by Hobson Woodward, Series Editor, Adams Family Correspondence
Volume 14 of the Adams Family Correspondence, published by Harvard University Press, arrived in the Adams Papers offices last month. Spanning the period October 1799 through February 1801, the volume chronicles the final months of Abigail and John Adams’s public service. Among the 277 documents included in the book is one that records a “curious conversation” between Abigail and the family’s former friend and political rival, Thomas Jefferson. The conversation took place at a dinner party in January 1801. A month earlier, presidential electors had cast their ballots. While the official election results would not be announced until 11 February, John Adams’s loss was already widely presumed. Ultimately, it was the House of Representatives that determined the outcome of the election of 1800, casting 36 ballots before breaking the electoral tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr on 17 February. Thus, the tension of the moment makes the conversation between Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson all the more extraordinary.
Abigail enclosed her transcript of the conversation with a 25 January 1801 letter to her son Thomas Boylston, telling him that it “was not heard by any one but ourselves, as we spoke low.” The enclosure relates an impressive exchange on Washington politics, where the president’s wife and one of the contenders for his replacement offered their impressions of a partisan Congress and ruminated on the characters of particular members. The give-and-take was frank, unrestrained. Thomas Jefferson said he avoided attending the House of Representatives, writing, “I am sure there are persons there who would take a pleasure in saying something, purposely to affront me.” Abigail Adams was equally candid, noting, “Some are mere Brutes, others are Gentlemen— but party Spirit, is a blind spirit.”
The conversation then turned to the Senate’s debate over the ratification of the Convention of 1800, an agreement that ended the Quasi-War and resulted from John Adams’s decision to send a second peace mission to France. Thomas Jefferson believed the Senate would not give its advice and consent, a position that surprised Abigail Adams given that mercantile interests favored ratification. If defeat did occur, Abigail claimed the fault would lay with Federalists allied with Alexander Hamilton, who had opposed the president’s diplomatic efforts. “There have always been a party determined to defeat it from the first sending the Mission,” Abigail said, adding, “I Mean the Hamiltonians; they must abide the concequences.”
The conversation came to a close when the vice president attempted to broach the subject of what the House would do about the deadlocked presidential election. There, the First Lady declined to respond. The election “is a subject which I do not chuse to converse upon,” Abigail claimed. Instead, she offered a telling anecdote:
I have heard of a Clergyman who upon some difficulty amongst his people, took a text from these words—“and they knew not what to do”—from whence he drew this inference, [“]that when a people were in such a Situation, that they do not know what to do; they should take great care that they do not do—they know not what.”
To that, Abigail wrote, “he laught out, and here ended the conversation.”
Future volumes of Adams Family Correspondence will include letters between Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson both before and after the breach in their relationship that lasted from 1804 to 1813. The letters provide fascinating insight into the friendship between the Adamses and Jefferson, though none reveal quite the same rapport as Abigail did when she took up her quill to transcribe her “curious conversation” with Thomas Jefferson.
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