John and Abigail Adams, Part Two
Narrator: On a bright June day in 1788, a ship bringing John and Abigail Adams back from Europe approached Boston harbor. Through his long years of public service, Adams had often felt pushed aside by other more charismatic figures. Now, church bells rang throughout the city. Cannon thundered a welcome.
A crowd of several thousand waited at the dock to greet him. To his great surprise, John Adams had returned a hero.
The Adamses were glad to be home, but John found the pull of politics irresistible, and let his name be put forward in the first presidential election that fall.
By the following spring, he was in New York, the temporary capital of the new nation.
George Washington had been elected president. Adams had received the second-highest number of votes, which under the new Constitution made him vice president.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: I think what that vote suggests is that he ranks second only to Washington as a kind of revolutionary hero because that's what really was being voted on.
Narrator: Stepping into a new, untried government, John Adams was anxious -- and with good reason.
Joanne Freeman, Historian: People aren't sure if this whole experiment is even going to survive more than a few years. There's every chance that it'll be a failed experiment.
Narrator: There was no army to speak of. No national currency. No permanent capital.
Joanne Freeman, Historian: I think a lot of people were probably standing two steps back and watching to see what happened.
Narrator: During the war, Adams had been called the Atlas of Independence. Now he held the second-highest office in the land, and would preside over the inaugural session of the Senate.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: He liked the idea of being the second most significant figure, but he is also the originator of all of the jokes that will eventually be made about the office of the vice presidency (you know), which in the 20th century has been described as not worth a bucketful of warm spit.
Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): Dearest Friend, I procured a load of salt hay for the stock, but the hill is trod down so hard by the cattle that it will provide no grass this year. ...
Narrator: Abigail had stayed at their farm. They had finally been able to buy a bigger house near their old one, and there was much to be done. She was no longer deeply lonely when John was away, but he was desperate to have her by his side.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): I pray you to come, as soon as possible. As to money you must if you can borrow enough to bring you here. If you cannot borrow enough, you must sell horses, oxen, sheep, cows, anything. If no one will take the place, leave it to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field.
JOSEPH ELLIS: He doesn't feel that he can conduct himself as vice-president with the degree of intelligence and success that he wishes, if she's not with him.
Narrator: Abigail packed up the household and moved to New York. John had found them a house at Richmond Hill, in what is now Greenwich Village.
Abigail grew to love Richmond Hill, with its views reaching down to the Hudson River. She began to worry, she wrote, about being "too happy in the situation to have it lasting." She asked her sister and friends to set her straight if she started putting on airs.
Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): Watch over my conduct and if at any time you perceive any alteration in me arising from my situation in life, I beg you would acquaint me with it. I know mankind are prone to deceive themselves.
Narrator: John Adams had very definite ideas about his role in the new government, but his experience as a leader during the Revolution did not serve him well in the Senate.
Joanne Freeman, Historian: Poor John Adams. He clearly assumed that he would be presiding over the Senate. So he would be giving advice, suggesting things from the past, sort of lecturing to the Senate- which did not go over very well.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: Adams has a genius for putting things in a way that will almost certainly be misconstrued. In one of the early debates in the Senate, the question was what do we call the president of the United States? Adams believed the office of president needed to be given stature, lest it be overwhelmed by the Congress. So therefore you needed to give the president a title.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): I propose -- I propose: "His Highness, the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of the Same."
Joanne Freeman, Historian: Which of course is harkening back to a monarch, which in his mind makes perfect sense because it makes him an equal to all of these other monarchs on the world stage. He's horrified when someone suggests "Mr. President" or "President of the United States," because he says at the time, "There are presidents of cricket clubs. What does that mean, president?"
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): It was common -- it was common-- while he commanded the army to call General Washington "His Excellency," but it would appear to me better to give him no title than to put him on a level with the governor of Bermuda.
John Ferling, Historian: There was enormous concern in the United States about monarchy. Many people misinterpreted him and believed that what he was actually calling for was the creation of an American monarchy.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: Adams doesn't worry that he's going to be accused of being a monarchist because he's got impeccable revolutionary credentials. He's the guy that overthrew the monarch. Right?
Narrator: The Senate voted to rein in Adams, officially changing the role of vice president for all time. America's leading political thinker would not be permitted to join in as they debated vital questions about the future of the new United States.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): It is to be sure a punishment to hear other men talk for five hours every day and not to be at liberty to talk myself. Especially as more than half I hear appears to me very young, inconsiderate and inexperienced.
Joanne Freeman, Historian: Clearly, he must have thought to himself: Nonsense. Utter nonsense. Utter nonsense. But he can't say, "Stop." "You don't know what you're talking about." He just has to sit there.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: This is like muzzling one of the great oratorical forces in the American Revolution. And he's very despondent. The great talker has to listen.
Narrator: In the rainy spring of 1790, Benjamin Franklin died. The press hailed him as a grand old man of the revolution, almost a god. Adams was furious.
Franklin was being lionized, while he, Adams, sat muzzled in the senate, his own role in the revolution pushed into the shadows.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): The history of our revolution will be one continued lie. The essence will be that Dr. Franklin's electrical rod smote the earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod and thence forward these two conducted all the policy, negotiation, legislation, and war.
Narrator: This anguish over his rightful place in history would torment Adams for the rest of his life.
In the fall, the Adamses had to leave Richmond Hill. Congress had voted to move the capital to Philadelphia while they sought a permanent location on the Potomac River. Abigail was miserable.
It was the fifth time in six years she had had to pack and move, and they were barely getting by on the meager income from the farm and John's modest salary.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Public business must be done by somebody. If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.
Narrator: Adams had become more comfortable with his role in the Senate, no longer presiding like a volcano about to erupt.
In 1792, Washington and Adams were easily re-elected. But events unfolding across the Atlantic would make the next four years as wrenching as any they would endure.
In France, with cries of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, the people had risen up against the king, vowing to crush the old regime.
Many Americans believed that the spark of liberty they had kindled at Lexington and Concord was now alive in Europe.
Across the United States, people flew the French flag and gave money to the cause.
Adams would have no part of it. The Founding Fathers had sought to preserve order even while fighting for independence. But the French seemed bent on the total destruction of the existing system of law and government.
As a young lawyer in Boston two decades earlier, John Adams had passionately condemned mob violence. In 1770, when British soldiers were on trial for murder after shooting into an angry crowd -- the so-called Boston Massacre -- it was John Adams who had taken their case, arguing they had a right to defend themselves.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): The mob whistling, screaming and crying "kill them! kill them!....
Narrator: Adams felt deeply that the mob in Boston that night had been a serious threat to the rule of law. And so too was the bloody revolution in France.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: He says on many occasions that this is going to be the classical pattern: a mob rule, violence and terror, and eventually the establishment of a despotic government, ruled by a single person.
Narrator: He wrote in great agitation to his old friend Thomas Jefferson:
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Reasoning has all been lost. Passion and prejudice will govern.
Narrator: But Jefferson was enthralled with the unfolding drama in France.
Joanne Freeman, Historian: Jefferson starts out with this idea that the French Revolution is the spark of liberty moving around the world, and doesn't really let go of that horse. He just hangs onto that horse. He really thinks, even when things get bloody and violent, that, well, (you know) you need a little bloodshed in the greater cause of liberty across the world.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: He's absolutely sincere. He really does think that the principles in the Declaration of Independence and the principles of the French Revolution are synonymous. If the last king can be strangled with the entrails of the last priest, we will have destroyed the institutions that have stood in the way of human freedom.
Narrator: But John Adams held a starkly different view of the events in France.
Joanne Freeman, Historian: He thinks they're in this bloody, anarchic chaos over there. And what would prevent some of that chaos and confusion from working its way to America?
Joseph Ellis, Historian: These are big issues that they're disagreeing on. It's not just a single event. It's the meaning of western history, and what direction it's headed in. and how we should lead it, and how we should join it.
Narrator: By late 1793, only faint traces of John and Abigail's old friendship with Jefferson remained.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): I have so long been in the habit of thinking well of his abilities and general good dispositions that I cannot but feel some regret. But his mind is now poisoned with passion and prejudice...and I will not weep.
Narrator: In the summer of 1796, as his second term as vice president drew to a close, Adams, now sixty, returned to the farm and threw himself into work in the fields, acting as if the coming presidential election were the furthest thing from his mind.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): My men are hilling the corn over the road. A soft fine rain is falling as sweetly as I ever saw. It will refresh the gardens, revive the corn, make the fruit grow rapidly.
Narrator: He even ventured to give his rocky little acreage, now part of the town of Quincy, a grand name.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): I think to christen my place Peacefield, in commemoration of the peace which I assisted in making, and of the peace I have enjoyed here.
Narrator: John's sons, too, seemed to be thriving. Charles had graduated from Harvard and was starting a career as a lawyer. John Quincy, now 29, had been named Minister to the Netherlands and had taken his younger brother Thomas with him as an aide.
By September, Adams knew for certain that George Washington would not be running for president again. But he appeared to be indifferent.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: This is part of a pose. I mean, it's clear that Adams intends fully to be president of the United States; this is a way of controlling his ambitions by sort of soothing himself, getting into the bucolic rhythms. All the while, this little engine of Adams' ambitions is just beating away inside. And it is unquestionably the case that he believes that the presidency is almost his by revolutionary right.
Narrator: Adams would be opposed by his former friend, Thomas Jefferson, each now linked to an emerging political party. It would be the first partisan election, and newspapers were stridently taking sides.
David McCullough, Historian: The Jeffersonians (or the Republicans, as they became known) believed that the danger was in a chief executive who was too powerful. Too much power in one place was a dangerous thing.
And the Federalists (as they became known) were for a strong national government, a strong executive. Adams felt you had to have a strong executive and could not rest power with the legislature.
Narrator: Both John and Abigail knew it would be a hard fight. Mischief was brewing in a cauldron, Abigail wrote, "as venomous as Macbeth's hell broth."
Joanne Freeman, Historian: They're not thinking, "Oh, you have one opinion, I have another. We'll fight it out and someone will win." They're thinking, "I'm intending something for the general good. And if you disagree with me, then you're out to destroy the general good.
Narrator: Reluctantly, Adams returned to Philadelphia in the fall -- alone. Abigail stayed at the farm. Money was tight, and she'd missed her friends and family.
Brooding by his fire that December, Adams confronted the possibility that he might lose to Jefferson. Once, the Founding Fathers had been of one mind. Now the divisions were stark, and deeply personal.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): I laugh at myself twenty times a day for the speculations in which I find myself engaged: Vanity suffers. Cold feelings of unpopularity. Humiliation. I can pronounce Thomas Jefferson to be chosen President with a grace that I don't fear...
Narrator: But his letter to Abigail betrayed his feelings of hopelessness. The name of Thomas Jefferson loomed over the page.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Nobody to speak to, poring upon my disgrace and future prospects -- this is ugly.
Narrator: Adams eked out a narrow victory, in large part because many saw him as a statesman, above party. But he had little to celebrate. As the successor to the great George Washington, Adams faced a daunting task.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: Washington has been present as the center of gravity, from 1775 all the way up to 1796. And what happens when Washington goes? People are terrified -- that we are being held together by a single person, not by a system of laws, because the laws haven't had a chance to earn and to dig their roots into this country. This is still a government of men. And Adams is now the man.
Narrator: In the spring of 1797, John Adams came to inspect the house he would soon occupy: the president's official residence in Philadelphia. George Washington's servants had left a mess.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): The furniture is in the most deplorable condition. The beds are in a woeful pickle. This house has been a scene of the most scandalous drinking and disorder among the servants that I ever heard of.
Narrator: International affairs were a mess as well. Napoleon now led the French army in a bitter war with England. Both European powers pressed for American support.
Joanne Freeman, Historian: America's this little fly speck of a nation, and it's smack in the middle of this generational dispute between England and France. And if America does something friendly towards one of them, the other one's bound to get upset, and vice versa.
Narrator: Trying to avoid war, George Washington had signed a treaty with Britain. In retaliation, France had begun to attack American ships. All America's good will toward its former ally had vanished.
David McCullough, Historian: The sentiment for war with France, particularly with John Adams' own political party, the Federalists, was overwhelming. But Adams saw quite clearly we couldn't afford a war, we didn't have an army, and furthermore, if we were going to go to war, we were going to war with Napoleon. This was no cakewalk.
Narrator: Adams chose to steer his own course, at enormous political risk. He would go to Thomas Jefferson, now his bitter Republican rival, and ask him to put partisanship aside and work with him as a kind of co-president, in an effort to make peace with France.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: It was his affinity for Jefferson, their friendship, that he thought could override whatever ideological differences they had.
Narrator: For weeks, Adams waited for Jefferson's decision. One evening in March, they left a dinner party together.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): I would appreciate an answer to my offer...
Narrator: They were only two blocks from the room where Jefferson had drafted the Declaration of Independence at Adams' request.
This time, Jefferson said no.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: Jefferson chooses party over friendship, partisanship over Adams' offer of reconciliation. Why should he join Adams as Adams faces hostile fire?
The fact is, Jefferson wants to have some sort of peace negotiation with France. But Jefferson wants the Federalists to fail, and for the Federalists to fail, Adams has to fail.
Narrator: With Jefferson's refusal, Adams felt very much alone. He had unwisely retained most of George Washington's cabinet, and they had little loyalty to the new president.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: It never occurs to Adams to try to develop a political constituency or to massage the egos of people in the national government. Those political skills, he thinks, are unbecoming a president. The president's job is to divine the public interest and act in its behalf, regardless of the consequences.
Narrator: John's letters to Abigail became more and more urgent.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): I must go to you or you must come to me. I cannot live without you till October.
Edith Gelles, Historian: He felt lonely like he couldn't have imagined at any other time in his life. And he kept writing to her, inviting her to come, telling her he needed her, he needed her.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: When he cries out for Abigail to come join him, he is realistically assessing the national situation and the situation of his presidency. Both are at risk. Jefferson is gone to the other side. He's got no confidants.
Edith Gelles, Historian: She was the one person in this world whom he trusted. He never knew that he was hearing the truth from other people. From Abigail, he knew he would hear the truth.
Narrator: By May, 1797, Abigail was on her way back to Philadelphia. She slipped effortlessly into her old role, gathering information for her husband.
Joanne Freeman, Historian: Not only does she manage, in chatting with people, to sort of pull in this information which she can then deploy and give to her husband, but she even writes it down. She's amazing. In one case (one great case) with Jefferson, in which they're seated next to each other at dinner, she writes down everything that happens.
Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): A curious conversation on Thursday of this week between Mrs. A and Mr. Jefferson:
Thomas Jefferson (James Barbour): That gentleman who sits at the left of the president -- I've not seen him before.
Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): Mr. Holmes. You surely know him.
Joanne Freeman, Historian: And it's clear that what she's doing is, she's trying to get from him information: Who does he like? Who does he not like? What does he know? What does he not know? What kind of a stance is he taking? What does he think's going to happen?
Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): I pray sir what do your Senate design to do with the treaty?
Thomas Jefferson (James Barbour): Upon my soul I believe they will reject it.
Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): I am surprised at that. I know the mercantile interest in Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania are in favor of it.
Thomas Jefferson (James Barbour): Well I have the same information from the South.
Joanne Freeman, Historian: She's really very effectively and in a very non-confrontational, (sort of) charming manner, and yet in a pretty straightforward manner, trying to push Jefferson up against the wall to get him to say something.
Jefferson doesn't. Jefferson's good at doing that. So he hedges around, and then he tries to turn the conversation around to get something out of her.
Thomas Jefferson (James Barbour): I wonder what they mean to do? They have some daring projects afoot...
Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): As I supposed this referred to the coming election, I replied: I do not know. That is a subject which I do not choose to converse upon.
At this we laughed out, and here ended the conversation.
Narrator: But neither John nor Abigail fully understood what was going on in the shadows, away from the dinner table. Adams' presidency was under attack from all sides -- even from within his own administration.
Thomas Jefferson, the vice president of the United States, had concealed from Adams the fact that his own cabinet had repeatedly betrayed him, dangerously weakening his presidency. And worse.
David McCullough, Historian: Jefferson was paying a professional scandal monger named Callender to attack Adams. He was providing this man with money.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: And when he's asked about it, he says: Of course there's no truth to this. I didn't pay Callender to libel Adams.
Narrator: Furious at Jefferson's repeated denials, Callender eventually sent the evidence to the press.
David McCullough, Historian: It wasn't until later that Adams found out that lo and behold, this man who had been calling him everything imaginable, smearing him, was being paid by Jefferson, secretly. And it broke Adams' heart. Truly broke his heart. And Abigail never got over it. And there was a period of almost ten years when they didn't speak to each other.
Narrator: The summer of 1798 brought week after week of brutal heat-- and one of the darkest moments of the Adams presidency.
Abigail Adams (Linda Emond): The weather is so hot and close, and the flies so tormenting. Not a leaf stirs till nine or ten o'clock. It grows sickly here, the city noisome.
Narrator: The political atmosphere in the city was even more poisonous. John had sent a peace mission to France but urged building up the military as a precaution. He was attacked from all sides. Many in his own Federalist party wanted a declaration of war and called Adams a traitor.
The Aurora, a Republican paper edited by Benjamin Franklin Bache, Franklin's grandson, mocked Adams as "a toady of the war hawks... a man unfit to be trusted."
Edith Gelles, Historian: Abigail became very angry with the press. The press are maligning the government, and she thought that was corrupt.
Abigail Adams (Linda Emond) : Scarcely a day passes without some scurrility in the paper from that lying wretch Bache. He is trying to force Mr. A to resign so that Jefferson may take over.
Edith Gelles, Historian: She thought that the press would incite riots. That people would become so motivated by the articles they were reading, that there would be physical attacks on John.
Narrator: When Federalists in Congress pushed through legislation to clamp down on the press and anybody else who criticized the government, Abigail supported them.
The Sedition Act made it illegal to depict the government in any way that might seem "false, scandalous, and malicious," or that would bring the government "into contempt or disrepute."
Immediately, the Federalists moved to silence dissent and settle old scores. James Callender, and 16 others, including Benjamin Franklin Bache, the editor of the Aurora, were arrested for "seditious libel;" some were imprisoned. Instantly they became symbols of free speech under attack; victims of a president willing to stifle the press in the interest of his own political goals.
Adams also signed the Alien Acts, aimed in part at French immigrants suspected of collusion with France. The Acts gave him the power to expel any foreign-born residents deemed "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States."
David McCullough, Historian: The Alien and Sedition Acts seem to contradict everything that he stood for. But it was a very scary time.
Joanne Freeman, Historian: To Federalists, to Adams, to Abigail, it makes perfect sense. They think they're doing what they need to do to uphold the government in a time of crisis.
Narrator: But the Alien and Sedition Acts would leave an indelible stain on John Adams' reputation, forever linking him with the suppression of the very liberties he had fought so hard to gain.
The Adamses finally left for the farm in late July for a few weeks' rest. It was not to be.
By the time they arrived home, Abigail was seriously ill. The illness -- probably malaria -- was accompanied by unrelenting depression, deepened by troubles within the family.
Edith Gelles, Historian: Her daughter was married to a man who was a ne'er do well. So Abigail was just miserable about her daughter. Younger son Charles during this time, who had been an attorney, was married, had two young children, was beset by alcoholism and his health began to decline.
Narrator: Abigail was deeply pained by her children's troubles. John was in despair.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): My daughter and Charles bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave. The daughter, without a fault. Unfortunate daughter! Unhappy child!
Narrator: In November, he returned alone to Philadelphia. Abigail would stay at the farm. She was "wrecked and exhausted," John said, and he was terrified of her making the trip,
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): ...lest it should prove fatal to a life that is dear to me beyond all expression.
Narrator: Without his most trusted advisor by his side, Adams guarded himself for a major crisis. The French had coldly rebuffed his offer of peace, and the pressure to go to war was relentless.
On February 18, 1799, John Adams fired a broadside at his critics. He dispatched a courier with a message for the Senate announcing he would send a second peace mission to France.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: Adams is essentially and self-consciously committing political suicide. His own party is opposed to this. And the Republicans under Jefferson are overjoyed to see him in such predicaments.
Narrator: The newspapers boiled with venomous attacks. But Adams rode the wave of abuse undeterred. He found encouragement in secret reports from his son John Quincy, now Minister to Prussia, that the French might be ready to negotiate.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: It is clear what drives Adams is an almost otherworldly sense, and at times almost a perverse sense, of what is in the public interest. That's the way the old boy's mind works.
Narrator: Had he declared war on France, his popularity would likely have skyrocketed; his election to a second term would have been all but assured.
In March, he retreated to the farm and Abigail. The public cry for war grew louder; the president kept quiet.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: He knows that if he is under the glare of public scrutiny, he's probably going to erupt. There's going to be an Adams eruption here. And so one way to calm him down is to take him back to Quincy.
Narrator: In the fall of 1800, a swampy patch of land on the banks of the Potomac River became the official capital of the United States, and the new home of President John Adams.
What is now called the White House was still under construction, standing in a rutted field full of rubble. The smell of plaster and wet paint was overwhelming. On his first night in the house, John wrote to Abigail.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.
Narrator: But Adams' time in the house would bring much unhappiness and grief. It was an election year. Once again, he would run against Thomas Jefferson, president against vice president.
And once again, scandalmonger James Callender, now out of jail, went to work for Jefferson. The vice president approved a draft of "The Prospect Before Us," in which Callender described the "deformities" of John Adams' character.
Adams was one of the most egregious fools upon the continent. He was a "gross hypocrite", an "unprincipled oppressor". Only the election of Jefferson could save the country from catastrophe.
Attacks came from within Adams' own party as well. Alexander Hamilton, the influential former secretary of the treasury, wrote a public letter criticizing Adams just weeks before the election.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: Hamilton writes this pamphlet, essentially arguing that John Adams is a lunatic, or is mentally deranged.
This is also a blow not just to his election, but to his place in the American pantheon. I mean, that he's not like these other founding father kind of figures. There's truth in that. Adams was a more ambitious and argumentative, at times nervous man, who had temper. Now Washington had a temper too. It's just that he had it in private. Periodically, Adams would jump up on top of the table and throw his wig at one of the members of his Cabinet.
Narrator: Abigail arrived in November. She ordered the laundry hung to dry in the unfinished East Room, and kept thirteen fires going to fend off the damp.
The election loomed in a few weeks. John had confidential reports that the new talks in France were going well, but he felt he could say nothing until a treaty was signed. If official word of peace came in time, his critics would be silenced.
News from Paris took months to reach America. A treaty had been signed weeks before, but no one on the other side of the Atlantic knew it.
In the most venomous election in American history, the winner was Thomas Jefferson. Voters had gone to the polls unaware that Adams had succeeded in his bold quest for peace.
Joanne Freeman, Historian: He was the person who stood up under enormous pressure to go to war, and said no, and it cost him a second term.
Narrator: Before dawn on the morning of March 4th, 1801, John Adams, age sixty-five, waited in the wintry chill of the president's house for the stagecoach that would take him back to Quincy, and out of public life.
Servant: Mr. President -- some provisions for your journey.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Oh, thank you. I feel my shoulders relieved from a burden. The short remainder of my days will be the happiest of my life.
John Ferling, Historian: He was just mortified at having lost the election. He saw it as a personal repudiation by the people.
Narrator: The election had been bitterly contested. But the nation's first transfer of power between parties was orderly and peaceful.
David McCullough, Historian: That's one of the supreme moments in the history of the country, and in many ways in the history of the world, because it's at that stage where the rivals, the enemy (politically) is taking over. And they do so without a gun being shouldered or shot, or without any strife whatsoever. Adams retired, he stepped down from power, turned over the presidency to his opponent. It's a great triumph. It's a great moment.
Narrator: For Abigail, age 56, retirement from politics had come as a welcome change.
Abigail Adams (Linda Emond) : Our desires are moderate, our economy strict, our income, though moderate, will furnish us with all the necessaries and many of the comforts of life.
Narrator: Her husband loudly declared good riddance to the world he had left behind.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Far removed from all the intrigues, I hope to enjoy more tranquility than has ever before been my lot. I call for my chisels, drills, and wedges to split rocks, and for my wagons to cart seaweed for manure. I mount my horse and ride on the seashore.
Narrator: Yet for all his protests that he reveled in the simple life of a gentleman farmer, the old resentments from his days in politics still rankled. One July day, Abigail came upon John in the field, working alongside the hired hands. She could hear him muttering something.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Quack. (further muttering)
Narrator: She realized he was murmuring obscenities at his old political opponents.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: He's mad. He feels like his own contribution is being relegated to secondary status, and other people's contribution to the revolution is in ascendance. And in some sense he feels like they're putting the statues into the American pantheon, and his is not going to be one of them.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Statues, and monuments will never be erected to me, nor flattering orations spoken, to transmit me to posterity in brilliant colors.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: And as he sees other people, especially Jefferson, being elevated at his expense, he is just ripping.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): How is it that I, poor ignorant I, must stand before Posterity as differing from all the other great men of the age?
Narrator: He railed against the grand estates the Virginians had -- Washington at Mt. Vernon, Jefferson at Monticello. And then he'd turn it into a joke about his own comfortable but humble farm.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): You may call me the monarch of Stoney Field, Count of Gull Island, Baron of Rocky Run..
Narrator: Finally he settled on "Montezillo" as his favorite.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Montezillo is a little hill... Monticello is a lofty mountain.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: He's recognizing that the 4th of July celebration makes Jefferson the star of the drama. And it's like: Wait. This was just one little moment, and all he did was draft this thing. And it's being made into some kind of central moment in the revolution, whereas, Adams knows he, Adams, is the major figure in the Continental Congress, not Jefferson. But it's not being remembered that way.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: For five or six years, I think he's on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He's so obsessed with the way history treated him and the way it's likely to treat him. He writes this endless series of columns in the Massachusetts newspaper.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Mr. Hamilton maintains, with so much fanaticism and so much folly, but a point of honor...it appeared to me so mean, servile and timorous...in a strain of flimsy rant, as silly as it is indecent...his total ignorance or oblivion of the practice of our own government...
Joseph Ellis, Historian : And eventually he has purged himself. This is a kind of therapeutic exercise for him, and there is no more to be said.
Narrator: In 1812, encouraged by an old friend, John Adams took a step he never could have imagined a few years earlier. He wrote a brief but cordial note to Thomas Jefferson.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other.
David McCullough, Historian: And Jefferson immediately wrote back, and then commenced, one of the great correspondences in our country's history or in the English language.
Thomas Jefferson (James Barbour): A letter from you carries me back to the times when beset with dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man...
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): The Union is still to me an object of as much anxiety as ever independence was... I think a free government is ... a complicated piece of machinery...
Thomas Jefferson (James Barbour): As for France and England for all their pre-eminence in science, the one is a den of robbers, the other of pirates... And if science produces no better fruits than tyranny, murder and destitution...
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Checks and balances, Jefferson, however you and your party may have ridiculed them, are our only security for the progress of mind as well as the security of body...
Thomas Jefferson (James Barbour): Another of our friends of '76 is gone, my dear sir. We too must go and that ere long ...
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): If, one hundred years hence, your letters and mine should see the light, I hope the reader will read it all ...
Narrator: After several years of correspondence, Jefferson finally addressed the issue that had driven them apart -- the revolution in France.
Thomas Jefferson (James Barbour): Your prophecies proved truer than mine; and yet fell short of the fact, for instead of a million, the destruction of eight or ten millions of human beings has probably been the effect of these convulsions. I did not, in '89, believe they would have lasted so long, nor have cost so much blood.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: This is an apology. This is 20 years later, saying: I really am sorry.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): Dear Sir: I know not what to say of your letter of the 11th but that it is the one of the most consoling I have ever received.
Narrator: In 1818, Abigail fell ill with typhoid fever. A despondent John Adams wrote to Jefferson.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): The dear partner of my life for fifty-four years as a wife, and for many years more as a lover, now lies in extremis, forbidden to speak or be spoken to.
Narrator: John and Abigail had already lost two of their children. Charles had finally succumbed to alcoholism. Daughter Nabby had died of breast cancer.
Abigail would not live to see her adored son John Quincy become president of the United States.
She died on October 28th, 1818, just shy of her 74th birthday.
David McCullough, Historian: And when she died, he said something so touching. He said, "This is easier for me than when we separated and I would go off to Europe, because I know I'm going to see her sooner than when I sailed on those voyages."
Narrator: Among the many condolence notes was one from Thomas Jefferson, himself now gravely ill.
God bless you and support you under your heavy affliction, he wrote.
John Adams (Simon Russell Beale): While you live, I seem to have a bank at Monticello on which I can draw for a letter of friendship when I please.
Narrator: The 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence dawned warm and dry up and down the Eastern seaboard.
What happened that day seemed more like poetry than history.
David McCullough, Historian: It was far beyond anything anyone could conceive of. And people at that time, very understandably, took it to mean that the hand of God was truly involved with the destinies of the United States of America.
Narrator: At Monticello that morning, Thomas Jefferson, age eighty-three, willed himself to stay alive.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: He's murmuring things that nobody can understand, and then his slave, Burwell, understands that he means: shift my pillow. And then he mutters, "Is it the fourth?"-- meaning: Is it the fourth of July? Jefferson wants to die on schedule.
Narrator: Thomas Jefferson died at about one in the afternoon while, in the valley below, church bells rang in celebration of Independence Day.
At Quincy, the roar of cannon had begun early that morning.
Joseph Ellis, Historian: Adams has gotten up fit as a fiddle, no long, lingering illnesses. But he starts to fail just about the time that Jefferson dies.
Narrator: In the afternoon, a brief thunderstorm rolled in across the neighboring marshes.
Adams was having difficulty breathing. But even at 91, his mind was clear. "It is a great day," he said. "It is a good day."
Joseph Ellis, Historian: They take him downstairs, and he dies about 4:30 in the afternoon. And his last words are, "Thomas Jefferson still lives," which in fact was not correct. But it's poignant. His last thoughts were of Jefferson. He was a good friend.
David McCullough, Historian: When he was lying there dying, thinking of Jefferson, the cannon and rifle fire and firecrackers were all booming in the distance, celebrating the Declaration of Independence. Now, if you -- If you did that in a movie, somebody would say, "Oh, that's too much. You know. Things like that don't happen in real life." It did happen in real life, again and again, through that whole amazing life.
A friend once said to me, she said, "Real love isn't just gazing into each other's eyes. It's looking out together in the same direction." And if ever there was a man and woman who were truly in love and truly looking out in the same direction, it was John and Abigail Adams.