ElectionsVote

A salient aspect of teaching high school students some history is my asking, “How many in this room want to hear another story about John Adams and Thomas Jefferson?”  I could by now comfortably predict that not one hand would go up.

However, I can also comfortably predict that if I were to ask any mixed gathering in any other room, “How many of you would like to find a plan to live more than twenty years past your life expectancy?” I am sure that some hands at least would be raised.

So, this column is not really for those who want to hear another story about Adams and Jefferson.  It is more for a reader who wants to know how in the world Adams lived to be 90 and Jefferson lived to 83 when the average life expectancy in the country was below 50.  And I am not saying I have all the answers for this. I am just saying that my small section of an answer may be just enough to be worth thinking about.

What made the long lives of Adams and Jefferson so remarkable is that they lived in an age where the medical culture was so bad that people may have indeed lived longer if – as Moliere had recommended – they were never to visit a physician at all.  Indeed, if George Washington after catching a bad cold in a snow storm had not had physicians come to treat him, he might never have bled to death from all the leeches they placed on his body.

But things turned out very differently for Adams and Jefferson.  In the autumn of their lives, something basically changed in the compositions of both men.  Until they had both long retired from the presidency and politics in general, Adams and Jefferson were the bitterest political enemies against each other.

It is true that Jefferson had served as the vice president under Adams during the latter’s four year one term presidency.  But in those early years of America, the vice president was not chosen because he was the choice as the best partner for the president.  Rather he was chosen because he came in second in qualifying votes. And so that policy often left the president and the vice president at competitive odds with each other, especially in the case of John Adams as president and Thomas Jefferson as vice president.

If anything, Jefferson as vice president sabotaged President Adams at every chance he could get.  The difficulty of Adams trying to be president with a hostile Jefferson at his side trying to stop the major policies of Adams finally created so much enmity that Abigail Adams -- describing Jefferson as The Devil -- forbade her husband to have any social discourse with him.

But it might be considered that the clash between the two had fundamental causes of division.  Jefferson was the son of an American aristocratic Virginian family, while the Massachusetts-based Adams was the direct descendent who Puritans who landed not far from where Adams was born.  The Jefferson family believed in trading as much science for religion as possible.  The father of John Adams in contrast was a deacon in the local Congregationalist church.  Lingering Puritanism took place in the Adams house in the form of a belief in pre-destination.

However, in contrast, Jefferson traced his personal disbelief in God to an experience he had as a small boy.  One day he was tired of school, and he prayed that the school day would end early so he could work on something more interesting. But the school day did not end early.  From then on, Jefferson “knew there was no God.”

I know that I promised my students and you that I would not discuss the history of Jefferson and Adams, but I would only use them as pretexts for a piece about how they defied the medical problems of their times -- how they lived to be a ripe old age even by the standards of our own modern time.  I acquired my above knowledge of Adams from a terrific recent biography of this Founding Father titled simply “John Adams” by biographer David McCullough.  I got my Jefferson info from an equally amazing recent biography titled “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” by Jon Meacham.

Okay, enough about the history part of this – but if you want more of that history part I would heartily recommend those two biographies mentioned above.

Just one more historic thing: Adams and Jefferson first met each other as delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1775, and the first letter recorded between them from a letter from Jefferson to Adams was postmarked Boston, June 19, 1784.  For years after that they wrote sporadically to each other on the unprecedented experience of beginning a democratic nation from scratch.  But it was after the death of Abigail Adams in 1818 that the personal correspondence between them heated up.

Surely after the experience of his presidency Adams had reason to distrust Jefferson.  But the death of Abigail Adams not just as John’s beloved wife created a need in John Adams to find another person he could turn to with his most intense thoughts.  Jefferson may have sometimes been a knave to get his way, but he was always a good intellectual companion, and in that way, he took Abigail Adams’s place as the letter-writing companion to John Adams.

It turned out that they then wrote much more than they used to about nation-building.  Their enormous number of letters spanned matters dealing from subjects as vastly ranging as God to science.  It seemed that both intellects felt competitively about defending their intellectual turfs with each other.

Their walking regimens started with this increasing intensity in their correspondence.  Both men were obviously aware that their letters would be closely examined in history.  And so, John Adams began taking extra-long walks so he could think better during this walking to deliver better thoughts into his letters to Jefferson.  Then Jefferson began taking extra-long walks around his vast grounds in Monticello so that he could deliver even better thoughts and more impressive letters for the historians.

When Abigail Adams died, Jefferson was 75 years old and Adams was 82.  They both gave indications in their early correspondence then that they felt things were pretty much over for them.  But it wasn’t.  Their loping walking over the beautiful American country side kept them going until July 4, 1826, when they both passed practically at the same time as the same day. 

July 4, 1826 was 50 years ago to the day that a 40-year-old and a 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson signed the Declaration of Independence.  In that 50 years. Both men watched an unprecedented experiment of a nation become a truly great nation. Their walking helped get them there.  If they had been instead doing the kind of aerobics that I see seniors being pressured to do at my gym, I wonder if they would have lived beyond one more year of the Adams widower experience.

Chris Sharp- Commentary

Chris Sharp is an Educator and a prize-winning professional writer. He has recently published a new book titled How to Like a Human Being . Sharp's latest book is an Amazon Kindle collection of his published short stories, Every Kind of Angel . His commentaries represent his own opinions and not necessarily the views of any organization he may be affiliated with or those of The SCV Beacon.