America is a sharply divided place. The conservative world is divided, marked by the continued estrangement of old friends. There is the divide over Donald Trump, and the connected division between those open to conspiracism and those not. There are divides between those quietly fighting over policies that will determine the Republican Party’s future meaning and purpose, its reason for being, and between those who differ—polite word!—on the right moral attitude, after 1/6, toward the former president.
So let’s take a look at the historian Gordon Wood’s superb “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson” (2017), the story of two great men whose deep friendship was sundered over politics and later repaired.
They met in Philadelphia in the Continental Congress in 1775 and invented a nation together in 1776. What allies they were, how brilliantly they worked, in spite of differences in temperament, personality, cast of mind and background. Adams of Massachusetts was hearty, frank, abrupt. He was ardent, a brilliant, highly educated man who found it difficult to conceal his true thoughts. His background was plain New England. He made his own way in the world.
Jefferson of course was an aristocrat, a member of Virginia’s landed gentry. He let the game come to him. Mr. Wood quotes a eulogist, who said Jefferson “kept at all times such a command over his temper that no one could discover the workings of his soul.” He was serene.
Adams tended to erupt. But once past his awkwardness and shyness he was jovial and warm. Jefferson, in Mr. Wood’s words, “used his affability to keep people at a distance.” Their mutual friend Dr. Benjamin Rush said Adams was “a stranger to dissimulation.” No one ever said that of Jefferson.