AuthorWalayat, Aaron J.
PositionJohn Adams and Thomas Jefferson

"I rejoice in the correspondence which has taken place between you [John Adams] and your old friend Mr. [Thomas] Jefferson. I consider you and him as the North and South Poles of the American Revolution. Some talked, some wrote, and some fought to promote and establish it, but you and Mr. Jefferson thought for us all." (2)


    This paper begins with a narrative, the story of a relationship between two men, friends united in a common cause that found themselves on opposite sides of the political arena: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The respective lives of Adams and Jefferson are interesting in their own right; however, this work is intended to analyze the ideas that each man represented and the role that these ideas played in the development of American constitutionalism. While this article begins with a historical narrative, it seeks mainly to explore the idea of religious freedom in America and the two visions espoused by Adams and Jefferson, the traditions that each represented, and the American project of synthesizing these visions into our modern First Amendment jurisprudence.

    The relationship between the two was complicated, a friendship tested by political differences during the early days of the American Republic. In his famed biography of John Adams, David McCullough describes the Adams-Jefferson relationship during the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia as that of a mentor and mentee, with Jefferson admiring Adams's persuasive ability and "sound head." (3) McCullough writes that Jefferson was often deferential to the more senior and more experienced Adams in Congressional business. (4) This mentor-mentee relationship continued after the war when both Adams and Jefferson were respectively stationed in London and Paris as ministers for the new United States. Jefferson again paid respect to Adams' judgment and experience as a diplomat, often relying on advice from Adams. (5)

    The personal friction and the philosophical differences between Adams and Jefferson heightened, however, during the controversies that surrounded the French Revolution of 1789. The clearest personal controversy occurred with the Burke-Paine pamphlet war, in which Thomas Paine published The Rights of Man, a vigorous defense of the French Revolution and a response to Edmund Burke's conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France. (6) Adams had long been contemptuous of Paine's radical thought even as far back as 1776, where his pamphlet Thoughts on Government was penned in near opposition to Paine's conception of government in Common Sense. When Paine's The Rights of Man was published in the United States, it was included with a "laudatory" preface written by Thomas Jefferson. (7) Merrill Peterson writes that Jefferson's preface was printed without his consent and Jefferson was dumbfounded to see a private congratulatory note published, painting the Secretary of State as a champion of the French Revolution and a "denunciator" of the Vice President. (8) This unfortunate, if somewhat amusing, episode between Adams and Jefferson presents an important look at each's differing constitutional thought and view of revolution. Watching the events of the French Revolution, Adams began to show his concerns with the masses, a fear of populism that Jefferson did not share.

    However, their friendship resumed in 1812 when Adams sent Jefferson a letter of New Years' greetings along with two volumes of John Quincy Adams' collected lectures. The resulting correspondence between Adams and Jefferson has been described as "one of the most extraordinary correspondences in American history--indeed, in the English language" with some 158 letters being exchanged between the two men over the next fourteen years. (9)

    The selection of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as representatives of varying traditions, while intuitive at first glance, contains certain drawbacks. Firstly, it is difficult to select an individual to represent an entire intellectual tradition. It is as misguided to say that Adams cleanly represents the English tradition as it is to caricaturize Jefferson as a French Enlightenment philosophe. Indeed, both Adams and Jefferson exhibited a deep respect for both English liberty and the idea of the ancient Saxon constitution, and some Enlightenment thought, specifically the philosophy of John Locke. Furthermore, it would also be a mistake to create conjectures of any direct influence of Adams and Jefferson on the United States Constitution of 1787, given that both men were serving diplomatic posts in Europe while the Constitution was being debated and drafted. (10)

    However, the philosophical distinctions between Jefferson and Adams remain important and are relevant in the context of religious liberty. While Jefferson's influence, stemming heavily from his mystique and iconoclasm that has captivated the American imagination, John Adams' own influence on the American Revolution, indeed to all of subsequent American political theory, cannot be understated. (11) Gordon Wood describes Adams' political views as "dark" and "pessimistic" lacking the uplift, breadth of mind, and optimistic view of human nature embodied in Jeffersonian democracy. (12) Jefferson, argues Wood, provided America with ideals that embraced the nations' potential for diversity, a vision which has led us to honor Jefferson over Adams. (13) The noted Jefferson historian Merrill Peterson, on the other hand, is more sympathetic to Adams' conservative considerations, writing that Adams "helped to keep the democracy born of Jefferson's vision alert to its own delusions and its suicidal tendencies." (14) To depict Adams as Jefferson's conservative foil, however, would also be a distortion. Harold Berman considers John Adams as representing the combination of the aristocratic, traditionalist, and communitarian English tradition with the democratic, rationalist, and individualist French Enlightenment tradition, rather than simply a champion of the English tradition. (15)

    On a note about historiography, Berman notes the danger of intellectual history to resort to broad categories with certain philosophical ideas, like republicanism, and certain philosophical traditions, like the Enlightenment. (16) These categories cover a diversity of often contradictory ideas and the label is almost completely useless for a practical understanding of what thinkers during that era believed. (17) At the same time, when studying political actors rather than professional philosophers, historians run the risk of characterizing and systematizing the different ideas outside of the context of when these actors lived, with many actors like Adams and especially Jefferson, often holding different ideas at different times and even conflicting ideas at the same time. (18) For this reason, this article will seek to narrow the differences between Adamsian and Jeffersonian models of religious liberty through their constitutional thought and specifically through their use of the ancient constitution of Britain. This ancient, unwritten constitution represented through avatar documents like Magna Charta, provides a common thread through Adams and Jefferson's philosophical as well as legal education and a shared reference point in their background concerning constitutional law. However, the ancient constitution also provides a divergence between Adams and Jefferson's thought, presenting different interpretations of the meaning of the ancient constitution in its formulation of the relationship of power between the different constitutive bodies of a nation. While Adams came to see the constitutional relationship and British constitutional history as a balancing of different interests and different powers within the nation, Jefferson saw British constitutional history as the assertion of the natural rights of individuals against tyranny, a history that saw the relationship as progressing forward towards greater individual liberty. It was this difference that influenced their design of religious liberty in the Massachusetts and Virginia models, respectively.

    This article discusses the constitutional thought of Adams and Jefferson. It will begin with a discussion of what Magna Charta represented, the ancient constitution of Britain, and the influence of such constitutional interpretations in Adams and Jefferson's common project: the American Revolution. The paper will then discuss Adams and Jefferson's differing interpretations of the ancient constitution and how it came to shape their own constitutional thought, with specific attention paid to their differing opinions of religious establishment and the free exercise of religion in Massachusetts and Virginia.


    What is Magna Charta's relationship to religion? To the Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Magna Charta is first and foremost a religious document, seeing the document as a covenant of liberties, fleshed out between the king and the people in a model reminiscent of biblical covenants between God and man. (19) Inseparable from the document are certain principles first laid out in God's biblical covenant with Israel. (20) Steven K. Green, however, is less assured of the religious foundations of the document, seeing instead a "mixed" legacy. (21) To Green, Magna Charta's general principles protecting the autonomy of the church and the church's undisturbed selection of the clergy were not protected in early American law, which instead suggested heavy governmental influence on church autonomy. (22) While the U.S. Supreme Court finally recognized church autonomy in Watson v. Jones (1871), Green sees no direct connection between the decision and Magna Charta. (23) David Little echoes Steven Green's recognition of a "mixed" legacy, noting that Magna Charta "implicitly favored the establishment of the Church of England (chapters 1 and 63), a prescription unwaveringly supported by no less than Edward Coke...

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