I’ve been alive for roughly eight decades now, and – I hate saying and even admitting it – I’ve never seen America more divided.
Today, we split hairs over everything. Any small laundry list will do: the economy, masks and vaccines, race, law enforcement, climate change, gender, international engagement and a myriad of other issues. These are then reflected in a divisive world of broadcast media, partisan media, social media, and every form of punditry and commentary.
Pew Research discussed how polarizing our nation became during this last presidential election: “A month before the election, roughly eight-in-ten registered voters in both camps said their differences with the other side were about core American values, and roughly nine-in-ten – again in both camps – worried that a victory by the other would lead to ‘lasting harm’ to the United States.”
“What’s unique about this moment – and particularly acute in America – is that these divisions have collapsed onto a singular axis where we find no toehold for common cause or collective national identity,” Pew Research concluded.
In other words, there has been an official and national divorce. There’s no more compromising. There’s no more common cause. There’s no more negotiations. There’s no more respect for another man’s opinion, but only judgment. Just our way or the highway; there’s the only way and another’s wrong way, and never the twain shall meet.
But then, what is America if not a union or unity of diversity, E Pluribus Unum, “out of the many one”? Wouldn’t a single ruling party or way of believing make us no difference than Communist China? What is America if we’ve lost common decency and respect for others to have their own opinions and beliefs, even in light of vehement disagreement? There’s the rub.
With July Fourth right at our backs, and the celebration of the Declaration of Independence fresh in our minds, I wondered (again) if a way forward might be found in America’s past (that was the premise and basis of my New York Times bestseller, “Black Belt Patriotism“). And that’s when I found it.
I was reading the Wall Street Journal over the weekend when I stumbled upon an opinion piece by Peggy Noonan. It was titled, “How Two Great Friends Overcame Politics.” It’s was subtitled, “Adams and Jefferson met in 1775 and came apart in 1789. A forgotten man brought them together.”
Citing the historian Gordon Wood’s “superb” work, “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson” (2017), Noonan explained America’s two differing founders this way:
They met in Philadelphia in the Continental Congress in 1775 and invented a nation together in 1776. What allies they were, how brilliantly they worked, in spite of differences in temperament, personality, cast of mind and background. Adams of Massachusetts was hearty, frank, abrupt. He was ardent, a brilliant, highly educated man who found it difficult to conceal his true thoughts. His background was plain New England. He made his own way in the world. … Adams tended to erupt. But once past his awkwardness and shyness, he was jovial and warm.
Jefferson of course was an aristocrat, a member of Virginia’s landed gentry. He let the game come to him. Mr. Wood quotes a eulogist, who said Jefferson “kept at all times such a command over his temper that no one could discover the workings of his soul.” He was serene. … Jefferson, in Mr. Wood’s words, “used his affability to keep people at a distance.”
In short, they “were the odd couple of the American Revolution: Adams, the short, stout, candid-to-a-fault New Englander; Jefferson, the tall, slender, elegantly elusive Virginian,” wrote historian Joseph J. Ellis.
By 1789, right after the U.S. Constitution was ratified, Adams and Jefferson’s relationship was quickly unraveling. Much can be said and has been written about the dissolution of their friendship. But the divide of politics and personality was just too vast between the Federalist Adams and the Democratic-Republican Jefferson. And it only grew during the 1790s.
Their bitter rivalry was embedded in stone in 1800, when they engaged in what others call “the nastiest presidential election in American history.” Their feud was so intense that it spread among each of their camps like gangrene. So great was the viciousness that it threatened the very survival of our newly founded nation.
The Lehrman Instituted explained their and their camps’ hostility toward each other: “The period leading up to the election of 1800 became a witches’ brew of personalities, innuendo, ideology, and rumor. … The charges and countercharges addressed the candidates’ courage, patriotism, religion, race, morality, mental health, as well as their political viewpoints. Foreign developments fueled domestic fears which fueled political unrest. Historian Joanne B. Freeman wrote: ‘The fuel for these fears was the seemingly implacable opposition of Federalists and Republicans, largely a battle between northerners and southerners. With partisan animosity at an all-time high and no end in sight, many assumed that they were engaged in a fight to the death that would destroy the Union. Of course each side assumed that it alone represented the American people, its opponents a mere faction promoting self-interested desires.'”
What compounded and even fueled the Adams-Jefferson feud was the fact the election results came under fire and controversy, as the Library of Congress explained: “Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated Federalist John Adams by a margin of seventy-three to sixty-five electoral votes in the presidential election of 1800. When presidential electors cast their votes, however, they failed to distinguish between the office of president and vice president on their ballots. Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr each received seventy-three votes. With the votes tied, the election was thrown to the House of Representatives as required by Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution. There, each state voted as a unit to decide the election.”
Sound or feel familiar?
A few years ago, Fred Smith, founder of the excellent online think-tank, “The Gathering,” wrote another amazing piece, “Forgetting the Little that Divides,” in which he explained the agent or agents that brought the Jefferson-Adams feud to an end.
In 1809, at the end of Jefferson’s two terms as president, a mutual friend and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, had a dream about the two former presidents. He not only wrote it down but also sent it to both men. In the dream Rush saw the alienated statesmen renew their friendship and begin corresponding with each other. In the dream, Adams wrote a short letter to Jefferson, and Jefferson responded. These two brief letters were “followed by a correspondence of several years in which they mutually reviewed the scenes of business in which they had been engaged, and candidly acknowledged to each other all the errors of opinion and conduct into which they had fallen during the time they filled the same station in the service of their country.”
Both Jefferson and Adams respectfully acknowledged Rush’s dream but seemed to brush it aside. It appeared the letter fell on deaf ears, but time marinated the relational vision.
Three years later, at Rush’s appeal, Jefferson sent a very cautious letter to John Adams who responded with a guarded reply. That correspondence led to other letters until John Adams wrote to Jefferson on July 15, 1813: “Never mind it, my dear Sir, if I write four letters to your one; your one is worth more than my four. … You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other.”
The outcome? These bitter enemies, prodded by a friend’s dream, were brought back together for the last several years of their lives until they both died – on the very same day and only three hours apart: July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
(To read Benjamin Rush’s actual letter and explanation about his dream, and far more specifics about the reconciliation of Adams and Jefferson, go to historian David Barton’s Wallbuilders.com website, a treasure trove of our founders’ documents and commentary.)
Jefferson and Adams started off as America’s quintessential odd couple. They respected their differences in the beginning. They found common ground and goals, and sought to use one another’s strengths to meet and complete them. But they wound up focusing and feeding on their differences and disagreements. But the truth is that more united them than divided them.
There’s nothing new under the sun. But maybe we can learn from the Jefferson-Adams divide and their relational mistakes before we die, too. I haven’t had a dream about you, America. But let’s consider this column as my “Dr. Benjamin Rush letter” that we all can do better.
In reality, Rush’s dream and subsequent letter were not just about Jefferson and Adams, but all of us. They epitomized what our nation and we as its citizens should be all about: E Pluribus Unum and the American dream. Or do we think it is only coincidence or cliché that the 13 letters of E Pluribus Unum symbolize the 13 original states like the 13 stripes on the U.S. flag?
My wife’s advice to hurting marriages is her universal relational creed: Go back to the beginning. Go back to the beginning, when you used to be friends, opened the doors for each other, wrote loving notes, gave gifts and expressed appreciation in a long list of ways, despite your differences.
Maybe we need to do the same in our country for both friend and foe. Maybe instead of focusing on our divorce, we can return to what brought us together as newlyweds, even radically different ones. Maybe we can relearn to fight fair and for other’s rights as much as our own. Maybe we can rediscover how to agree to disagree agreeably. Maybe we can focus more on what unites us than what divides us and keep the real UNITED States of America alive for our posterity.
Could the God-given rights and path to respect and reconciliation get any clearer than through the words in the Declaration of Independence for you as well as your American adversaries?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
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