic age preceding his birth, and which of the Argonauts individually he was in time to have seen.’ Adams replied with pleasant compliments for his friend’s grandson. This was April in 1826.
They did not write again. They died soon after, within an hour of each other, Jefferson in his eighty-third year, Adams in his ninety-first, on the day they had both done so much to make memorable, the Fourth of July.