The Relevance and Irrelevance of Gordon S. Wood

“You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”

—John Adams to Thomas Jefferson

Gordon S. Wood is America’s greatest living scholar of the American Revolution. He sees further and more deeply into the causes and meaning of the Revolution than any other scholar of the last 50 years, and his ability to communicate that knowledge in graceful and engaging prose is unmatched. All of these qualities are brought to bear in his  new book, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In classic Wood style, this dual biography is gracefully written and full of his trademark sense of breathless wonder and commanding judgment.

While I appreciate its many virtues, however, I have to say that I do not find Friends Divided to be balanced in its assessment of the relative merits and demerits of its two subjects. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, even when I disagreed with it. One learns more from Gordon Wood when he is wrong than from most other historians when they are right.

Readers of this review should know that Professor Wood and I have a history. He supervised my doctoral dissertation, which became my first book, John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty (1998). Hence I can’t possibly begin this review of Friends Divided without some throat-clearing. Professor Wood has my admiration and respect, and has for many years, but it is also the case that he and I have disagreed about how to interpret the Revolution since that day in 1986 when I first walked into his office in Sharpe House on the campus of Brown University. I’m not sure that I ever had a single conversation with him during my time at Brown that didn’t begin and end in a friendly and good-humored disagreement. That he tolerated me in those days was a sign of his magnanimity and generosity. At the expense of trying his patience yet again, this review is a continuation of all of those conversations from 30 years ago.

The Art and Craft of Historical Writing

Friends Divided is an intellectual biography of the parallel lives and thought of the two men whom Benjamin Rush described as the “North and South Poles of the American Revolution.” The book proceeds chronologically, starting with their early years as they were educated and rose to prominence in a monarchical society that was on the western frontier of the British Empire.

The parallel lives of Adams and Jefferson can be summed up rather simply. Both received the best classical education that colonial America offered. Both were avid readers and deeply learned. Both spent the 1760s as lawyers and private citizens. Both were public revolutionaries during the 1770s. Both were diplomats during the 1780s. Both were Vice Presidents and then Presidents of the United States during the years of the early republic. Both gradually faded into retirement with their books. And, most remarkably, both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution. The thread tying these parallel lives together is their friendship, which lasted off and on for over half a century.

Friends Divided reminds one of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (about which Rebecca Burgess has written recently at Law and Liberty), particularly the comparison of Alcibiades with Coriolanus. Unlike Plutarch, though, Wood sides with the American Alcibiades over the American Coriolanus.

History writing is primarily an art, and the historian’s craft is concerned with selection and interpretation in the creation of a narrative portrait. It is also common for biographers to have a sympathetic or an antagonistic relationship with their subjects. This is certainly true of Friends Divided, where we see all of Adams’s vices but few of his virtues, and we see all of Jefferson’s virtues but few of his vices. To be fair, there are plenty of places in this book where Adams’s virtues and accomplishments shine through and where Jefferson’s vices are portrayed in all of their ugliness. Still, the issue is not just a few strokes of the brush here and there but the overall portrait.

Notwithstanding the attempts at evenhandedness, Professor Wood clearly writes as a “puffer” for Jefferson and as a “trimmer” for Adams. Wood’s Adams is mostly cantankerous, cynical, facetious, volatile, petty, self-serving, obtuse, ostentatious, and, worst of all, reactionary and backward-looking. The Adams of this book is barely in control of himself: he’s driven by deep-rooted and unseemly passions (vanity, envy, resentment, and anger) that come across as absurd and easily mocked. By contrast, Wood’s Jefferson is mostly amiable, polite, sensitive, charming, cultivated, graceful, optimistic, magnanimous, and, most importantly, progressive and forward-looking. Wood’s Jefferson is eminently likeable, full of light and hope, and is the true voice of America’s future.

Professor Wood could have drawn very different portraits. He could have selected different facts to interpret, and interpreted common facts differently.

He could have described Adams’s moral character as Stoic, Roman, and republican, and he could have described Jefferson’s moral character as Epicurean, Parisian, and cosmopolitan. But he didn’t. He could have drawn a portrait of Adams as amiable, persevering, honest, courageous, independent, hardworking, frugal, forgiving, generous, honorable, just, loyal, and a patriot. He could have told the remarkable stories of the many times that Adams risked his life or drove himself to the point of death to promote American independence. He could have described Adams as a man who, even when he was President of the United States, worked his farm with his own hands alongside the manual laborers (including former slaves) whom he employed on his farm. He could have described Adams as the deepest thinker of the American Revolution. He could have described Adams as a hero of the American Revolution. But he didn’t.

By the same token he could have emphasized Jefferson’s weakness, cowardice, dishonesty, hypocrisy, disloyalty, decadence, petulance, vanity, ambition, and narcissism. He could have said a lot more about Jefferson’s sexism and racism. He could have explained Jefferson’s inclination to lie to or about his friends as something more than a desire to avoid confrontation. He could have mentioned that Jefferson sat out the war while living with family and slaves in the lap of luxury. He could have registered the harm Jefferson did to American politics by playing the lead role in dividing the country into hostile political parties. He could have better described Jefferson’s undermining of Vice President Adams, practically to the point of committing treason. He could have condemned Jefferson for his decadent lifestyle and assiduous self-marketing. He might have judged and condemned Jefferson’s support of the genocidal Terror connected with the French Revolution. But he didn’t.

Recycling the Irrelevancy Thesis

By far the greatest weakness of Friends Divided will be found in its central chapters concerning the political thought of Adams and Jefferson. In Wood’s telling, Jefferson is the nation’s greatest advocate of equality, democracy, and freedom, and Adams its greatest advocate of inequality, aristocracy, and monarchy.

Wood first presented this interpretation of Adams’s political thought in 1969, in a chapter on “The Relevance and Irrelevance of John Adams” in The Creation of the American Republic. It became the dominant view of professional historians for over a generation. In the wake of Wood’s interpretation, most scholars in the 1970s and 1980s could only see Adams’s “irrelevance.” By the early 2000s, though, a new John Adams began to emerge in the scholarship, one that focused on the relevance and even the greatness of Adams’s contribution to the political thought of the American Revolution and the Founding of the new nation. The assessment of Adams’s political thought in Friends Divided is clearly an attempt to make the “irrelevancy” thesis relevant once again.

In both Creation and Friends, Professor Wood argues that Adams’ political thought changed during the 1780s, starting with his sojourns in Europe on public business. Supposedly Adams the revolutionary republican turned, at that point, into a conservative reactionary who rejected the optimistic assumptions of 1776 and the principles of the Declaration of Independence. At the core of this interpretation is the claim that Adams abandoned the idea that all men are created equal, which means that there could be no American exceptionalism or American-style republicanism. According to Wood, Adams was corrupted by European forms and formalities (the British constitution in particular), and was likewise appalled by what he saw as the decline and fall of American moral and political standards during the 1780s. In sum, Wood’s Adams is a thinker trapped in Old World modes of reasoning.

This reorientation, Wood argues, was first worked out in the pages of Adams’ magnum opus, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, which was written and published in 1787-1788 while he was in London as U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The Defence challenged the “enlightened premises of the American Revolution,” and it painted a portrait of America that is “dark,” “forbidding,” and, ultimately, “un-American.” In Wood’s estimation, Adams “had worked out a chilling assessment of the moral fiber of his own countrymen, one that prepared him to see the worst of people everywhere.”

Twisting the knife a little deeper, Wood also speaks of Adams’ “tormented soul” and his “long-simmering feelings and opinions—all his irritations, jealousies, and resentments—boiling over onto the pages of the Defence.” The Adams that emerges in Friends Divided thought “in traditional terms of mixed and balanced government” and was a reactionary proponent of aristocracy, monarchy, and the British constitution for America. For Gordon Wood, John Adams was wrong for America.

The Errors and Their Sources

Professor Wood’s interpretation is not true, in my estimation, on at least four counts.

First, the Defence was the culmination, not the antithesis, of the Enlightenment in America. Adams demonstrates this in the “Preface,” where one can see that his views on human nature and political architecture were in the mainstream of 18th century Enlightenment thought.

Second, Adams’ views on equality and inequality did not change over time. They were always perfectly in accord with the principles of the Declaration—and he said so forcefully and repeatedly over the course of 50 years. Adams thought that all men are created equal in their right to freedom, but he did not believe all men are created equal in all respects—and neither did Jefferson! That Adams’ slaveholding opponents (for example, Jefferson and John Taylor of Caroline) libeled him on this subject does not change the reality of what Adams actually thought and wrote.

Third, Adams was never a proponent of monarchy or aristocracy for America, and he made this clear often. He was one of the most vocal and thoughtful of American advocates of constitutional republicanism throughout his adult life. The constitution he wrote for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1780 was the most democratic of the state constitutions, and he wrote the Defence to defend it.

Fourth, his constitutional prescriptions influenced not only the framing of the Philadelphia Constitution of 1787 but also the third French constitution in 1795. (For more detail, see John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty.)

Professor Wood’s errors in interpreting Adams’ political thought are derived from two sources.

First, he does not appreciate the fact that Adams wrote the Defence for a transatlantic audience, which means he was describing and prescribing different things about and for the United States and Europe. Friends Divided confuses what Adams was recommending to French and American legislators. This is can be seen on several counts.

Consider, for instance, the Massachusetts constitution, which Professor Wood has Adams turn into a pale imitation of the English constitution. It was “precisely because Adams thought the governor stood for an order or an estate in the society that he had wanted an absolute veto given to him,” writes Wood. He says that for Adams, the “upper house [Wood’s term] embodied the aristocratic estate of the society.” Neither of these claims is true. The Massachusetts constitution was one of the most democratic constitutions ever written: Its house, senate, and governor were all elected annually. It was also stripped of the sociological-legal underpinnings of the English constitution.

Adams did not think there were European-style orders or estates in America, and so there was no place in America’s Revolutionary state constitutions for that which did not exist. In fact Adams’ arguments for a tricameral legislature consisting of a house of representatives, a senate, and a governor were grounded on his Enlightenment view of human nature—not on any alleged preference for an English-style aristocracy and monarchy. He believed that the one, the few, and the many were naturally-occurring social orders rooted in human nature that enlightened constitutions must take into account. How these naturally occurring social orders became manifest differed dramatically in America as compared to Europe.

To claim, as Wood does, that Adams wanted this country to have England’s mixed and balanced constitution, with its traditional social orders, is not true. In some places in the Defence, Adams was describing the sociological reality of France and prescribing forms of government appropriate to and for France. In other places, he was describing the sociological reality of the United States and prescribing very different forms of government appropriate to and for Americans.

Wood has conflated what Adams was describing about one country with what he was prescribing as the best form of government for another.

The fact of the matter (as understood by Adams) is that the social orders that emerged in United States were vastly unlike those of Europe, where they were overlaid with hundreds of years of social conventions and reinforced by conventional laws. Any resemblances between what Adams thought appropriate for France and what he thought appropriate for America are superficial.

Adams thought it natural for some form of aristocracy to occur in any society. He thought America’s natural aristocracy—the aristocracy of ambition—should of necessity be incorporated into the constitution by “ostracizing” it to a senate, where it could be watched and controlled. This must be done, according to Adams, in order to protect republican government.

The second and ultimate source of Wood’s mistaken rendering of Adams’s political thought is that he has taken it not from Adams’s own self-understanding but from that of his critics. There is much here that is based on the misinformed or dishonest gossip of the Federalists’ Republican opponents. Wood even relies on what Republicans are alleged to have heard Adams say. This is no way to understand or present a thinker’s writings. Nowhere in the book, for instance, does Wood examine or explain Adams’ philosophically serious reasons for advocating honorary political titles connected to various political offices. These Adams drew less from the practices of the English and more from the example of republican Rome. Instead, Wood supports his claims by quoting from the unbuttoned comments of a little-known crank senator from Pennsylvania, William Maclay.

Prophet of History’s Arc

The calumnious charge of Adams-the-monarchist carries a certain irony, for many of his maligners were themselves Southern aristocrats and slaveholders who were born to great wealth and position. And shockingly and disappointingly, the leader of the charge was none other than Adams’ alleged friend, Thomas Jefferson. In describing Adams as a heretic to the republican cause, Wood takes the Jeffersonian-Republican interpretation of Adams hook, line, and sinker. He therefore perpetuates the myth that Adams’ political thought was trapped in the past and hopelessly irrelevant because of its supposed defense of the British constitution. Following Jefferson’s demonstrably false accusations, Wood argues that history passed Adams by, that he was an American troglodyte in an age of enlightenment, that he resisted or didn’t understand the imperatives and processes of American-style democratization.

All of this, of course, is to be contrasted with Jefferson’s political thought. As presented here, Jefferson is the source of all light and good in American life and politics: he is the inventor of equality, democracy, progress, and the American dream. But surely there is something not quite right about this picture. Jefferson’s view that constitutions should be rewritten every 19 years was a little bit nutty. His defense of the French Revolution and the Terror in the infamous “Adam and Eve” letter to William Short (January 3, 1793) was morally indecent. His ultimate defense of agrarianism and states’ rights can be viewed as having served the interests of slave-based republicanism.

By what standard, then, does Professor Wood evaluate and judge the ideas and actions of Adams and Jefferson? Broadly speaking, Wood is a historicist, which implies that past thinkers and actors can’t escape the iron cage of their time unless they accept the forward-looking premises of historicism, and that history moves in a politically progressive direction, with those failing to support the long arc of history to be dismissed as eccentric, heretical, and irrelevant. Because historicism drives his analysis and evaluation of Adams and Jefferson, Wood’s criterion of historical judgment is not an epistemological category such as true or false or a moral category such as right or wrong, just or unjust. Instead, he uses a twofold standard of evaluation: 1) what the social consensus of the time says about particular historical actors (that is to say, the popularity test); and 2) the ability of those actors to anticipate the future.

According to Wood, “Jefferson knew instinctively what his fellow Americans wanted and needed to hear,” whereas “Adams misjudged the future.” Wood’s Adams is presented as tone-deaf to the needs and aspirations of his fellow citizens. By contrast, Jefferson ended up “on the right side of history” because, ironically enough, he opposed “hereditary aristocracies, gross social inequalities” and supported the idea of America as “ ‘the world’s best hope’ for the future of agrarian republicanism.” Jefferson was a prophet of the true arc of history, whereas Adams was a stick-in-the-mud whose ideas were decidedly yesterday. Wood’s concern is not to determine whether Adams’ ideas were truer to reality than Jefferson’s. Nor is it to adjudge whether Adams might have been a better or more accomplished man than Jefferson. These would be inconvenient truths for his narrative.

How to Choose from Among Competing Narratives?

Scholars might reasonably ask if Wood’s standard of historical judgment is the best or the only standard, and if his assessment of Adams and Jefferson is true or not. In my view, Wood uses a form of social subjectivism (for example, what a select group of Adams’ political opponents thought of him) as his standard, but such a standard is arbitrary, biased, and, in the end, unhistorical. It superimposes a Whiggish methodology on the past that privileges the present.

The time has come to reopen the case of Adams and Jefferson, to ask if Adams was really an irrelevant reactionary or if Jefferson better anticipated the future. I would argue that it is an objectively demonstrable fact that John Adams contributed more to the success of the American Revolution than did Thomas Jefferson. One could easily argue that it was Adams and not Jefferson who was the embodiment of the Revolution and the symbol of America’s future. Adams’s views on the role of women and blacks in American society were much more enlightened and progressive than Jefferson’s. Adams, the son of a middling farmer and shoemaker, represented the best that the United States has to offer. While not quite a “rags to riches” story, his was a story of a young man from a modest background who rose to great and greatly significant accomplishments.

And yet, near the end of Friends Divided, we read the breathtaking claim that Adams “knew deep in his soul that the Sage of Monticello had something that he, Adams, would never have, and that no matter how many books he read and how many wisecracks he made, Jefferson would always be his superior.” For Wood, Adams was palpably jealous of Jefferson’s superiority and fame. This is extraordinary, for it is conjecture based on no evidence; and it is demonstrably false to boot. By virtually every meaningful measure, Adams contributed more to the revolutionary cause than Jefferson; he was a sharper, more capacious, and deeper thinker; he was a much better public speaker; and, most importantly, Jefferson was his moral inferior in virtually every possible respect.

Surely there is incongruity in designating as the better small “d” democrat a man whose lifestyle was fit for a minor European prince, who nevertheless put across an image of himself as a “man of the people” and apostle of freedom. Jefferson could have lived the simple and frugal life of the yeoman farmer whom he held up as the American ideal, but he chose to live the profligate life of an aristocratic slaveholder. He was a cosmopolitan dandy who spent an inordinate amount of time and money, while in France representing the United States, shopping for wine, paintings, cutlery, furniture, and fancy clothing. He had the aristocrat’s habit of sparing no expense and going deeply into debt.

Indeed, so profligate was Jefferson that he had to be supported financially by the government and taxpayers of Virginia near the end of his life. At the time of his death he was more than $100,000 in the red. As a result, he could not afford to free his slaves. Two years after his death, the Master of Monticello’s slaves were sold at auction to pay off the debts his acquisitiveness incurred.

Adams was a farmer’s son who despised slavery and hired freed slaves, and whose lifestyle was defined by frugality and industry. This was the Jeffersonians’ aristocrat and monarchist who would deny the people their liberties if he could. The perverse irony of all of this is lost in Friends Divided. It was Adams who was the embodiment of the natural aristocracy, and it was Jefferson whose social standing was determined by birth and wealth. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Jefferson should have been more concerned with America’s slaveholding aristocracy than with an imagined attempt to imitate some of the forms and formalities of the English constitution.

Lastly, I would emphasize that Adams was a man who pledged his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor to the Great Cause, whereas Jefferson dedicated very little. The latter rarely practiced what he preached; the former always practiced what he preached. In the end, Adams was a truer representation of America’s new-model man than was Jefferson.

Differing As Friends Should Do

This review began with a quotation from an 1813 letter that Adams wrote to Jefferson. Let me close with this message to my former teacher from an earlier letter, from 1791, that Jefferson wrote to Adams: “That you & I differ in our ideas of the best form of government is well known to us both: but we have differed as friends should do, respecting the purity of each other’s motives. . . . The friendship & confidence which has so long existed between us required this explanation from me, & I know you too well to fear any misconstruction of the motives of it.”