Sunday, May 20, 2012

Abigail Writes Thomas

On May 20, 1804 Abigail Adams wrote an old friend, Thomas Jefferson, expressing her condolences on the recent death of his daughter, Mary, who had died at Monticello on April 17 at the age of 25.  John Adams and Jefferson first met in 1775 at the Continental Congress, quickly becoming  friends despite very different temperaments and backgrounds.  Jefferson met Abigail in 1784, when the Congress sent him to Paris to join Adams in representing the new country in Europe.  They became close, with Abigail becoming very attached to young Mary Jefferson, serving as her surrogate mother (Jefferson's wife, Martha, died in 1782).

During the Adams presidency (1797-1801), a rift (actually, more like a chasm) had grown between he and Jefferson, his Vice-President, over policy towards France and England and the Alien & Sedition Acts, while Jefferson secretly funded a newspaper which printed harsh personal attacks on Adams.  Anyone who thinks today's politics are uniquely rough should take a look at the vicious nature of 1790s politics.  There was very little direct communication between the two during those years and none after Jefferson became President in March 1801, and an embittered John and Abigail returned to Braintree, Massachusetts.

Abigail's letter conveyed her own grief and sympathy for Jefferson and contained a hint of an invitation to reopen communication.  Some excerpts: 
". . . reasons for various kinds withheld my pen, until the powerful feelings of my heart, have burst through the restraint, and called upon me to shed the tear of sorrow over the departed remains, of your beloved and deserving daughter . . . "
"The attachment which I formed for her, when you committed her to my care: upon her arrival in a foreign Land: has remained with me to this hour. . . The tender scene of her separation from me, rose to my recollection, when she clung around my neck and wet my Bosom with her tears . . . "

"That you may derive comfort and consolation in this day of your sorrow and affliction . . . is the sincere and ardent wish of her, who once took pleasure in subscribing Herself your Friend."
Jefferson responded and the two exchanged five more letters during the course of the year.  Reading the correspondence, you can feel two people with genuine affection for each other trying to figure out a way to reconnect, but unable to do so.  The correspondence first goes awry when Jefferson's initial response includes an attempt to justify his position on the policy differences that drove the wedge between he and Adams.  Jefferson "lived in his head" to an extent beyond most people of his day (and, for that matter, any day) and his inability to understand others shows in how he approached this correspondence.  Abigail, who was as politically opinionated as both her husband and Jefferson, engaged with him on the policy issues, once Jefferson made the mistake of reopening the wounds, and the tone of the letters became increasingly contentious.

On October 25, Abigail wrote in a final letter:

"Having once entertained for you a respect and esteem, founded upon the Character of an affectionate parent, a kind Master, a candid and benevolent Friend . . . the Heart is long, very long in receiving the conviction that is forced upon it by reason.  Affection still lingers in the Bosom, even after esteem has taken its flight.  It was not until after circumstances concurred to place you in the light of a rewarder and encourager of a Libeller . . . that I withdrew the esteem I had long entertained for you."
In the John Adams papers is a note, dated November 19, 1804, and found appended to the correspondence:
"The whole of this Correspondence was begun and conducted without my Knowledge or Suspicion.  Last Evening and this Morning at the desire of Mrs. Adams I read the whole.  I have no remarks to make upon it at this time and in this place." 

Happily, contact between John Adams and Jefferson was finally renewed with Adams' letter to Jefferson of January 1, 1812, which triggered more than 150 further letters between the two before their deaths on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

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