Friends that Fought: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

We all know that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were two of our Founding Fathers. But did you also know that, while they were close friends for much of their lives, Jefferson and Adams fought regularly, and once went ten years without speaking?

Left: Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Jefferson, 1805. Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1867.306
Gilbert Stuart, John Adams. Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1867.304

This Saturday, Maira Kalman will be here to read from and discuss her new children’s book Thomas Jefferson. While Kalman’s book touches on their relationship, the friendship between Jefferson and Adams was much more complicated than you might think.

What kinds of things do you and your friends have in common?  Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were lifelong friends. They were both patriots during the American Revolution, both worked on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, and both held the title of President of the United States. Although different in many ways, when the two met at the Continental Congress in 1775, they developed a strong friendship and respect for one another.  They bonded over a love of books, reading, and writing.

declaration of independence_1976_23
Broadside (Declaration of Independence, reproduction), silk, 1876. Collection of the New-York Historical Society, 1976.23

However, despite their closeness, Jefferson and Adams fought often over their political views. The two disagreed about how the country should be goverened. As a Democratic –Republican, Jefferson advocated for the rights of states, while Adams, a Federalist, supported a strong national government.  Both friends ran for president in the 1796 election, and Adams beat Jefferson by just 3 electoral votes. Still, the two remained friends. After receiving the second highest number of votes, Jefferson served as vice-president to Adams for the next four years. How do you think competition like this could hurt a friendship?

Four years later, these friends had a fight that temporarily ended their relationship. In the election of 1800, Jefferson beat Adams and became the third President of the United States. Their feud began when Adams gave political appointments to some of Jefferson’s enemies right before Jefferson took office. Jefferson felt that Adams had betrayed him. After this fight, the two did not speak for the next ten years.

With the help of mutual friends, Jefferson and Adams renewed their friendship in 1811. They wrote letters often for the remainder of their lives. On July 4, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the two died within hours of each other. Unaware that Jefferson had just died, Adams’ last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives.”[1] Although the two had many differences and fought often, one thing we can learn from Thomas Jefferson and John Adams is that no matter how big the fight, true friends can always find a way to work things out.


Maira Kalman, page from Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything. Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014

If you would like to learn more about Thomas Jefferson and his accomplished and complicated life, join us at New – York Historical Society on Saturday, March 15 at 2:00 pm for our Meet the Author! event with Maira Kalman. Families can also participate in a Thomas Jefferson scavenger hunt through the New-York Historical Society galleries, and see some amazing letters written by Jefferson up close form our library collections. Due to limited space, we encourage attendees to pre-purchase tickets to this program.

[1] “John Adams.” Monticello.org. The Jefferson Monticello


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