Mr. Adams

An essay about our second president by historian Ted Witmer was published in the Wall Street Journal on December 4, “How John Adams Got Over Political Defeat.” Dr. Witmer accomplished the task of a gifted historian by accurately describing long ago events and “connecting the dots” so those who are living can see the relevance of those events to our present situation.

Mr. Adams was the first president to lose “a fraught election that exposed internal rifts among Americans.” It was 1800. There was racial anxiety “beneath the surface … with Southerners and Northerners already beginning to move apart.” Thomas Jefferson defeated his former (and future) friend by eight electoral votes, 73-65, in a protracted and rancorous session.

“Angry and sullen, …. On the day that his successor was inaugurated, Adams left Washington at 4 a.m. (for) his farm in Quincy, Mass.” Our first one-term president “found losing painful because no one knew exactly what an ex-president was supposed to do.” Twelve years later, “Adams finally snapped out of his funk and sent a letter to his old rival, offering Jefferson best wishes” and two books by his son, John Quincy Adams.

“For the next 14 years, … their correspondence retained a grandeur befitting two patriarchs….” They both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. “That stirring coincidence amazed Americans, including a young reader in southern Indiana named Abraham Lincoln, who was beginning to bring into focus his own thoughts about the Declaration and its promise of human rights for all.”

Adams, even after a very ugly election, showed that we could accomplish a peaceful transfer of power. Years later, after his graceful letter, “the friendship that Adams and Jefferson formed in their old age…showed the world that Americans could lose gracefully and find comfort in their commitment to shared principles.”

From the Wall Street Journal article linked above, left to right, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson working on the Declaration of Independence during the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, 1776, (the Everett Collection)

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