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Friday, March 11, 2011

Gordon S. Wood on John Adams and Benjamin Franklin: Founding Fathers fall out in Paris

This month John Adams joins the ranks of Founding Fathers published by The Library of America. The two volumes of his Revolutionary Writings confirm editor Gordon S. Wood’s contention that “none of the other Founders passed on such a rich and revealing body of documents as Adams did.” This is particularly true about Adams’s dramatic—and colorful—reversal of feelings concerning fellow colonial leader Benjamin Franklin. Almost thirty years younger, Adams grew up admiring Franklin and worked closely and effectively with him in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia from 1774 through 1776. But living together in a chateau outside Paris as part of the American diplomatic delegation to France in 1778 magnified their considerable differences in working habits, lifestyle, and philosophy.

Gordon S. Wood reflects on Adams and Franklin in his exclusive interview with The Library of America.
LOA: Adams had occasion to work closely with Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington in the Continental Congress—and even more closely with Franklin and Jefferson on his diplomatic missions abroad. What portraits of the other Founders emerge from Adams’s writings? How accurate or skewed do you think they are?

Wood: Actually I think his descriptions of the personalities of Franklin and Jefferson and others were pretty accurate. It is only when he felt he was wronged by them that he lets loose his anger and resentment. He is impressed with Jefferson’s learning, but noted his silence during the debates in the Congress: “I never heard him utter three Sentences together.” His description of Franklin in a letter to Abigail in 1775 is laudatory. Only when he experiences all the adulation paid to Franklin in Paris does he begin to change his tune. Franklin may be a great philosopher, he told his diary in 1779, but “as a Legislator in America he has done very little.” By 1782 he had come to feel for Franklin “no other sentiments than Contempt or Abhorrence.”

LOA: Benjamin Franklin once described Adams as a man who “means well for his Country, is always an honest Man, often a Wise One, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” Does this description tell us more about Adams—or Franklin?

Wood: Adams never hid his jealousy and resentment of the other Founders, especially Benjamin Franklin. In 1782 he wrote to an English friend about Franklin, who, he said, “must make himself a Man of Consequence by piddling with Men who had no title. . . . But thus it is, that Men of great Reputations may do as many Weak Things as they please, and to remark their Mistakes is to envy them. . . . His base jealousy of me and Sordid Envy of my commission for making Peace . . . have Stimulated him to attempt an assassination upon my character.” Franklin no doubt knew of Adams’s opinion of him, but what probably led to Franklin’s remark was Adams’s letters to the chief French minister, the Comte de Vergennes, in which he repeatedly lectured him on how he ought to treat the United States.
Read the entire interview (PDF).

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1755-1775; John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1775-1783; Founding Fathers Set (12 volumes—plus a free book)

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