In 1804, Abigail Adams attacked Thomas Jefferson in an angry letter unlike any he had ever received.
No one else ever addressed Thomas Jefferson that way. Not even George Washington, and he had good reason to be angry with Jefferson.
She was her husband’s closest political confidante, and both had considered Jefferson a close friend. Party politics, something new in America, turned them into frenemies.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had made an unlikely pair. Adams was short, chubby, blunt, combative. Jefferson was tall, handsome, evasive and calm.
Jefferson lived in princely style in Monticello with slaves to do the work. Adams wielded his own scythe on his family farm in Braintree.
Despite their differences, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson ranked as the two most prominent revolutionaries in the United States after George Washington. Together in Philadelphia they had argued to cut ties with England and worked on the Declaration of Independence. Adams, the better thinker, deferred to Jefferson, the better writer, to pen the document.
When the revolutionary war ended, Adams and Jefferson were both in Europe as diplomats. The Adams and Jefferson households spent many friendly evenings together in Paris. They were so close that Adams commented his son John Quincy was as much Jefferson’s boy as his own.
The Adamses continued on to London, where Abigail took care of Jefferson’s young daughter Maria until she reunited with her father in Paris. Maria and Abigail grew close, further cementing the ties between the two families.
When George Washington won election as the nation’s first president, Adams and Jefferson returned to the United States. Adams served as the great man’s vice president, Jefferson as his secretary of state.
But Jefferson grew wary of the Federalist Party, led by Washington, Adams and Alexander Hamilton. He feared a strong central government, and he especially didn’t like Washington’s friendly overtures to Britain.
The Jay Treaty
Washington had good reason to get along with his former enemy. Britain and France were still at war, and he wanted no part of it. He feared the fragile young United States couldn’t survive another conflict so soon after the last one. Adams agreed.
Jefferson, on the other hand, supported the French revolutionaries. So when Washington’s ambassador John Jay negotiated a peace treaty with Britain, Jefferson broke with his president. He didn’t do it openly, though. He did it by spreading rumors in Virginia. Washington was a washed-up soldier, he said, fronting for the power-mad money men of the Federalist Party.
Washington knew what Jefferson had said, and he called him on it. Their friendship effectively ended. They exchanged a few cordial letters between Monticello and Mount Vernon, but then they stopped.
The next president, everyone knew, would have to have revolutionary credentials second only to George Washington. Only John Adams and Thomas Jefferson fit that bill. And neither could fill his shoes. He was, after all, America’s greatest hero.
So Adams and Jefferson ran against each other to succeed Washington as president. Politics were different then, and candidates didn’t campaign. Adams beat Jefferson by three electoral votes, and Jefferson accepted defeat graciously. He didn’t even want the job, he told Adams.
When Washington left office in March of 1797, he knew he had stuck Adams with difficult challenges. “Ay, I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be happiest!” he muttered to Adams after he’d taken the oath of office.
France posed one of Adams’ biggest problems. The treaty with Britain had offended the French. So had the United States’ refusal to repay its war debt. Now French privateers were attacking U.S. shipping in the Caribbean.
Adams didn’t want war with France any more than Washington wanted war with Britain. So he asked his old friend Thomas Jefferson to join his cabinet and help negotiate a peace treaty with France.
Jefferson considered the offer, but then realized his job was to lead the Democratic-Republicans in opposition to the Federalists. Never mind that he was John Adams’ vice president.
Jefferson did his job and then some.
Alien and Sedition Acts
As Adams struggled to make peace with France, hostilities between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans grew intense inside the United States.
The thin-skinned Adams began silencing his critics by sending them to jail. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 gave him the power to do so. Two prominent Vermonters, U.S. Rep. Mathew Lyon and publisher Anthony Haswell, went to prison for their attacks on Adams. That did not endear him to the American people.
By the end of his first term, President Adams had managed to win peace with France. But he had lost popularity as he sought reelection. Thomas Jefferson decided to run against his old friend for president — again.
This time, Jefferson hired a scandalmonger named James Callendar to write a hit piece on Adams. Callendar wrote The Prospect before Us, calling Adams a half-mad warmonger who intended to crown himself king. Adams had him prosecuted under the Alien and Sedition Acts, and James Callendar went to prison.
But Callendar’s diatribe against Adams worked, and Thomas Jefferson won election to the presidency. President Jefferson pardoned Callendar on his first day in office, but Callendar wanted more – a job as postmaster in Richmond, Va. Jefferson refused, so Callendar went after Jefferson.
He revealed not only that Jefferson had paid for the libelous screed against John Adams, but that he’d fathered five or six children with his mixed-race slave Sally Hemings.
Abigail Adams Attacked Thomas Jefferson
In 1804, Jefferson’s daughter Maria died in childbirth. Only an event as sad and tragic as Maria’s death could have moved Abigail to write Jefferson. In her consolation letter, she hinted she hadn’t forgiven him for the way he treated her husband. In her last line, she described herself as one ‘who once took pleasure in subscribing Herself your Friend.’
Jefferson didn’t take the hint. Instead, he replied by bringing up a personal grudge. In the last days of his presidency, Adams had appointed John Marshall, a strong Federalist, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Jefferson thought Adams should have let him fill the judgeship and called the Marshall appointment ‘personally unkind.’
Her head must have exploded before she picked up her pen. Abigail Adams attacked Thomas Jefferson in a letter unlike any he had ever received before or would ever receive again.
She seemed to build up a head of steam as she wrote.
She now viewed him, she wrote, in a much different light than she had previously.
Her husband had a duty under the Constitution to fill vacant offices, she wrote. George Washington had done the same thing.
Then she went on the attack. Jefferson’s campaign for president had her ‘utter abhorrence and detestation, for they were the blackest calumny and foulest falshoods.’
Jefferson’s pardon of Callendar set a bad moral example for the nation, she continued. He allowed a private resentment to influence his public conduct, and he endorsed a ‘base calumniater.’
At first she didn’t even believe he could have done such a horrible thing.
“Untill I read Callenders 7th Letter containing your compliment to him as a writer and your reward of 50 dollars, I could not be made to believe, that such measures could have been resorted to,” she wrote.
Like an Asp
And then she let loose about Callendar’s disclosure of his affair with Sally Hemings. “The Serpent you cherished and warmed, bit the hand that nourished him, and gave you Sufficient Specimins of his talents, his gratitude, his justice and his truth.”
Jefferson, no doubt stung, replied that he knew nothing of Callendar’s activities. She wrote back that she didn’t believe him. And she added to his list of sins: He had used his position as Adams’ vice president to undermine his policies.
Abigail’s letter to Jefferson has gone down in history as the bluntest, angriest missive he ever received. And Jefferson received more than 26,000 letters in his lifetime.
John Adams did not know that Abigail Adams attacked Thomas Jefferson. He didn’t see their letters until months later. He wrote for the record that the entire correspondence had gone on without his knowledge.
“I have no remarks to make on it at this time and in this place,” he wrote.
The two men hadn’t spoken for four years and wouldn’t correspond for another eight. But on Jan. 1, 1812, John Adams would make the initial overture. They would renew their friendship, and die on the same day — exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.
With thanks to Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis. This story was updated in 2020.