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Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

de Gordon S. Wood

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4541054,755 (4.14)6
Biography & Autobiography. History. Politics. Nonfiction. HTML:New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2017

From the great historian of the American Revolution, New York Times-bestselling and Pulitzer-winning Gordon Wood, comes a majestic dual biography of two of America's most enduringly fascinating figures, whose partnership helped birth a nation, and whose subsequent falling out did much to fix its course.


Thomas Jefferson and John Adams could scarcely have come from more different worlds, or been more different in temperament. Jefferson, the optimist with enough faith in the innate goodness of his fellow man to be democracy's champion, was an aristocratic Southern slaveowner, while Adams, the overachiever from New England's rising middling classes, painfully aware he was no aristocrat, was a skeptic about popular rule and a defender of a more elitist view of government. They worked closely in the crucible of revolution, crafting the Declaration of Independence and leading, with Franklin, the diplomatic effort that brought France into the fight. But ultimately, their profound differences would lead to a fundamental crisis, in their friendship and in the nation writ large, as they became the figureheads of two entirely new forces, the first American political parties. It was a bitter breach, lasting through the presidential administrations of both men, and beyond. 

But late in life, something remarkable happened: these two men were nudged into reconciliation. What started as a grudging trickle of correspondence became a great flood, and a friendship was rekindled, over the course of hundreds of letters. In their final years they were the last surviving founding fathers and cherished their role in this mighty young republic as it approached the half century mark in 1826. At last, on the afternoon of July 4th, 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration, Adams let out a sigh and said, "At least Jefferson still lives." He died soon thereafter. In fact, a few hours earlier on that same day, far to the south in his home in Monticello, Jefferson died as well. 

Arguably no relationship in this country's history carries as much freight as that of John Adams of Massachusetts and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. Gordon Wood has more than done justice to these entwined lives and their meaning; he has written a magnificent new addition to America's collective story.
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The author tries to tell the story of the evolving friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The author does a good job of using letters sent between Adams, Jefferson and others to help explain the potential motivation and reasoning behind decisions made by Adams and Jefferson before, during, and after their presidencies. An insightful read. Because the author uses first hand references, some of the reading may be difficult because the English language has changed in the past 200 years. However, I'd much rather have the original documents and an explanation of the words over a paraphrased version. ( )
  trueblueglue | Nov 23, 2023 |
3/31/22
  laplantelibrary | Mar 31, 2022 |
I've tried reading Gordon S. Wood several times but found his style was too academic and analytical. I enjoy a more narrative style, especially when reading about the American Revolution, its Founders, and documents.

But "Friends Divided" was an excellent comparison of the lives, beliefs, and relationship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. I've read much about both men but found much new presented here. Well worth the read! ( )
  Jarratt | Jan 15, 2022 |
Summary: An account of the sometimes troubled and unlikely friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

They could not be more different in many respects. One irascible, the other sophisticated. One a modestly successful New England lawyer and farmer. The other a southern plantation owner. One inclined toward aristocracy. The other toward people. One was a prosaic writer, the other had a gift for elevated prose.

They also shared some things in common. Both were inveterate readers, among the most widely read of their times. Both knew tragedy in their lives. They came together around declaring their country’s independence from England. They worked together to foster their country’s relationship with France. Both were part of the first administration of George Washington, and both in turn were presidents.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Gordon S. Wood has written here what may be the definitive account of this friendship that spanned over 50 years, ending July 4, 1826, when both men died on the Jubilee anniversary of the country’s Declaration of Independence, drafted largely by Jefferson and signed by both of them. He traces the parallel courses of their lives, the differences and misunderstandings that frayed their early friendship, and the wonderful reconciliation of their latter years giving us one an exceptional correspondence (perhaps rivaled only by that between John and Abigail Adams).

Wood begins with the very different circumstances in which they grew up, their early careers and marriages and then recounts the crisis that brought them together as signers, and then emissaries for their fledgling country in France. Adams it seemed, never understood French ways, nor had he the skills to negotiate them well. Jefferson did, so much so that he fell in love with the country. Adams always remembered his American commitments. All this becomes evident in their very different assessments of the French Revolution. We see the first signs of strain here–the monarchical tendencies of Adams, the republican ones of Jefferson, who could not see the dangers of revolution.

These strains became worse in Washington’s administration as fault lines between what became known as the Federalists and the Democrat Republicans became evident and worsened when Adams became president and Jefferson vice-president. Adams inclined toward the Federalists, although was never fully one of them, costing him the next election. Jefferson believed in the people. About the only thing the two agreed on is that they both distrusted Hamilton.

Wood covers the campaign of 1800 in which Adams lost to Jefferson. The charges and countercharges appeared to cost them their friendship. It was perhaps the first truly contentious campaign, revealing the emergence of parties. If anything the misunderstandings between Abigail and Jefferson, especially over the Alien and Sedition Act, was even worse. Jefferson and Adams wouldn’t speak for another decade.

A mutual friend, physician Benjamin Rush, played the key role of clearing the way for the famous correspondence of these two men, each explaining himself to the other. Wood recounts this developing correspondence and the most famous passages between the two. He also narrates the shift in fortunes of the two from Jefferson acclaimed while Adams forgotten to Jefferson’s financial difficulties in his last years and Adam’s increasing esteem in the eyes of his countrymen, particularly after the election of John Quincy to the presidency in 1824. Jefferson became more pessimistic about the unfolding commercial trends in the country while Adams became more sanguine.

Wood deeply regards both of his subjects, but in the end is drawn to the expansive mind of Jefferson and his vision of forging one nation out of all the varieties of people that make up our country. Yet I found myself wondering if in fact his book articulates the need we have as a nation for both kinds of leaders, both those with lofty visions and those of rock-ribbed integrity with two feet firmly planted in American soil, both those who believe in the people, and those who value institutions, and recognize the existing inequalities of people who enjoy equal rights. Without Adams, Jefferson was inclined to build “castles in the air.” Without Jefferson, Adams may have tried to fashion himself a monarch. Perhaps what Wood has given us in the story of these two men is a parable for our country, especially in this divided time. ( )
  BobonBooks | Oct 18, 2020 |
Two men, founding fathers, united in the fight for independence, but clearly divided in their politics of how to run the new government. This is the story of two great men, and how they worked together to help win the American Revolution, but became bitter rivals in the world of government and politics. Doesn't that seem to always be the case? Fortunately, this story does not end there. These rivals were able to but aside their differences later in life to become great friends through their letters and correspondence for the rest of their lives, and give a lasting example of, not only their thoughts and beliefs, but how to reconcile differences and rekindle the friendship that brought them together in the first place. Gordon Wood brings this story to life as he has done many times in his earlier books. ( )
  TBatalias | Feb 22, 2020 |
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Biography & Autobiography. History. Politics. Nonfiction. HTML:New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2017

From the great historian of the American Revolution, New York Times-bestselling and Pulitzer-winning Gordon Wood, comes a majestic dual biography of two of America's most enduringly fascinating figures, whose partnership helped birth a nation, and whose subsequent falling out did much to fix its course.


Thomas Jefferson and John Adams could scarcely have come from more different worlds, or been more different in temperament. Jefferson, the optimist with enough faith in the innate goodness of his fellow man to be democracy's champion, was an aristocratic Southern slaveowner, while Adams, the overachiever from New England's rising middling classes, painfully aware he was no aristocrat, was a skeptic about popular rule and a defender of a more elitist view of government. They worked closely in the crucible of revolution, crafting the Declaration of Independence and leading, with Franklin, the diplomatic effort that brought France into the fight. But ultimately, their profound differences would lead to a fundamental crisis, in their friendship and in the nation writ large, as they became the figureheads of two entirely new forces, the first American political parties. It was a bitter breach, lasting through the presidential administrations of both men, and beyond. 

But late in life, something remarkable happened: these two men were nudged into reconciliation. What started as a grudging trickle of correspondence became a great flood, and a friendship was rekindled, over the course of hundreds of letters. In their final years they were the last surviving founding fathers and cherished their role in this mighty young republic as it approached the half century mark in 1826. At last, on the afternoon of July 4th, 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration, Adams let out a sigh and said, "At least Jefferson still lives." He died soon thereafter. In fact, a few hours earlier on that same day, far to the south in his home in Monticello, Jefferson died as well. 

Arguably no relationship in this country's history carries as much freight as that of John Adams of Massachusetts and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. Gordon Wood has more than done justice to these entwined lives and their meaning; he has written a magnificent new addition to America's collective story.

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