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This Day in History: Jefferson and Adams renew their friendship

On this day in 1813, Abigail Adams sends a note to Thomas Jefferson. She had been upset and hadn’t communicated with him in years. Her husband, too, had only just begun writing to Jefferson after more than a decade of silence.

It had taken Abigail longer to relent.

“Abigail’s voice, as always,” historian Joseph Ellis writes, “was the surest sign. Jefferson had been forgiven. The friendship, so long in storage, had never completely died.”

What caused the rupture in the first place? As early as 1776, Jefferson and Adams had worked together on the Declaration of Independence. Their friendship had continued to grow through the shared experiences of the Revolution. Unfortunately, all of that good will came to an end after the Constitution was ratified.

Jefferson and Adams ended up in different political parties. They simply couldn’t agree on many political issues. They soon found themselves on opposite sides of the first two contested presidential elections. Adams won the first round in 1796, but Jefferson was elected to replace Adams in 1800.

The Federalist Party was out of power for the first time ever. A lame-duck Congress quickly reorganized the judiciary, giving Adams the chance to make a flurry of last-minute appointments.

Jefferson didn’t think too much of that! The two men did not speak for years afterwards.

In 1804, Abigail broke the silence, briefly, to send Jefferson a condolence letter. Jefferson unfortunately grabbed the opportunity to complain that Adams’s last-minute political appointments were “personally unkind.” Adams had appointed some of “my most ardent political enemies”!   However, Jefferson was ready to forgive.

Not Abigail. She was furious! Her friendly condolence letter was a thing of the past.

“[Y]ou have been pleased to enter upon some subjects which call for a reply,” she quickly responded.   “And now, Sir,” Abigail wrote, “I will freely disclose to you what has severed the bonds of former friendship.”

Which is exactly what she did, in a series of three letters! “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” she wrote Jefferson. “I withdrew the esteem that I had long entertained for you,” she concluded.

And then? Silence. For many long years, the two families did not communicate at all.

Finally, in early 1812, Benjamin Rush successfully prompted the two men to renew their correspondence. The feelings of friendship soon followed where the letters had led.

It took Abigail longer to forgive Jefferson, but she seems to have finally accepted the renewed friendship by July 15, 1813. John had written to Jefferson: “You and I, ought not to die, before We have explained ourselves to each other.” Abigail added her own postscript: “I have been looking for some time for a space in my good Husbands Letters to add the regards, of an old Friend, which are Still cherished and perserved through all the changes and vissitudes which have taken place….”

The two men continued to write each other until their deaths. Those letters, written over the course of 14 years, deserve their own post! Ellis calls them the “intellectual capstone to the achievements of the revolutionary generation and the most impressive correspondence between prominent statesmen in all of American history.”

Adams and Jefferson died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826. It was the 50th anniversary of the Declaration that they had both worked so hard to obtain.

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