I got fairly excited when I read about this book because it was described as being more an intellectual biography of Adams and Jefferson. As a child, visits to Monticello happened probably twice every three years, so I always felt a closer connection to Jefferson, a sense that was only partially relieved by reading McCullough’s biography from 2001.
There was a lot to be learned in comparing the back and forth of their political ideas. And I don’t know if I never knew or merely forgot, but it was jarring to read about Adams’ somewhat more than vaguely monarchical ideas about the presidency and hereditary office.
I was reminded of the relationship between Malthus and Ricardo – Malthus the thinker of working class origins who mistrusted ‘the people’ and Ricardo, the wealthy aristocrat who criticized landowning, aristocratic, rentier capitalists. In this case, Adams the middle class fellow who mistrusted popular democracy and Jefferson, the quintessential patriarch who put his trust in an admittedly sometimes confused idea of the popular democracy.
One thing, which makes sense in the context, but felt odd: it skipped over Jefferson’s presidency almost entirely. Why, you ask? Because Adams and Jefferson weren’t talking after Adams lost re-election. They didn’t begin to write again until 1811, when they could communicate as old friends, now soundly out of the public eye, able to banter on theories of political economy without the pressure of knowing their ideas were likely to have much weight anymore, now that their political careers were over.