Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were the last surviving members of the original American revolutionaries who had stood up to the British empire and forged a new political system in the former colonies. However, while they both believed in democracy and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their opinions on how to achieve these ideals diverged over time.
Adams preceded Jefferson as president (1797-1800); it was during this time that their ideas about policy-making became as distinct as their personalities. The irascible and hot-tempered Adams was a firm believer in a strong centralized government, while the erudite and genteel Jefferson believed federal government should take a more hands-off approach and defer to individual states’ rights. As Adams’ vice president, Jefferson was so horrified by what he considered to be Adams’ abuse of the presidency–particularly his passage of the restrictive Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798–that he abandoned Adams and Washington for his estate at Monticello. There, he plotted how to bring his Republican faction back into power in the presidential election of 1800. After an exceptionally bitter campaign, in which both parties engaged in slanderous attacks on each other in print, Jefferson emerged victorious. It appeared the former friends would be eternal enemies.
After serving two presidential terms (1801-1809), Jefferson and Adams each expressed to third parties their respect the other and their desire to renew their friendship. Adams was the first to break the silence; he sent Jefferson a letter dated January 1, 1812, in which he wished Jefferson many happy new years to come. Jefferson responded with a note in which he fondly recalled when they were fellow laborers in the same cause. The former revolutionaries went on to resume their friendship over 14 years of correspondence during their golden years.
On July 4, 1826, at the age of 90, Adams lay on his deathbed while the country celebrated Independence Day. His last words were Thomas Jefferson still survives. He was mistaken: Jefferson had died five hours earlier at Monticello at the age of 82.