Would you select a political candidate depending on whether they could be comfortable in a pub enjoying a beer? Who were these men and what would make you want to share a beer?
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson come from a more formal era, but there were pubs and tavern galore where one could stop for a pint to trade local gossip or stay the night and get a wider spectrum of political ideas from travelers. Back then pubs were based on the “Cheers” example, “where everybody knows your name.” Men were likely to have a favorite pub just around the corner or down the block, which made it easy for politicians to catch the temperature of their constituents, particularly in New England, even in current times.
Taverns granted wider polling opportunities for Jefferson on the way to and from Virginia’s House of Burgesses or while both men travelled to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and later Congressional meetings in Washington. In the 1770s bars and taverns belonged to men. Women who valued their reputation stayed far away. Politicians then did not worry about these absent women in these haunts because they would not become voters until 1920.
Adams looked forward to stopping in for a brew and testing the political waters. Jefferson preferred life on his mountain to time on the road, even when Monticello was just a one-room possibility. In the 1770s they shared a common goal—to get their countrymen to see the country joining as a single country and not as men clinging to separate regional perspectives.
Pulled by Opposite Parties—An Extrovert v. Introvert
Politically they clung to opposite parties—the Federalist for centralized government (Adams) and the Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson) of states’ rights. Physically they were an odd pair. Jefferson at around 6’2” seemed on an easy path to the leadership roles imparted to tall men, like George Washington at 6’4,” who stood out in a crowd of Colonial men, who averaged 5’7”-5’9” tall. Adams could not compete with their height, but he undersold himself as short only in comparison to the taller politicians, since he stood with average men at around 5’8.”
Opinions by his contemporaries whether Jefferson was handsome varied. He had a prominent chin, high cheekbones, deep-set, nondescript hazel eyes, sandy-red hair, and ruddy skin, but he had habitually poor posture, according to John Ferling in Setting the World on Fire. (1) His intelligence, personal charm, passionate curiosity, and manner made his company pleasant, according to Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf, in Most Blessed of the Patriarchs. (2)
There would be no debate about Adam’s beauty—he being portly, balding, pallid, ungainly, and indifferent to fashionable attire or as an acquaintance remarked, “careless of appearances.” Neither a backslapper or a flatterer and on occasion known as “irascible,” yet Adam’s friend Jonathan Sewall, a rival in pre-war legal circles in Massachusetts, said later “Adams has a heart formed for friendship.” Sewall saw Adams as honest, open, approachable, good-natured, and down to earth, attributes that drew friends throughout his life .(3)
By comparison Jefferson loathed arm-twisting politics and did not appear for debate in Congress, as he hated public speaking, possibly due to shyness and a thin voice that did not carry in great halls. While Jefferson could write well-crafted arguments, he relied on someone else to present those ideas to Congress. Passing acquaintances found him reserved, even cold, but Jefferson showed up in committee with direct, not flowery, or oratorical, comments that added substance to the discussion.
In 1787, before their presidential rivalry, Jefferson told his lifelong friend, Madison, that Adams was so friendly “that you will love him if ever you become acquainted with him.” (4)
Adams had ample opportunities to develop friendships and referee discussions between 1775 and 1777 he served on ninety communities, including twenty-five that he chaired, likely more than any other congressman—developing his skill as a leading political thinker, a foremost expert on foreign affairs, and an expert on military affairs (and probably lining up chits to eventually land the number two spot behind Washington.)
Historian Joseph Ellis noted Adams’ s mastery of detail, pointing to him as possessing “the clearest head and firmest heart of any man in Congress” in 1777. While Adams did not have the Pied Piper talents of Samuel Adams or was not as electrifying an orator as Patrick Henry, but in May 1775 when Congress needed to change tacks from confrontation to management and diplomacy, Adams’ star rose. Jefferson had found Patrick Henry to be “electrifying.” But by mid-summer 1775, he saw him as “a man of very little knowledge of any sort.”’
Jefferson’s method of the personal relationship centered around Monticello as you see here in a note to Henry Knox, then Secretary of War who had served as a key general during the Revolution. “When the hour of dinner is approaching, sometimes it rains, sometimes it is too hot for a long walk, sometimes your business would make you wish to remain longer at your office or return there after dinner, and make it more eligible to take any sort of a dinner in town,” Jefferson wrote in 1791. “Any day and every day that this would be the case you would make me supremely happy by messing with me without ceremony or other question than whether I dine at home.” He finishes with the time: from quarter to three quarters after three. . .you’ll be sure to meet a sincere welcome.”
Orator vs. Writer
Adams enjoyed mixing it up with fellow legislators and became known for his skill drawing out his colleagues and convincing them that his plans were in their own self-interest. Jefferson would be more comfortable secluded on his mountaintop in Virginia. When Jefferson spoke before the Continental Congress, he would speak in low tones for ten minutes or less. It went to Adams to sell the Declaration to the legislators, all of whom knew they could be signing their death notice or that of their family and the possible destruction of their homes, fields, or businesses. The Founders went to Jefferson, the young wordsmith, to prepare the sizzling document that gave life to their ideas, which would be passed to orator Adams, who would entice the legislators to be bold and sign on.
Jefferson’s role as scribe relied on his exquisite wordsmithing, but also on his brevity, covering Adams’ epistles in one-tenth the space (a talent perhaps not missed by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address of 263 words!). Jefferson’s assignment in 1775: to draft the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms. He started with a long list of grievances against Great Britain, which would appear a year later in the final Declaration of Independence. (5)
In 16 years in Massachusetts courtrooms, Adams chose gravity paired with eloquence, rather than relying on the dramatics we see today. A Pennsylvanian Congressman noted Adam’s ability to see “the whole of a subject at a single glance.” (6)
The Case that Made Adams
Bostonians called it the Boston Massacre; Adams called it “slaughter on King Street” in the winter of 1770. On March 5, British soldiers fired on a crowd in front of the Customs House, who were responding to their killing of a young boy. In this second event, five were killed. Samuel Adams and other protesters convinced Adams to defend the British to avoid the feeling that it would be a sham trial.
Adams had the trial postponed to autumn to help rage subside and obtained separate trials for the commanding officer. He argued the commander had not ordered the shooting. Preston, the commander was acquitted along with six of the eight soldiers. Two were convicted of manslaughter, not homicide, and escaped punishment by pleading benefit of clergy, a technicality for escaping the death sentence. Once the trial ended, one of four Boston representatives resigned, leaving an opening which Adams was elected to fill. (7)
Both men were visionaries sharing a concern that the Union they fought to achieve could be destroyed in the long-term division of the country over the issue of slavery. (This is a longer discussion.) Not surprisingly the decision to count African Americans as 3/5 of a person–were baked into state and national governance and would influence decisions of governance even before their deaths.
The Election of 1800, in which these two men were both candidates for President—Adams for a second term and Jefferson for his first—would turn first on the census that determined the electoral ballots per state. As it turned out, Adams earned 65 votes towards a second term and Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied with 73. This kicked the decision to the House of Representatives, where it took 36 ballots (Federalists were voting for Burr to deny Jefferson the Presidency) for Jefferson to prevail. The backroom dealings further disrupted the Adams-Jefferson relationship.
Twelve years after the 1800 Election the two men resumed their friendship, after Abigail sent a letter to Jefferson sending condolences after the death of his daughter, but it took Benjamin Rush’s diplomacy between the two men to remind them of their respect and love for each other that stood above the politics of the past. They continued as pen pals until they both died on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Both Adams and Jefferson are worthy of a seat at the bar, though Jefferson would probably prefer a glass of French wine or one pressed from his own Monticello grapes to a pint at the pub.
- Ferling, John. Setting the World Ablaze (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 48)
- Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf, Most Blessed Patriarchs, (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016), p. 101.
- Ferling, p. 105
- TJ Summary View, in Robert J. Taylor et. Al., eds. Papers of John Adams. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1977.
- Ferling, p. 105
- DAJA, L. H, Butterfield, et.al., eds., The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vol. 3, 293)
- Noble Cunningham, Jr., In Pursuit of Reason, The Life of Thomas Jefferson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987
- Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power, (New York: Random House, 2012)