Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. 1, No. 2

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum

Cappon, Lester J. The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. Edited by Lester J. Cappon. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959. xlix + 638 ppg. 

            This wonderful accessory to any study of John Adams and or Thomas Jefferson is a must have volume for scholars. It is extremely rare to have an opportunity to study the correspondence between two figures who were close friends, then political opponents, and finally friends again through a renewed correspondence. For this we can heartily thank Dr. Benjamin Rush who can count this achievement among his many such during his lifetime. The only thing better than this collection would be a volume that included all of the letters present in this book as well as many others between Adams, Jefferson, and their contemporaries such as Rush. That may very well be a project worthy of an electronic database.

Abigail Adams
            The letters these two men exchanged may have been among the most personal ones they wrote short of the ones to their loved ones. Both men were among the leading intellectuals of America in their times. They covered many topics which are of interest to scholars as they have a chance to cover a wide range written both before and after their period of estrangement. For a long eleven year span from 1801 to 1812 the two exchanged no correspondence. A brief exchange between Abigail Adams, John’s wife, and Jefferson in 1804 ended as Abigail felt miffed at Jefferson’s replies to her letters. John added a short note that he had been unaware of the exchange until the last minute when Abigail showed him the last letter she was writing to Jefferson. The pens fell silent between them once again.

Dr. Benjamin Rush
            However, Dr. Rush felt that the two men needed to renew their old friendship and he worked diligently to restore it. Both men noted Rush in their letters on this endeavor. The correspondence between these two men who are endlessly linked to one another in American history in the last 14 years of their lives is remarkable. It is also probably unparalleled in that every letter was preserved and collected into the one volume edited by Lester J. Cappon. This volume also contains the correspondence between both men and Abigail Adams which serves to expand the overall exchange. Cappon’s commentary breaks the letters into manageable chapters. They are printed in the exact order they were written in which gives an outstanding continuity to the project. 

            Originally published in two volumes, this complete and unabridged edition contains every letter by the three plus Cappon’s commentary, his footnotes, and bibliography. The footnotes add to the depth of the volume and provide points of reference for various events the men described. However, Cappon did not critique the letters in his commentary except to provide clarity and context for the upcoming sequence. He let them do their own talking. Despite the fact that this book was first published in 1959, it is still just as worthwhile to own today as it was then. Not only that, the letters of these men and Abigail have more historical value today than they did when they were written.

John Adams
            Then they were explaining themselves and their views to each other, but both understood that their correspondence would belong to posterity. This was discussed, but there was nothing the two could do about it as long as it was not done during their lifetimes which it was not. Their descendents made a few attempts at publishing some of the letters, but not until Cappon compiled this work were they all collected in one collection. The result is an amazing view into the minds of our second and third presidents who had a major impact upon that shaping of America. The fact that both were political opponents for several years only adds to the luster of these letters.

            The one drawback is that while they did discuss many issues from 1812 until their deaths, they didn’t go into much depth regarding their politics or the politics of the country during these years. Adams pried, but Jefferson resisted the temptation for the most part. On other subjects such as religion, education, and economics they wrote extensively. In fact, their views on religion can be found in these letters and may be the best statements on the subject either of them made in their lives. While they had some amount of disagreement on the subject, they both agreed that organized religion was a bane for America as a whole. Jefferson, who put together the University of Virginia, asked Adams for advice on more than one occasion which Adams of course was willing to provide. 
Thomas Jefferson

            Adams wrote twice as many letters to Jefferson after 1812 than Jefferson wrote to him, but in their earlier correspondence Jefferson wrote more than Adams did. It should be noted that Jefferson complained about having to write so many letters to so many people, but when he did answer Adams he wrote many long letters. Adams himself was not concerned and replied that each of Jefferson’s was worth four of his. Again, the letters themselves are definitely worth reading for their content and to catch a glimpse of how these two men viewed the world around them. That in itself makes this collection a timeless entry in American history.

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