The Healthy Lives of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams
Thomas Jefferson was 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He alone wrote the entire first draft a week or so before the two big votes on July 2 and July 4, 1776. Deliberations on this declaration were held in complete privacy. The document would come to be viewed as treason by the British.
John Adams was 40 years old as the two votes on this document approached. Although he said he did not write a word of it, Adams is credited with having by far the most important role in getting the document passed by the Continental Congress.
Fifty years later Jefferson was 82 and Adams was 90 on July 4, 1826. Both were extremely ill but both wanted to survive until that anniversary date. They did. They died within 5 hours of each other.
Thomas Jefferson’s graciousness was so appealing. He was never blunt or assertive but serene, always polite, soft-spoken, a listener only, usually keeping within himself. In politics he endeavored to establish a habit of silence. He was 6 feet 2 and 1/2 inches tall, had thin, coppery red hair, was a superb horseman, sang, and played the violin. In Congress he barely said a word. “Never contradict anybody” he was advised by Benjamin Franklin whom he admired above all men. Later in life, still puzzled over Jefferson’s passivity at Philadelphia, Adams would claim that “during the whole time I sat with him in Congress I never saw him utter three sentences together.”
The closest Jefferson came to an early demise was in 1781, when he was 38 and 20 British soldiers were racing from Charlottesville to his home, Monticello, to capture him. Jefferson left, possibly as close as just 5 minutes before the British arrived. He knew back trails the Brits had no knowledge of and his was close to the fastest horse in the state of Virginia. He escaped but had he been caught who knows what might have been his fate once the British learned of his role as author of the Declaration of Independence.
Health problems experienced by Thomas Jefferson included severe debilitating headaches lasting 3 weeks that returned five or six times from age 20 on; bloody episodes of diarrhea for years, a compound fracture of his wrist that resulted in pain from 1785 until his death 41 years later; malaria; depression, insomnia and periodic anxiety.
Adams considered Jefferson his protégé and Jefferson looked upon Adams as a mentor. Both Adams and Jefferson were lawyers, farmers, horsemen throughout their lives, immensely curious and prodigious readers. In 1815 Jefferson sold his 6,707 books to restart the Library of Congress which had been burned in the War of 1812. Jefferson only rarely wrote very lightly with pencil in a book. Adams wrote using pens in his 3,200 books. In one, book, Mary Wollstonecraft’s French Revolution, Adams’s written comments came to some 12,000 words!
A source of love, support, and encouragement for John Adams was his wife Abigail. Their years together have been described as one of the most beautiful marriages in the annals of our nation. Jefferson’s wife, Martha, on the other hand, died and on her deathbed made Thomas promise to never marry again. He kept this promise for the remaining 40 years of his life. His relationship with the slave Sally Hemmings had begun before Martha died. It continued until Jefferson’s death, but the depth of this relationship simply is not known. Jefferson wrote down nothing about his relationship with Sally Hemmings.
John Adams was short, moderately overweight, smoked a pipe, enjoyed long walks and long horseback rides. He loved to be talking and relished the conflict of a courtroom or governmental body. He could speak extemporaneously for hours on end. By late July of 1776, under the burden of unrelieved pressure, too little sleep, no exercise, and worries over Abigail, Adams wrote to the General Court of Massachusetts requesting a prolonged leave of absence. “My face is grown pale, my eyes weak and inflamed, my nerves are tremulous, my mind as weak as water.” He was sure he was approaching collapse.
In 1781 in Amsterdam, Holland and then Paris, Adams had what was probably a serious case of malaria (although it could also have been typhus). He experienced flushes of heat, fever, chills, loss of consciousness for several days, and subsequent depression. For 18 months he had recurrences of what he told Abigail were the consequences of “Amsterdam fever.” This ordeal brought Abigail to his side in Europe after four years apart.
After reading several books about these two men I come away with the sense that they worked hard for values never before sought by any other nation. What they fought for was difficult, entirely new, exciting, good and definitely dangerous. This endeavor demanded cooperation between people who started with widely divergent views. David McCullough ends his biography on John Adams with words Adams wrote to an old friend: “Griefs upon griefs! Disappointments upon disappointments. What then? This is a gay, merry world notwithstanding.” It could have been an epitaph for both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Readers of this column might enjoy reading John Adams by David McCullough, Thomas Jefferson The Art of Power by Jon Meacham and Jefferson and Hamilton by John Sterling.