“Thomas Jefferson Survives”: The Last Letters of Jefferson and Adams

By Amanda Norton, Adams Papers

As we celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s 273rd birthday today, we also celebrate his renowned friendship with John Adams. Revolutionary partners turned bitter political enemies, they reconciled in their retirement, and their final words to each other, written just months before their coincident deaths on July 4, 1826, serve as a fitting capstone to a correspondence that has so justly become famous.

Writing to “Ex-President Adams” on March 25, Jefferson introduced his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who would deliver the letter when he visited Boston, noting that Randolph “would think he had seen nothing were he to leave it without having seen you.”

In this final letter, Jefferson poetically contrasted the present age with the one he and Adams had lived through:

“Like other young people, he wishes to be able, in the winter nights of old age, to recount to those around him what he has heard and learnt of the Heroic age preceding his birth, and which of the Argonauts particularly he was in time to have seen. it was the lot of our early years to witness nothing but the dull monotony of Colonial subservience, and of our riper ones to breast the labors and perils of working out of it. theirs are the Halcyon calms succeeding the storm which our Argosy had so stoutly weathered.”


Replying on April 17, Adams opened with his characteristic good-natured humor:

“Your letter of March 25th. has been a cordial to me, and the more consoling as it was brought by your Grandsons Mr. Randolph and Mr. Coolidge. every body connected with you is snatched up, so that I cannot get any of them to dine with me, they are always engaged— how happens it that you Virginians are all sons of Anak, we New Englanders, are but Pygmies by the side of Mr. Randolph…. Your letter is one of the most beautiful and delightful I have ever received.”

Adams, however, was never quite as optimistic as Jefferson was and did not entirely concur with the characterization of the present age as “Halcyon calms.” Seeing the attacks levelled on his son John Quincy’s presidency, Adams viewed the political landscape cynically: “Public affairs go on pretty much as usual, perpetual chicanery and rather more personal abuse than there used to be…. Our American Chivalry is the worst in the World. it has no Laws, no bounds, no definitions, it seems to be all a Caprice.”


Adams could only be so pessimistic, however. In spite of the wide differences between the men, the friendship between Adams and Jefferson had endured, as had the independence they fought for. And on that Jubilee when both Adams and Jefferson passed, John Quincy Adams recorded in his diary that his father’s last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

Adams was without a doubt correct that Jefferson would survive as a monumental figure for the nation. If you want to learn more about the Jefferson that survived beyond the statesman, there’s still time to experience The Private Jefferson here at the MHS.