Adams vs. Jefferson

by John Ferling

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.

Here, Ferling quotes from Thomas Jefferson's inauguration speech after the "revolution of 1800" in which Jefferson appears to address the bitter national political divide that he himself had worked overtime to create in the country to rout the Adams administration from the White House. The first two presidencies of George Washington (two terms) and John Adams (one term) under the new federal Constitution had become associated with the Federalist Party, while Jefferson's opposition party became known as the Democratic-Republicans. In this quote, he presumably meant that all Americans supported the federal system, which delegated different responsibilities to the state and federal governments, and a republican system, with elected representatives. Beyond that, there was little agreement between the two parties about the big issues of the day.

Unlike Adams, Jefferson had never wavered in his belief that the American Revolution had been a glorious success. The "flames kindled on the 4th of July 1776 have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism," he remarked in 1821, adding that the "light and liberty are on a steady advance."

Jefferson always had a knack, in his writing, for placing himself at the center of big sweeping historical narratives, in which the forces unleashed by "his" Declaration of Independence would sweep the world and liberate mankind from tyranny. Adams, on the other hand, although a much better public speaker, had a knack for unpopular truths. He was a realist, rather than an idealist, and was willing to speak unpopular truths that he believed people needed to hear—whether or not they wanted to hear them. This made him crucial to a realistic balance of powers in our Constitutional system but also tended to edge him out of the pantheon of the Founders, in the popular mind. For example, Jefferson loved the French revolution, like many of the common people, and bristled when anyone criticized the excesses of the terrorism it unleashed. Adams took the unpopular view of criticizing the French revolution and its terrorism and correctly predicted that it would end in the tyranny of military dictatorship. Adams turned out to be right, and Jefferson wrong, but the people still loved Jefferson.

Democratic-Republicans called Adams a "hideous hermaphrodite," while Federalists called Jefferson a "howling atheist, an infidel."

This is a good read for anyone that thinks a bitterly divided electorate is something new in America. The author, although a Jeffersonian, does not shy away from the fact that Jefferson hired a hack journalist to print fake news about President Adams and then lied about it. Adams comes across as the more honest and straightforward of the two, while the more dishonest and malleable Jefferson, in the end, wins the public relations battle and greater fame. Adams, who had probably played a more crucial role in American independence and was the more realistic political architect, simply did not have the knack for positioning himself as the champion of the people and prophet of the future of human liberty that Jefferson did. Adams was the better public speaker, and Jefferson the better prose stylist, and it was Jefferson's grand prose and democratic populism that won the people's favor in the end.

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