NO collection of letters in American history is more moving then the correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in the years after their retirement from public service. To be sure, both men wrote each other earlier in their lives, but they were too often political opponents in their formative years. And sometimes their reaction to each other in their competitive days was downright discourteous, as for example President John Adams's refusal to attend the inauguration of his successor, President Thomas Jefferson.
In the twilight of their lives, both men accorded each other enormous respect. Adams broke the literary ice on New Year's Day, 1812, by wishing Jefferson the best for the coming year; Jefferson responded with a detailed letter that set the tone of their correspondence. ``A letter from you,'' wrote Jefferson, ``calls up recollections very dear to my mind . . . fellow laborers in the same cause. . . . Still we did not expect to be without rubs and difficulties; and we have had them.''
The subject matter of the correspondence was wide-ranging: no little attention was given to books and treatises, from the Bible to Plato's ``Republic.'' The current state of politics was another subject, about which Adams could get wound up:
``Checks and Ballances, Jefferson, however you and your Party may have ridiculed them, are our only Security, for the progress of Mind, as well as the Security of Body. Every Species of these Christians would persecute Deists, as soon as either Sect would persecute another, if it had unchecked and unballanced Power. Nay, the Deists would persecute Christians, and Atheists would persecute Deists, with as unrelenting Cruelty, as any Christians would persecute them or one another. Know thyself, human Nature! I am not sure that I am ready to return to Politicks. Upon the whole, I think this is enough for one Letter. Politicks shall be adjourned to a future day. Not a very distant one, however.''
Jefferson queried Adams about the faculty and courses that Jefferson hoped to offer at his Virginia university but was hard pressed to keep up with answers to Adams's numerous questions.
``On the subject of the history of the American revolution,'' Jefferson wrote, ``you ask Who shall write it? Who can write it? And who ever will be able to write it? Nobody: except merely it's external facts. All it's councils, designs and discussions, having been conducted by Congress with closed doors, and no member, as far as I know, having even made notes of them, these, which are the life and soul of history must for ever be unknown.''
One of Adams's favorite tactics in his letters was to ask his questions in a rhetorical style that rivaled his revolutionary fervor: ``Let me now ask you, very seriously my Friend, Where are now in 1813, the Perfection and perfectability of human Nature? Where is now, the progress of the human Mind? Where the Augmentations of human comforts? Where the diminutions of human Pains and Miseries? . . . When? Where? and how? is the present Chaos to be arranged into Order?''
And if Adams got too emotionally absorbed in his points, he would offer Jefferson an alternative: ``If you do not understand this, and wish an explanation, You shall have it. Not to say too much at once.''
As age began to assert its claim on the time of the two correspondents, the pace of the letters slowed. But the relationship grew stronger, with Jefferson noting that he always accorded ``the welcome of everything which comes from you.''
In one of his last missives, Adams poured out his heart about the quality of Jefferson's letters:
``Your last letter was brought to me from the Post office when at breakfast with my family. I bade one of the misses open the budget; she reported a letter from Mr. Jefferson and two or three newspapers. A letter from Mr. Jefferson, says I, I know what the substance is before I open it. There is no secrets between Mr. Jefferson and me, and I cannot read it; therefore you may open and read it.
When it was done, it was followed by an universal exclamation, The best letter that ever was written, and round it went through the whole table -- How generous! how noble! how magnanimous! I said that it was just such a letter as I expected, only it was infinitely better expressed. A universal cry that the letter ought to be printed. No, hold, certainly not without Mr. Jefferson's express leave.''
The correspondence between Adams and Jefferson would come to an end in as moving a scene as it had been revived. On July 4, 1826, both men passed away, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.