Frenemies of the State: Our Founding Fathers

My posts on the friendship of mutual respect between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, the selflessness of Winston Churchill, and the emotional intimacy of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, demonstrate some of the traits needed among the friends in a man’s inner circle. I have two more posts in this subset of friendships from the world of politics: this post about how enemies can still be friends, and another about the life of Alexander Hamilton. After those posts, I’ll begin the next subset of friendships from sports, entertainment, and literature. 

Friends With The Enemy? 

According to Wikipedia, a “Frenemy” (also spelled “frienemy”) is an oxymoron; the case where one or two words or concepts appear side by side and seem to have opposing meanings. Therefore, the self-contradicting mash-up of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ is “a person with whom one is friendly, despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry” or “a person who combines the characteristics of a friend and an enemy.” This can describe a competitive friendship of personal, geopolitical, and commercial relationships among individuals, groups, or institutions. 

The Founding Fathers of the United States are often referred to as frenemies. This group of revolutionary leaders includes George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, and Benjamin Franklin. During the 18th century, these men united the Thirteen Colonies and lead the war for independence from Great Britain. They built the framework of a new government for America based upon classical liberalism and republican principles. 

Understanding their friendship and their rivalry can help us see how diverse relationships can work well together. In particular, the legendary relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson shows how enemies who fiercely disagree, can become good friends when they find common ground. 

Two Friends Divided

In his recent book, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, historian Gordon Wood highlights the contrast between Adams and Jefferson, the second and third presidents of the United States.

Wood, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Alva O. Way University Professor Emeritus at Brown University, initially planned to only write about John Adams but his editor suggested a dual biography, pitting the two against each other. Wood later confessed, “I’m glad I did, and I think I learned more about these two men in contrast to one another than if I had worked on either one of them alone.”

Wood writes that at times, Adams and Jefferson were great friends, yet at times, were fierce rivals. Their temperament, politics, and faith were very different but very similar in important ways. Most notably, these men both suffered the loss of family members, particularly wives and children. This commonality made them friends before enemies who would reconcile before their death. 

About John Adams 

John Adams (October 30, 1735 – July 4, 1826) was from “middling stock,” short and stout, prone to emotional outbursts and reckless honesty. As a direct descendant of Puritan colonists from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he was a respecter of religion and admirer of the English constitution. At age 16, John earned a scholarship to attend Harvard University. After graduating in 1755, at age 20, he studied law despite his father’s wish for him to enter the ministry. In 1758, he earned a master’s degree from Harvard and was admitted to the bar. 

Adams married his third cousin, Abigail Smith on October 25, 1764, five days before his 29th birthday. They had six children: daughters, Abigail (called Nabby), Susanna, Elizabeth; and sons, Charles, Thomas, and John Quincy, who became our sixth president. Nabby died early of cancer. Charles and Thomas died of alcoholism. John Quincy also suffered most of his life from melancholy and self-doubt.

Adams found himself regularly away from his family. It was a sacrifice that both he and Abigail saw as important to the cause but Abigail was often unhappy.

Adams, The Federalist

John Adams quickly became identified with the patriot cause, initially by publicly denouncing the Stamp Act of 1765 in a speech delivered to the Massachusetts governor and his council. by 1796, Adams was elected as the Federalist nominee for president against Jefferson, who led the opposition for the Democratic-Republican Party.

Adams won the election by a narrow margin, becoming the second president of the United States. During his presidency, a war between the French and British was causing political difficulties for the United States. Adams’s administration focused its diplomatic efforts on France. By 1800, he had become significantly less popular, losing his re-election campaign to Jefferson.

After his presidency, John Adams lived quietly with Abigail on their family farm, where he continued to write and correspond with his friend Jefferson. 

About Thomas Jefferson 

Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) was a born aristocrat and slave-holder, tall and lanky. Polite to the point of reticence, he was no respecter of religion and an admirer of the bloody French Revolution. 

Jefferson was born into one of the most prominent families of Virginia’s planter elite. His mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, was a member of the proud Randolph clan, a family claiming descent from English and Scottish royalty. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a successful farmer. He was also a skilled surveyor and cartographer who produced the first accurate map of the Province of Virginia. Thomas was the third born of 10 siblings.

As a boy, Jefferson’s favorite pastimes were playing in the woods, practicing the violin, and reading. He began his formal education at the age of nine, studying Latin and Greek at a local private school. At the age of 14, he took up further study of classical languages as well as literature and mathematics. At 17, Jefferson left home to attend the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia’s capital.

After three years at William and Mary, he decided to “read law” before embarking on a rigorous five-year study which enabled his admission to the Virginia bar in 1767.  He practiced law in Virginia with great success, trying many cases and winning most of them. 

Jefferson, a Different Kind of President

On January 1, 1772, Thomas married Martha Wayles Skelton, a recent widow and one of the wealthiest women in Virginia. They had six children together, however, those were not the only children Jefferson fathered. Scholars and DNA evidence indicate that Jefferson had an affair – and at least one child – with one of his enslaved people, a woman named Sally Hemings. It is likely that Jefferson fathered all six of Sally Hemings’ children.

Jefferson was the primary draftsman of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the nation’s first secretary of state, and the second vice president of the United States (under Adams). As our nation’s third president from 1801-1809, Jefferson stabilized the U.S. economy and defeated pirates from North Africa during the Barbary War. He was responsible for doubling the size of the United States by successfully brokering the Louisiana Purchase. He also founded the University of Virginia.

Friends Become Enemies

Adams and Jefferson first became friends in 1776 at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Their relationship became even closer when both were abroad in the mid-1780s, as John and Abigail Adams consoled Jefferson when his wife, Martha passed away. Jefferson was considered part of their family. 

During the early days of our new nation though, Adams and Jefferson had different views of the United States. Adams wanted a strong central government; whereas Jefferson was an advocate for states’ rights. Adams was a great admirer of the English constitution. Jefferson, who despised England, was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, which Adams hated. By the 1790s, they didn’t share very much, except for having a common enemy in Alexander Hamilton. 

As history shows, the election of 1796 was the first contested American presidential election. Twice, George Washington was elected to office unanimously. But deep philosophical differences between the two leading figures in Washington’s administration – Hamilton and Jefferson, caused a rift that created the Federalist and Republican parties.

When Washington announced that he would not seek a third term, an intense struggle for control of Congress and the presidency began. Adams wins the presidency by a narrow margin over Jefferson, who became the vice president. 

These one-time friends become enemies when Jefferson beats Adams in 1800. It’s an election that stands as one of the nastiest in American history.

What Saved Their Friendship? 

After Jefferson’s defeat of Adams for the presidency, their correspondence lapsed and they had no contact for a dozen years. It took two years of work by their mutual friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, to bring them together again. Rush dreamed about “one of the most extraordinary events” of 1809 and “the renewal of the friendship” of Adams and Jefferson. Rush even wrote to Jefferson to remind him that of all the evils of politics, none were so great “as the dissolution of friendships.”

Finally, in 1812, their friendship was rekindled. They wrote movingly to one another about the death of loved ones, their advancing years, and the Revolution they both helped win. At one point Adams said: “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.” Over the next 14 years, Adams and Jefferson wrote over 150 letters on everything—what they were reading, who they saw, political philosophy, a thought they’d just had.

On the evening of July 3, 1826, Thomas Jefferson fell into a coma due to an ongoing intestinal disorder. He lingered in a semi-conscious state until noon the next day. On that same morning, John Adams collapsed into his reading chair and became unconscious from typhoid. He woke up briefly around 5:30 p.m. and uttered his last words: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” 

In an amazing coincidence, both men passed within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

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GodBuddy Focus

The friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson shows how good friends who supported each other in their tragedy could become fierce enemies. Adams consoled Jefferson when his wife died. But they also fought over fundamental differences that helped sharpen their ideologies. Before they died, they put aside their differences and reconciled their friendship. 

GodBuddies will inevitably disagree about things at some point. It may be politics or sports, or even when challenged about their sinful ways. But they should always handle these disagreements in a way that will help sharpen their viewpoints and make them better men. Most importantly, How friends who may have become enemies will rekindle their valuable friendship before it’s too late.

My next post is about the tragic life of Alexander Hamilton.


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