On New Year’s Day 1812, former president John Adams picked up his quill pen at his home in Quincy, Mass., and wrote for the first time in years to former president Thomas Jefferson. In the missive, John Adams wishes his old friend Thomas Jefferson many happy new years.
Jefferson and Adams formed an unlikely friendship, proving that opposites attract. Jefferson, seven years younger than Adams, was a tall, elegant, evasive, slaveholding Virginian. Adams — short, balding, argumentative — hated slavery.
But they agreed on separation from England. They met as delegates to the Continental Congress, where Adams chose Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. Later their friendship deepened when they both served as diplomats in London and Paris.
After George Washington left the presidency, Jefferson and Adams were the likely two successors. Adams won as president and Jefferson as vice president.
Then Adams infuriated Jefferson by signing the Alien and Sedition Acts. Congress passed the acts in 1798 when tensions ran high with France. They gave Adams the power to deport aliens deemed dangerous and to restrict criticism of the government. Jefferson viewed them as an attempt to silence his Democratic-Republican Party. So he stormed home to Monticello.
Other differences separated them as well. Adams believed in a strong central government, while Jefferson did not. Jefferson’s ardent support of the French Revolution further alienated Adams. Adams’ support of Tousssaint L’Ouverture in Haiti horrified Jefferson.
After their falling out, Jefferson decided to run for president against Adams, then seeking a second term. He ran a vicious campaign, and Adams gave as good as he got. Jefferson won the presidency in 1800, Adams went home to Quincy and the two men didn’t speak or correspond until that New Year’s Day in 1812.
On New Year’s Day in 1812, Adams penned a short, lighthearted note. He began by telling Jefferson he was sending him a gift.
“Dear Sir,” he wrote. “As you are a friend to American manufactures under proper restrictions, especially manufactures of the American kind, I am sending you by the post a packet containing two pieces of homespun lately produced in this quarter by one who was honored in his youth with some of your attention and much of your kindness.”
He finished with, “I wish you Sir many Happy New Years.”
The “two pieces of homespun” were actually two books written by his son, John Quincy Adams. Jefferson replied with a letter fondly recalling when they were fellow laborers in the same cause.
The two ex-presidents resumed their correspondence for the next 14 years. On July 4, 1826, the 90-year-old Adams lay on his deathbed. His last words were “Jefferson still survives.” He was wrong; Jefferson died five hours earlier.
With thanks to Joseph Ellis, Founding Brothers. This story was updated in 2023.