“You and I ought not to die until we have explained ourselves to each other.”
So began the late-life correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the founding fathers described in the HBO mini-series “John Adams” as “the north and south poles of our revolution.”
Once friends, differences in opinion and political competition had taken a toll.
They, like others in the founders’ generation, had deep philosophical disagreements. But as they went about the business of building a country, an endeavor that if unsuccessful would surely lead to their hanging, they hardly had the luxury to stop talking to each other.
So they agreed where they could, disagreed where they had to and kicked a lot down the road a bit (toward us, in fact).
Despite the differences between them and the odds against them, the founders managed to cobble together their opus – and ours – the Constitution, which despite all probability still guides this diverse group of people forward together.
But, alas, “politics ain’t beanbag” and two election cycles later, Jefferson and Adams had no tolerance for one another.
Fast-forward a couple of centuries and most of us are likely to relate to the fix Adams and Jefferson found themselves in. We, like they, have deep disagreement with – and sometimes little tolerance for – one another. Even our understanding of the founding document we all revere is riddled with fundamentally different viewpoints.
The two founders ultimately died friends, having given history the gift of their final correspondence. They died on the same day, July 4th, 50 years to the day after the nation they built was born. Not knowing that Jefferson had passed on just hours before, Adams last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives,” providing one of history’s most poignant lessons to us across the centuries.
If we continue to choose the path of this legacy – the uneasy yet unbreakable partnership of opposites that is our unique birthright – it will never be easy. Maybe a big part of our problem is that we’ve grown far too accustomed to easy.
“Whether you or I were right,” Adams had written to Jefferson, “posterity must judge. Yet I ask of you, who shall write the history of our revolution?”
The philosophical descendants of Jefferson and Adams are alive and well today in us, in this amazing American experiment “in the course of human events.”
And we are still writing the history of their revolution.
Like the founders before us, we hardly have the luxury to stop talking to each other.
Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org