John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two of America’s greatest founders and presidents, were, at different points in their lives, bitter rivals and the closest of friends. Though they differed radically in personality and temperament, they were drawn together by a shared idealism, common interests, and perhaps most of all, extremely lengthy retirements. Adams completed his only term as President in 1800, while Jefferson capped his presidency and active political life in 1809. Fortunately – both for their own sake and for the sake of posterity – the two men enjoyed a long retirement and correspondence that lasted until July 4th, 1826, when both men passed away on the same day.
How did these extraordinary men spend their golden years of retirement? In a fascinating letter to Adams, Jefferson laments that much of his day is occupied with responding to mail: “From sunrise to one or two aclock, and often from dinner to dark, I am drudging at the writing table. And all this to answer letters into which neither interest nor inclination on my part enters; and often for persons whose names I have never before heard. Yet, writing civilly, it is hard to refuse them civil answers. This is the burden of my life, a very grievous one indeed, and one which I must get rid of.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, January 11, 1817)
Jefferson’s frustration is understandable; a thoughtful man advanced in years, he was well aware that his time on this earth was limited. Why, then, did he take the time to answer letters that did not interest him, from people he did not know? Jefferson’s explanation – “it is hard to refuse them civil answers” – boils down to two […]