There are few thing more astounding and wonderful than the fact that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the Fourth of July 1826. At one time, the two men had been friends, that friendship broke apart, and in their later years was put back together.
Their friendship was almost completely torched by the election of 1800. This was also the election that first introduced us to “dirty politics.”
Negative campaigning in the United States can be traced back to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Back in 1776, the dynamic duo combined powers to help claim America’s independence, and they had nothing but love and respect for one another. But by 1800, party politics had so distanced the pair that, for the first and last time in U.S. history, a president found himself running against his VP.
Things got ugly fast. Jefferson’s camp accused President Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” In return, Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward. Even Martha Washington succumbed to the propaganda, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was “one of the most detestable of mankind.”
JEFFERSON HIRES A HATCHET MAN
Back then, presidential candidates didn’t actively campaign. In fact, Adams and Jefferson spent much of the election season at their respective homes in Massachusetts and Virginia. But the key difference between the two politicians was that Jefferson hired a hatchet man named James Callendar to do his smearing for him. Adams, on the other hand, considered himself above such tactics. To Jefferson’s credit, Callendar proved incredibly effective, convincing many Americans that Adams desperately wanted to attack France. Although the claim was completely untrue, voters bought it, and Jefferson won the election.
PLAYING THE SALLY HEMINGS CARD
Jefferson paid a price for his dirty campaign tactics, though. Callendar served jail time for the slander he wrote about Adams, and when he emerged from prison in 1801, he felt Jefferson still owed him. After Jefferson did little to appease him, Callendar broke a story in 1802 that had only been a rumor until then—that the President was having an affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. In a series of articles, Callendar claimed that Jefferson had lived with Hemings in France and that she had given birth to five of his children. The story plagued Jefferson for the rest of his career. And although generations of historians shrugged off the story as part of Callendar’s propaganda, DNA testing in 1998 showed a link between Hemings’ descendents and the Jefferson family.
Kerwin Swint, Mental Floss, The Magazine (last accessed July 4, 2015).
Do view this video, it is wonderful:
But true friendship can survive raw bitterness. Thus it was so between Adams and Jefferson:
Just as truth persists, however, so does friendship. Twelve years after the vicious election of 1800, Adams and Jefferson began writing letters to each other and became friends again. They remained pen pals for the rest of their lives and passed away on the same day, July 4, 1826. It was the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
And so it was as the heat boiled up during the summer of 1826, a remarkable event occurred:
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.
This Day In History (last accessed July 4, 2015).
Some things are more important than others and that includes true friendship.
* The words attributed to Adams find no evidence in the historical records. That means absolutely nothing to me. I want to believe John Adams celebrated his old friend as Mr. Adams passed from this world.