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The Yankee and the Cavalier still speak on our bittersweet Fourth

Jamie Stiehm on

Pen pals in the sunsets of their lives, they wrote between Massachusetts and Virginia until they both died on the same Fourth of July. It's an extraordinary rhyme in American history, which has extra meaning for our hard times.

"I loved Jefferson, and I have always loved Jefferson," one wrote about the other, after a long silence separated the political enemies. Then they were old friends again.

I mean John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, on opposite sides of America's burning divide, which just exploded in street strife over race.

In a sense, the two sowed the seeds of the Civil War -- over slavery -- which they never lived to see. In casting, it's perfect: the Yankee versus the classic cavalier.

So, let's look at Adams and Jefferson anew -- not take down their statues. They have things to teach us.

The lawyers remain leading lights -- not only in Philadelphia in 1776 but also in our shared story. Without them, we're not nearly the same. Adams all but assigned writing the Declaration of Independence to the 33-year-old Virginian.

 

Adams was a fierce editor -- "a colossus." He was, by far, the better speaker; Jefferson was a great writer, yet a shy public speaker. As always, they contrast, from the greatest states, North and South. Jefferson was tall, Adams short.

"A letter from you calls up recollections very dear to my mind," Jefferson wrote to Adams after a friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, broke the barrier between them.

"It carried me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause ... self-government," Jefferson wrote, recalling the good old Revolutionary days.

Historian David McCullough lays out the lively correspondence between the aged founders in a fine biography, "John Adams." The letters were written to posterity, he said.

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