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To describe the long-standing but unconventional friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, I can’t think of a more perfect metaphor than the one already imagined by their contemporary, Dr. Benjamin Rush. To him, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were “the North and South Poles of the American Revolution,” forces that somehow created one of the most enduring partnerships in American history.
Though they were opposites in almost every way, two men worked, fought, lived, and died in tandem from the birth of American independence through their final years as statesmen and symbols of the Revolution’s legacy.
Physically, Jefferson and Adams couldn’t have been caricatured any better: Jefferson, the tall, lean, angular figure in direct contrast to Adams’ short, rotund, countenance. Temperamentally, they fell on opposite ends of the spectrum as well. Jefferson, the serious, cool and composed “sage of Monticello,” was a reticent public speaker who preferred to let others fight battles and get dirty on his behalf. He was a man of hidden motive and solitude, an enigma even now.
Meanwhile, Adams, the “sage of Quincy,” left it all on the table and wouldn’t be able to refstrain himself from speaking his mind if his life depended on it. Fiery, animated—some might say overexcited—and self-deprecating, his inner monologue was almost always external, whether in speeches, decisive action, or in letters to his best friend and wife Abigail. As Joseph Ellis writes in Founding Brothers, “for him, the only meaningful kind of conversation was an argument.”
Yet the similarities between these two opinionated sages were equally prominent. Both were vain when it came to their public perception and reputation, acutely aware of their place in the historical record and how they’d be remembered in the centuries to follow. Both were prolific readers and writers, men of books and letters who put their knowledge to the test in civil service.
Both were enemies of Alexander Hamilton, though Adams allied with him as a Federalist prior to his election to the vice presidency. And as the two architects behind the Declaration of Independence in 1776, both had a decisive role in creating the United States of America.
The bond between Adams and Jefferson grew stronger after the Revolutionary War, with the two men serving as American emissaries in Paris. But every lifelong friendship goes through its ups and downs, and for Jefferson and Adams, the big falling-out occurred during Adams’ presidency and only got worse during Jefferson’s presidential term. In the toxic political atmosphere of the day, Jefferson’s habit of spreading back-door rumors and discrediting Federalist opponents in pursuit of his own party goals (even though the idea of political parties were anathema at the time) only fueled Adams’ thin-skinned paranoia and inability to take criticism.
The two gave each other the silent treatment until January 1, 1812, when Adams picked up a pen and initiated détente. The friendship resumed in a long correspondence, a series of volleying letters wherein they revisited and debated their old ideological and political arguments through the lens of passed time. As Adams wrote, “You and I ought not to die before We have explained ourselves to each other.”
And in the most cosmic, couldn’t-make-it-up ending possible, not only did Adams and Jefferson die on the same day, they died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the announcement of the Declaration of Independence. For two men deeply concerned with their place in the American pantheon, they truly couldn’t have written a better finale.
In the spirit of this opposites-attract friendship, I bring you two dishes that pair fiery spice with chilly coolness in the form of oysters—an iconic food found on the shores of both New England and Virginia, and which no doubt would have been slurped down by both parties during their lifetime.
John Adams, the irascible Massachusetts farmer, gets a plate of sizzling fried New England oysters tempered by a dip in cool cucumber remoulade. Thomas Jefferson, the outwardly placid man of Monticello, gets his Virginia oysters served in their natural state on a bed of ice. The spicy mignonette, infused with chile peppers, speaks to Jefferson’s inner anger and habitual vendettas that he kept hidden from the world at large.
Both components of the meal are excellent on their own, but served as a complementary duo, they’re a memorable repast for the ages.
Make the remoulade:
Fry the oysters: