Americans celebrate Independence Day this Friday. But July 4th also marks the passing of three Presidents – Jefferson and Adams in 1826; Monroe in 1831. More importantly, all three died happy for having reconciled what had been severed friendships.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams first met at the 1775 Continental Congress in Philadelphia. They instantly liked one another. A year later, they worked together on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. In 1784, Jefferson joined Adams in France on diplomatic service. When Jefferson went to England two years later, Adams came along. Jefferson wrote to James Madison that Adams “is so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him if you ever become acquainted with him.”
Jefferson and Adams’ friendship suffered a fallout in 1801, the year that President Adams made some last-minute political appointments just before Jefferson succeeded him. Jefferson wrote that the appointments “were [selected] from among my most ardent political enemies.” Jefferson and Adams ceased writing one another.
When Jefferson retired from the presidency in 1809, Dr. Benjamin Rush tried to renew their suspended friendship. He had no success until 1811, when one of Jefferson’s neighbors visited Adams and heard him say, “I always loved Jefferson, and still love him.” When Jefferson learned this, he wrote Dr. Rush: “This is enough for me. I only needed this knowledge to revive towards him all of the affections of the most cordial moments of our lives.” Their renewed friendship yielded over 14 years of correspondence.
James Monroe was the fifth president of the United States (1817-1825). He is perhaps best known for establishing the foreign policy principle that came to bear his name, the Monroe Doctrine. Jefferson introduced his former law student James Monroe to Madison by letter in 1784, explaining that Monroe “wishes a correspondence with you.” Their friendship started well but fell apart in 1787. Monroe became suspicious of Madison when he was not nominated to the Constitutional Convention. When Monroe objected to ratifying the Constitution without amendments, Madison and Monroe split.
After Monroe was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1810, he reconciled with President Madison. “Mr. Madison is a republican, and so am I. As long as he acts in consistence with the interests of his country, I will go along with him.” Jefferson assured Madison, “There appears to be the most perfect reconciliation & cordiality towards yourself.” Monroe became one of President Madison’s most valuable cabinet members.
There are numerous reasons why these men reconciled, but how often do you hear conscience cited as a source? All four were familar with conscience. In the Federalist Papers, Madison said a people remain free only as they act according to “the dictates of conscience.” Jefferson wrote, “We should follow the oracle of conscience.”1 Adams referred to the “Liberty of conscience” as the “right of free inquiry and private judgment.”2 He added, “Morals are attributes of spirits only when those spirits are free as well as intelligent agents, and have consciences or a moral sense.” Good conscience secures “orderly government.”3 Monroe concurred, noting how “it is impossible that government should ever degenerate into tyranny” if “the liberty of conscience” in all matters is secured against encroachment. Good conscience makes good reconcilers.
It doesn’t mean the founding fathers were always right, however. Edward Coles, the young Virginian who had been Madison’s private secretary while he was president was vehemently opposed to slavery and did not hesitate to let the slave-owner Madison know his views. Coles struggled to understand how a “conscientious” man (his word) could tolerate such a moral wrong. Over time, late in life, Madison did come to his senses. He disavowed slavery. Good conscience doesn’t mean you always get it right, but it does mean you always confess and reconcile when you come to your senses.
On July 4, 1826, at the age of 90, Adams lay on his deathbed while the country celebrated Independence Day. His last words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He was mistaken: Jefferson had died five hours earlier at Monticello at the age of 82. Five years later, plagued by ill health and in financial ruin, Monroe wrote to Madison, “I deeply regret that there is no prospect of ever meeting again.” Madison replied, “Closing the prospect of our ever meeting again… amounts to a pang that I cannot well express.”4 Monroe died a few months later – on July 4, 1831.
This Friday is a good day to celebrate America’s freedom. But it’s also a good day to remember three American Presidents – and how they remind us that good conscience makes for great friendships that do what is necessary to reconcile when necessary.
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1 Letter of Thomas Jefferson to John Adams (August 22, 1813), in 2, The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, 367, 369 (Lester J Cappon ed., 1959).
2 Letter John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (January 23, 1825), in 2, The Adams-Jefferson Letters, supra note 12, 607, 608.
3 Letter of John Adams to John Taylor (1814), in “In God We Trust,”: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of America’s Founding Fathers, 105, 105 (Norman Cousins, ed., 1958).
4 James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library, Monroe to Madison, April 11, 1831; LC-JM, to Monroe, April 21, 1831.