Title Reviewed:
Adams and Jefferson: A Revolutionary Dialogue

Author Reviewed:
Merrill D. Peterson

David J. Bodenhamer


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 73, Issue 3, pp 238-240

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

Adams and Jefferson: A Revolutionary Dialogue. By Merrill D. Peterson. (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1976. Pp. xiv, 146. Illustrations, notes, index. $7.00.)

When reviewing the work of a master historian one expects sound scholarship, mature judgment, and a felicitous style. Merrill D. Peterson, author of the best single volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, more than satisfies these criteria in this book.

In four essays first delivered at Mercer University in 1975, Peterson traces the famous fifty year correspondence between John Adams and Jefferson. But Peterson does much more than narrate the story of a fascinating and complex friendship. His study has a far more important purpose: it is an analysis of "the dialogue of ideas through which these two philosopher-statesmen carried forward the ongoing search for the meaning and purpose of the American Revolution" (p. 1).

Adams and Jefferson had much in common, but Peterson believes that the differences between them were more important. While both men were ardent revolutionaries, each held opposite views of human nature; therefore, each advanced different theories of governmental organization. Adams was a Hobbesian. Man was evil, and the division of society into classes was the natural result of man's self interest. Government existed to restrain man's evil tendencies and to maintain social order. The balanced constitution with upper and lower classes checking each other through separate but equal branches was best suited for this purpose. Jefferson, on the other hand, was a disciple of the Enlightenment. Man was basically good and naturally sought the good of others. Thus he advocated a government which was limited in its ability to regulate human affairs. Peterson succinctly notes the difference between the two friends: "In Jefferson's view government should be absorbed into society, becoming true self-government, while Adams believed that society must be absorbed into government, reproduced in it, and regulated by it" (p. 20).

This ideological divergence, present but muted in the Revolutionary struggle, became more pronounced in the 1790s. The friends' contrasting responses to the French Revolution marked a critical juncture in their political and personal relationship. Adams' fear of social disorder made him view the Utopian violence of the French revolt as the logical consequence of democracy run rampant. Jefferson had no such fear. He believed that the American Revolution was prologue to a new world order; the French Revolution, while disappointing to the Virginian, "furthered his education in democracy … and extended his vision of America's responsibility for advancing the freedom of mankind" (p. 53).

The friends parted company during the late 1790s as their ideological conflict became part of a partisan struggle for political power. Yet Peterson notes that Jefferson's election in 1800 meant that the people had settled the conflict in the Virginian's favor. Jefferson's optimism and his faith in the virtues of a democratic polity best suited America's vision of its future. Adams, as he accurately prophesied to Jefferson when their correspondence resumed in 1812, became a forgotten hero.

Adams and Jefferson will be greeted enthusiastically both by scholars and by the general public—and deservedly so. It is a superb addition to the bicentennial literature, and together with The Adams-Jefferson Letters, edited by Lester J. Cappon, it will become the starting point for anyone who desires to understand the relationship between these two giants of the American Revolution.

The University of Georgia Press deserves praise for producing a handsome, well edited book. It is rare when superior scholarship is so well complemented by the attractiveness of the volume itself.

University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg

David J. Bodenhamer

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.