Looking back at the fascinating correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The two founding fathers discussed religion and philosophy and reconciled a friendship that had been torn apart years earlier.
All of the American presidents except JFK have been Protestants. (This includes within the Protestant circles Unitarians (Millard Fillmore and William Howard Taft) and Quakers (Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon).
Some presidents spoke about religious matters in highly person terms. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are examples. From both we learned the specifics of their conversion to Christianity.
• Mr. Clinton: “In 1955, I had absorbed enough of my church’s teachings to know that I was a sinner and to want Jesus to save me…”
• Mr. Bush: In a Republican candidates debate in 2000 George W Bush was asked to name a “favorite philosopher.” He answered: “Christ, because he changed my heart.” The moderator asked him how. Mr. Bush replied: “Well, if they don’t know, it’s going to be hard to explain. When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that’s what happened to me.”
Some of the early presidents were less orthodox, though discretely.
Consider the second and third presidents: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (see photo).
Adams and Jefferson bonded as American diplomats in Europe in the 1780s. But the bitter political climate in the US in the 1790s tore apart their relationship.
After 1801 they never met again.
Yet, about a decade later, after both were done with the presidency, one of the most famous of the American Founders, Benjamin Rush reconciled Adams and Jefferson.
It was a delicate operation conducted through letter-writing but Rush elicited from Adams the comment, “I always loved Jefferson and still love him.” Jefferson responded to Rush: “This is enough for me.”
Adams and Jefferson then began a correspondence that lasted over a decade and forms an important installment of American literature. Some samples:
• Adams in an 1812 letter to Jefferson : “In the measures of administration I have neither agreed with you or Mr. Madison . Whether you or I were right posterity must judge.”
• Jefferson to Adams to deflect a disagreement in 1813: “We are both too old to change opinions which are the result of a long life of inquiry and reflection.
• Jefferson in an 1814 letter to Adams : “…A letter from you calls up recollections very dear to my mind. It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government.”
• Adams in an 1814 letter to Jefferson: “The result in time will be improvements; and I have no doubt that the horrors we have experienced in the last forty years will ultimately terminate in the advancement of civil and religious liberty, and amelioration in the condition of mankind. For I am a believer in the probable improvability and improvement, the ameliorability and amelioration in human affairs; though I never could understand the doctrine of the perfectibility of the human mind…”
• Adams in an 1816 letter to Jefferson : “Griefs upon griefs! Disappointments upon disappointments. What then? This is a gay, merry world notwithstanding.” Jefferson agreed: “It is a good world on the whole.”
But with age they began to think about a life after this one. Jefferson wrote Adams that after death the “essence” of the individual will “ascend to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved and lost and shall love and never lose again.”
In 1823 Jefferson wrote John Adams questioning such Christian doctrines as the Virgin Birth of Jesus: “…. the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
This was standard stuff for the third President. Yet, in the same letter the he assured John Adams of an afterlife: “May we meet there again, in Congress, with our ancient Colleagues, and receive with them the seal of approbation `Well done, good and faithful servants.’”
Adams took an agnostic but hopeful view to that writing to Jefferson in 1825 (a year from death): “…while I breath I shall be your friend. We shall meet again, so wishes and so believes your friend, but if we are disappointed we shall never know it.”
These are sophisticated thoughts by the two exemplars of the American Enlightenment – and as personal as those of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.