Our nation is divided. It’s not the first time. If we look to the past, there are some hints about how to handle it.
Yestersday, I made a pilgrimage with my family to the home of Thomas Jefferson. Next to the bed where he died, I told my children about his remarkable relationship with John Adams.
The second and third Presidents of the United States had a long relationship which soured into bitterness. First as delegates to the Continental Congress and later as diplomat in Europe, these two very different people became close friends. But in the years that followed, the business of running a nation exacerbated their differences of style and perspective.
The presidential election of 1800 was nasty and personal. It was part of the emergence of political parties in our country, with the personal and political differences of Jefferson and Adams dividing people into Jeffersonians and Federalists. That rift persists today, with Republicans and Democrats differing on policy and persona; each accusing the other of bad faith and bad thinking.
The former friends, Jefferson and Adams, went radio silent for 12 years. Jefferson overturned a bunch of Adams’s legislation, and I’m sure that they thought they were through with each other.
But with some cooling off and the benefit of hindsight, these two wise men re-established contact. Tellingly, it was their former personal connection that provided a basis for intial contact. But their hurts were deep, and it wasn’t long before they were re-litigating their policy differences. By then, though, something had changed. They were growing old, and their peers from the revolutionary generation were dying off around them. Now, they were willing to listen to each other.
Increasingly, they realized that they shared an experience greater than their differences. As these two imperfect but wise men approached death, they considered their legacies. And they found that their legacies were intertwined. They never ‘solved’ their policy differences, but they did forge a beautiful friendship. Though they never saw each other in person again, they died on the same day: July 4, 1826 – 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on which they had worked together. Adam’s last words, and maybe some of his last thoughts, were of Jefferson: “Thomas Jefferson still lives.”
What can we learn?
- The things we share are greater than our differences. Looking to those things will make us more open to hearing each other.
- Personal relationships can bridge political divides. Don’t start talking policy with someone before you spend some time hearing their story. If you don’t know anyone from the opposite party, check out Braver Angels. This fantastic group can introduce you to someone you disagree with, but whom you’ll probably like.
- How we handle ourselves will impact the legacy we leave behind. The comment you’re about to leave or the Tweet you’re about to send will become part of our national discourse, and part of the country we’re leaving for our children. Speak and write as if history is watching.
When you’re on your death bed, the political fades away and the personal remains. Live with your fellow citizens in a way that allows you to die with dignity and peace, leaving behind a country that’s better than the one you found.
Note: I’m not an historian, and I don’t claim inerrancy in my understanding or my facts. If you want to read more about these fascinating characters from history, I recommend a few books:
- John Adams by David McCullough
- American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis
- Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis
Leave a comment to share your thoughts or your favorite books about Jefferson and Adams!