Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

Your Choice for a Beer: Adams or Jefferson

Jefferson, the wordsmith vs. Adams, the convincer-in-chief

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
  • Ibid.
  • 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)

What turned Adams and Jefferson into Revolutionaries?

John Turnball’s painting Declaration of Independence, Library of Congress

As Founding Fathers, they went together like a hand-thrown, ceramic pitcher and a French porcelain teacup. Neither was afraid to break some China. After all, they were poised to upset the 18th century world order. Their political differences surfaced early on–fierce disagreements about the size and cost of government–but for the sake of the Revolution, they soldiered on. What turned these solid, British subjects trained in the English legal system into firebrand Revolutionaries?

Ambitious men, both Adams and Jefferson benefited from their links to the Crown prior to the Indominable Acts, which taxed and punished the Colonists for failing to be subservient to England. Some would say the Boston Tea Party, when white men dressed up as Native Americans to dump expensive English tea into the harbor, showed the ire of the Colonists.

Mounting Fury and Ambition

Pictured by some as Mutt and Jeff–Adams the pudgy midget straining to reach five foot compared with Jefferson, the ramrod six footer. Adams struggled to show up in a proper powdered wig and tidy attire, while Jefferson made certain his dress mirrored the image of a suive squire entering the drawing room. Adams, the simple New England farmer of moderate means who through the force of character became an outstanding, affluent lawyer who inspired and moved legislative bodies to action with his oration. The younger Jefferson rarely rose to speak in any legislative body, saving his ideas for smaller groups, but he had a wicked, mighty pen–a talent Adams recognized soon enough.

In February 1770, a mob attacked the residence of an informer for the Custom service, who fired on the crowd and killed a young boy. The next week off-duty soldiers and dock workers lost control and a brawl ensured near the water. The Sons of Liberty in London, who supported the Colonists, warned, “America is on the point of bursting into flames.” (1)

The following month the Boston Masacre took place on March 5, 1770. Bostonians were protesting economic restraints outside the Customs House when five people were killed and others injured by British soldiers. Sdams called it the “slaughter in King Street,” others referred to it as the Boston Massacre. (2) King George retreated from all except the tax on tea. Adams thought the protests would recede and never surface again.

Adams Defends British Soldiers in Court

Protesters led by John’s cousin, Samuel, sought to have John defend the soldiers, not wanting the trial appear to be a sham. John accepted, but not for a grand fee, he said he earned around 18 guineas (about the cost of a pair of shoes). (3) Rather he believed the soldiers deserved a fair trial, but he also knew the trial would showcase his ability as a defense attorney, raising his reputation as one of the most distinguished lawyers in the country.

He’d been bitten by the political bug an sought a seat in the Massachusetts Legislature. Political payoff it may not have been, but before the trial ended, one of Boston’s four legislators resigned his assembly seat and Adams was elected as his replacement.” (4) He began by getting the trial postponed, allowing tempers to cool. Adams kept up his end of the argain, according to one in the audience delivering “the finest speech I ever heard in my life–equal to the greatest orator that ever spoke in Rome or Greece.” (5)

Wear and Tear of the Circuit

Like Lincoln in Illinois sixty years later, Adams rode a jusicial circuit prior to the Revolution from Maine to Boston and Cap Cod to the western frontier in Berkshire Count. He called this a “maked, barren journey” of a vagabond that “starved his soul.” (6) During the French and Indian War, Adams became caught up in the spirit of the British Army and wanted to join it in his youth, but followed the law as a career.

In 1761 British customs officials in Boston demanded pament from Americans in the form of “writs of assistance.” Pervasive searches of cargo attempted to discover smuggled goods in violation of imperial trade laws. Adams attended the subsequent trial, saying his concept of American independence came out of those trials. He began to picture Britain as a “haughty, powerful nation who held us in great contempt.” (7)

Adams realized that a collision with Great Britain could be inevitable, but at the time he focused on his practice and his courtship of Abigail. By 1765, Adams feared that his legal reputation would sufer if he openly criticized the mother country. (8) Two years later Britain had won Canada and everything east of the Mississippi River, but struggled mightily to pay for the war, so looked to the Colonies to help reduce the British debt through the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765.

The Sugar Act did not amount to much bu the Stamp Act unleashed the furor lurking below the surface. Stamp distributors were threatened and acts of violence forced several out of office. Economic boycotts began and the Virginia House of Burgesses denounced them. Yet Adams still doubted the staying power of the crisis, seeing the potential to become “an ecormous Engine fabricated. . .for battering down all the Rights and Liberties of America.” (9)

“We are in no Sense represented”

Cousin Samuel named John to a panel to urge Governor Francis Bernard to reoped the provincial courts closed by the stamp Act. Adams told the governor that the tax was unconstitutional because it was enacted “where we are in no Sense represented. . . A Parliament of Great Britain can have no more Right to tax the Colonies than a Parliament of Paris.” Paris.” (10)

Adams, who began life philosophically closer to the British from his stud o the law, said this situation turned him into a revolutionary. (11) In 1766, relieved when the British repealed the Stamp Act, Adams began his climb up the political ladder on Braintree’s Board of Selectment, following in the footsteps of his father, who help the office for nine terms. John achieved this post just seven years into his legal career at thirty.

But the British weren’t done punishing the Colonists and imposted the Townshend Duting on glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea imported into America and created a board of customs to enforce them. In New York the assembly was suspended for falling to house the British army, bu only minor resistance occurred initially. Then the British impounded the ship of patroit John Hancock’s slook, Liberty, and charged him with smuggling. From early on he’d used his wealth to support patriot causes. This action seemed a retaliation by the British. Adams defended Hancock in court and the charges were dropped. Bostonians erupted immediately when Hancock’s ship was seized and the economic boycott of Britain began in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. (12)

Washington stepped up in 1770, now bored with foxhunting (perhaps the 18th century Virginia plantation equivalent of golf) and his daily tours of his plantation on horseback. He invited his neighbor and noted legislator george Mason over to draft a boycott plan. Washington also joined the assembly committee to strengthen enforcement of the boycott.

Jefferson Rises

As a twenty-two year old law student in 1765, Jefferson listened in the hallway to Patrick Henry’s attack on the Stamp Act, he immediately learned of Henry’s capacity to move men to action. Jefferson later spoke of the “torrents of sublime eloquence” that sparked “the dawn of the Revolution.” He signed Washington’s embargo, but obviousl was not totally onboard as he ordered a mahogany piano and windows from England, saying the piano would be stored until the embargo ended. (13)

When Henry spoke at the Second Virginia Convention March 23, 1775, at St. John’s Church in Richmond, he moved Jeffersona nd his countrymen to action, whether they be from Vrginia, Pennsylvanie, New York, or New England.”I am not a Virginian,” he said.”I am an American,” pushing for solidarity that spoke to his countrymen and may be slipping away for some today. Henry motivated the Colonies to law aside their unrealistic visions that the British would come around, but now they prepared to fight. (14)

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” He held his wrists together for his audience, as though they were in chains.”Almighty God! I know not what cause others might takebut as for me, give me liverty,” and he grasped an ivory penknife and thrust it into his chest, “or give me death.” Thereafter Virginians established militia in each county to prepare themselves.Concord and Lexington occurred in Massachusetts less than a month later on April 19, 1775, opening the Revolutionary War. (15)

Stay tuned for more Tales of the Founders in Past Becomes Present next week.

(1) John Ferling, Setting the World on Fire, (New York: Oxford Press, 2000)  p. 77.

(2) (3) Ibid.

(4) L. H. Butterfield, et. al, eds, The Dairy and Autobiography of John Adams, 4 vol. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Press, 1961), 3:292-94.

(5) Ferling, p. 57.

(6) Ibid, 58.

(7) Ferling, 69.

(8) Ibid, p. 64.

(9) Ferling, p 70.

(10) John Adams, “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.”

(11) Ferling,p.71.

(12) Ibid., 74.

(13) John Ellis, American Sphinx, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000), p. 28, 32-33.

(14) Ferling, p. 76

(15) Ibid, p. 78.