Adams may have been honest and realistic, telling us Americans what we needed to know, truths about ourselves that are difficult, if not impossible, to bear. But however true, however correct or in accord with “stubborn facts” Adams’ ideas and statements may have been, they were incapable of inspiring and sustaining the United States, or any nation for that matter.
Since the traditional meaning of the term “nation” was a people with a common ancestry, Adams, along with many others, doubted whether America could ever be a real nation. In America, he said, there was nothing like “the patria of the Romans, the Fatherland of the Dutch, or the Patrie of the French.” All he saw in America was an appalling diversity of religious denominations and ethnicities. In 1813 he counted at least 19 different religious sects in the country.
“We are such a Hotch potch of people,” he concluded, “such an omnium gatherum of English, Irish, German, Dutch, Sweedes, French, &c. that it is difficult to give a name to the Country, characteristic of the people.”
By contrast, Jefferson’s ideas and statements could inspire and nourish the diverse peoples of the United States. By the early 19th century, the Declaration of Independence authored by Jefferson had taken on a sacred significance, something not anticipated in 1776 by either Jefferson or Adams. Adams was beside himself with jealousy. If he had known in 1776 how important the Declaration would become, he would have written it himself.
Abraham Lincoln especially knew how important that Declaration had become. When he said “all honor to Jefferson,” he paid homage to the one Founder who he knew could explain why the breakup of the Union could not be allowed. Lincoln knew what the Revolution had been about and what it implied not just for Americans but for all humanity — because Jefferson had told him so.
Half the American people, Lincoln said in 1858, had no direct blood connection to the Founders of the nation. These German, Irish, French and Scandinavian citizens either had come from Europe themselves or their ancestors had, and they had settled in America. And, amazingly, they found “themselves our equals in all things.” Although these immigrants may have had no actual connection in blood with the Revolutionary generation that could make them feel part of the rest of the nation, they had, said Lincoln, “that old Declaration of Independence” with its expression of the moral principle of equality to draw upon. This moral principle, which was “applicable to all men and all times,” made all these different peoples one with the Founders, “as though they were blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.”
Since now the whole world is in the United States, nothing but Jefferson’s ideals can turn such an assortment of different individuals into the “one people” that the Declaration says we are. To be an American is not to be someone but to believe in something. And that something is what Jefferson declared.
That’s why we honor Jefferson and not Adams.
GORDON S. WOOD is a Pulitzer-Prize–winning historian who has served as a trustee for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which awarded him its highest honor, the Churchill Bell. His latest book is Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, upon which this article is based. As part of his visit as a Revolutionary in Residence, Wood will moderate “Friends Divided: A ‘revolutionary in Residence’ Conversation” with President Jefferson and Young Thomas Jefferson on Saturday, October 5, 2019. The younger and elder Nation Builder will reflect on his friendship and bitter rivalry with John Adams. Book signing to follow.