The Founding Father with the better character - Adams or Jefferson?

Just for fun — and for those who might have an opinion – I’ll first take my position by covering myself and noting that both were great Americans. What can you say about two guys who die on the same day and that day being a July 4th? Jefferson asks if it’s the 4th with his last breath and Adams’ last words, on July 4th, are “Thomas Jefferson still lives.” It really gets no better. But looking deeper, who was the better person? I say Adams. Look at the record. Adams, always beyond political party in the hope that he could act in the ‘general good’ of the public. Jefferson hired a “Mr. Calendar” to politically smear Adams during Adams’ presidency. Jefferson also - raped maybe - the half-sister of his late wife and never acknowledged or provided for the resulting children. On the other hand, the accounts indicate and support that Adams was deeply in love and faithful to his wife and his children. Adams saw the danger of the French Revolution and it’s consequences. Jefferson supported the French Revolution and maintained that support, apparently, until late in life. Jefferson also attempted to remove a sitting Supreme Court justice for purely political reasons - the only time in history that a Supreme Court justice has been impeached. Again, Adams seemed above politics. So — who was the Founding Father with the better character – Adams or Jefferson?

Adams was anything but above politics. He signed the Sedition Act of 1798 into law, which virtually allowed the federal government to prosecute anybody opposed to his administration, and supported its vigorous enforcement. Persons indicted under the act stood trial federal court in an era when judges didn’t even make a pretense of being objective or non-partisan–the reason Chase was impeached was that he presided over sedition trials in such a ridiculously biased and partisan manner.

On a personal level, almost everyone who met him found Adams to be stubborn and irascible, with an odd fetish for pomp and titles. He was a great revolutionary leader and did a lot of good as President despite the Sedition Act, but on a personal level, I’d have to go with Jefferson. He seems like a more relaxed and likable guy.

Certainly, from today’s perspective it’s hard to admire a guy who doesn’t acknowledge his children because their mother is part black. But slavery was an institution that corrupted everybody it touched, and under the mores of the time Jefferson had little choice.

Adams might come out slightly ahead because he had Abigail, a quite remarkable personality, to keep him centered. Jefferson didn’t have such a guide, and men in general seem to be in need of a guide. [/only semi joking]

Just to note (for the hundredth time, no offense) we actually don’t know that Jefferson was the father of those children. It’s certainly possible, but it’s at least as likely and perhaps moreso that his uncle or brother did the mombo with Hemmings. Both of them were known for being less-than-savory, and had plenty of access to Hemmings.

Perhaps. But Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s slave, not theirs. That is, he was the one who had a legal right to use her as a concubine.

Was someone watching the PBS special last night?
I really enjoyed it.

To the question:

I always like Adams better, he was the rabble rouser, he fought hard to end slavery then during the revolution. He fought hard for separation of Church and State. Both were great men, both were of course flawed but Adams aways seem like the greater driving force in the Continental Congress.


Technically, I don’t think that’s true. I’m pretty sure that it was illegal in Virginia for a white person to have sex with a black one, whether he owned her or not. It was a law more honored in the breach than the observance, no doubt…

I’ve never heard that before. Cite?

I know Jefferson would not have been a rapist, in a legal sense. A slave did not own her own body, and if her master wanted sex she had no right to tell him no.

It obviously wouldn’t be rape (and slaves weren’t able to bring charges in court anyway). I’ve found colonial Virginia statutes saying that the penalty for fornication was increased when the participants were of different races. What I don’t have is proof that that was the case at the time whichever Jefferson was getting it on with Hemmings was, although I suspect it was.

I did find a law prohibiting intermarriage. From “The Statutes at Large of Virginia, from October Session 1792 to October Session 1805”

And for preventing white men and women intermarrying with negroes or mulattoes: Be it enacted, That whatsoever white man or woman, being free, shall intermarry with a negro or mulatto man or woman, bond or free, shall by judgment of the county court, be committed to prison, and there remain six months, without bail or mainprize; and shall forfeit and pay thirty dollars to the use of the parish.


Hands down I’d vote for Jefferson. The Alien and Sedition Acts were vile IMHO. Adams acted like he was a king. He wasn’t a complete fuckup as president but he certainly had his moments. Jefferson also had some rough spots but over all I’d say he was a MUCH better president…and to answer the OP had much better ‘character’.

Of course, I don’t really care if Jefferson did or did not boink Hemmings and get her with children. ALL the founding fathers had their flaws and foibles. I blame the lot of them for sticking with slavery and just going along with it resulting in a pretty grim civil war down the pike. Even with all their flaws though they still did a pretty good job of setting things up so that today we really have something as far as the nation goes…though they would hardly recognize the country today and probably wouldn’t like many of the changes we’ve made over time.


I’d be surprised if there were not laws on the books banning the sexual congress of blacks and whites. It had nothing to do with lawmakers wishing to protect slaves from rape, they just felt it was morally unacceptable for someone of the white race to mix in such a manner with a negro (as would be the common term at that time I think.)

As for Jefferson/Adams, neither of them can really claim the moral high ground when it comes to politics. They were both definitely politicians, both with serious flaws and both did and supported ideas that are anathema to many ideas we have today. However, this was the VERY beginning of the United States, no one was really sure how everything was supposed to go down. The judicial branch of government was virtually undefined by the constitution, it was many years still til John Marshall fully started to define the role of the judiciary; and if not for John Marshall it’s quite likely the judicial branch at the federal level would not resemble what it does today.

Adams had the Alien & Sedition acts, which seems fairly anathema to the constitution and the American spirit, but the concept of sedition being a crime wasn’t very outlandish back then (and hey, a sedition act was passed during WWI too.) Unrestrained free speech was not in existence back then (nor now.) In the late 18th century ideas concerning libel/slander did become much more relaxed. At one point, anything injurious to another person could be libel/slander, and it didn’t matter if it was true, it was considered a tort to libel/slander someone. This changed due to some landmark case in the 18th century, the name of which I don’t recall.

Adams was President, and from what he saw, he could use the political process and his powers as President to disrupt the activities of the opposition. The idea that this was a “bad thing” wasn’t quite so established then. The federal judiciary was highly politicized throughout the early 19th century, and Jefferson certainly wasn’t interested in an independent judiciary anymore than Adams was.

Jefferson’s great political failure would by his Kentucky resolutions, which undermined the entire federal government. In these resolutions he argued that a state had the right to nullify federal laws which it did not agree with. Today that seems ridiculous, and would allow drastic abuses from state governments. But when Jefferson was growing up, his colony of Virginia was in all ways independent of the other colonies, it was subordinate to the crow, but not the other colonies or any “unified” government that existed “over” the colonies as a whole. The crown ruled each colony individually, not jointly.

So for him, it’s not such a stretch that states, which were definitely the real foundation of the U.S. at that time, should have the ability to manage affairs in a manner they see fit and block federal laws they didn’t agree with. This all was decades before the civil war, or the era of Jim Crow and et cetera.

So both the Alien & Sedition Acts as well as Jefferson’s Kentucky resolutions were shortsighted and potentially damaging (the Kentucky resolutions moreso despite not being actual law as they were used as justification for extreme states rights all the way til the Civil War.)

Personally I tend to like Adams a bit more than Jefferson because Adams was the pragmatist and Jefferson was a hopeless idealist. Some of Jefferson’s ideals were shortsighted enough that they didn’t really coexist with the concept of a strong United States, or a United States that could meaningfully exist on the global scale. He made claims that he thought instead of becoming part of the United States, lands to the west should be established as independent “sister” republics. And he also had some dangerous and backwards ideas about government. He said the U.S. should remain primarily an agrarian society, as he felt farming and farmers brought with it morality and integrity. He also had no problem with the concept of revolution being used to change the political climate.

Adams was always a hard worker politically. When he was sent to France as a diplomat he did much of the work while Franklin played (and Jefferson who was also assigned to France didn’t even bother to go.) And Adams more or less singlehandedly secured a valuable loan and support from the Netherlands.

I think you’re referring to “seditious libel,” which was a crime, not a tort, and only applied if the libelled party was a public official. The rule was, “The greater the truth, the greater the libel.” The idea was to maintain the state’s power and the social order by criminalizing anything that would (justifiably or not) undermine public confidence in the authorities. That was rejected, you might say, in the 1734 Zenger case, but that was an instance of jury nullification with no precedential effect. But ever since then, American political culture has been inimical to the concept; and we do have the First Amendment which clearly protects “political speech.”

In Aglo-American common law, truth of the statement has always been a defense to the civil torts of libel and slander.

Well, the A&S acts weren’t that vile in the light of the times. People are willing, to a degree, to forgive slavery as it was such an institution, but at the same time we have to accept that other political realities were different as well.

Considering Jefferson drafted the Kentucky resolutions, which actually helped contribute to years of extreme regionalism and ultimately the civil war, while Adams A&S acts were dead in the water within a few years I think it’s hard to view them as that big of a deal.

I don’t know if I can say who is the superior President between Adams and Jefferson. Jefferson actually did very little in office, he was a very hands off President. Adams was also extremely hands off compared to any modern President, but not by the standard of the times.

Prior to becoming President Adams was an extremely powerful force in the continental congress. He did great work to establish a strong U.S. Navy that was very effective and damaging British shipping. Jefferson on the other hand basically rested at Monticello during much of the work of the continental congress.

As governor of Virginia, Jefferson is considered an abject and complete failure.

I have a feeling the only reason he wasn’t as President is due to the fact that the President of the U.S., at the time, had less power/day-to-day influence over the United States than he does today.

As President Adams dealt as well as he could with the problems the English/French war were causing.

Jefferson’s response to the war was the extremely damaging embargo act that castrated the American economy.

If some of the northerners had pushed for no slavery they’d have ended up with no country. It wasn’t a matter of sticking with it, it was accepting slavery or rejecting the notion of an American state. Adams at least was passionately against slavery, much more so than many of the northern founding fathers who didn’t participate in slavery but were in no way opposed to it.

It also must be realized that in the 18th century most thought slavery was going to die out in short order, the vast plantation systems that came to define the South were not in existence in the 18th century.

I don’t know that sedition as a crime was something Americans had that big of a problem with. The sedition act was far more lenient than British law on the matter, and Americans had lived under British law for decades after 1734.

Of course one should be aware that Adams didn’t create the sedition act, nor did he truly support it or actually put it into effect himself. Only like 10 people were ever convicted of sedition and their prosecutions weren’t initiated at Adams urging.

In fact Adams may get too much blame for them, once the act passed congress Adams would be forced to veto them to stop them, and back then the presidential veto was far rarer than it was today. Up until Andrew Jackson Presidents didn’t actively use the veto to simply block bills they disagreed with, but rather only to stop bills they felt were clearly unconstitutional. And under the legal situation of the day, I don’t know that the sedition act would have qualified as unconstitutional given what precedent there was at the time.

I don’t think they were vile. They were certainly venal, and shaped to benefit the Federalists, but…

The Naturalization Act set the residency requirement for citizenship at 14 years. Not particularly vile.

The Alien Act let the the US deport aliens considered dangerous. Might not pass today, but also, not “vile”.

The Alien Enemies Act let the US deport or imprison aliens considered dangerous or who were subjects of an enemy government during wartime. Definately wouldn’t pass today, but remember, we interned Japanese, Germans, and Italians during WWII, and nobody raised a stink then.

The Sedition Act made trying to prevent a public official from carrying out his duties and trying to incite riots illegal, and also made it illegal to knowingly publish or say false malicious statements against the President or the Congress in order to stir up hatred against or encourage others to rebel against them or to disobey a US law. Definately wouldn’t pass today, and could be abused, but I wouldn’t consider that vile either.

Except that wasn’t the case with the Sedition Act, where the truth of the statement was an affirmative defense…to wit:

Guides at Monticello now accept Jefferson’s paternity. It’s true that neither the oral history, circumstantial evidence or DNA testing alone prove the matter, but the three combined make a far more likely case against him than not. He is also the only Jefferson who was consistently present 9 months before the births of her children.

As to Adams v. Jefferson, in many ways it’s an 18th century version of Vidal’s The Best Man.

I think you’re conflating Samuel Adams and John Adams.

Granted, like many other Dopers, I hold the Alien and Sedition Acts against John Adams. But Samuel Adams was the rabble rouser of the cousins, and the one who was arguing for revolution long before men of property like John Adams and John Hancock were.

I think I’d vote for Jefferson as being the better man, but that’s again colored by how disgusted the Alien and Sedition Acts leave me.

And, I think Sampiro has it right. (As is usually the case.)

It’s very much a matter of how ‘great’ is ‘great.’ I’m certainly not going to try to disown either from the country’s list of great men. (As I’m sometimes tempted to do with Andrew Jackson.)

Awkward wording: I meant that they make a powerful case in favor of Jefferson being Sally’s baby daddy.

The trait of Jefferson that bothers me more than any other is his extravagance. We don’t know enough of the details of his dalliance with slaves to make a judgment call (was it rape? was it seduction? was it mutual consent? was it actually love?) but we do know that as he sank further and further into debt he still did not have the self control to stop rebuilding Monticello (it’s done already!) or paying hundreds of dollars per year for books or routinely buying $10 bottles of wine for his supper and the like, all of which ultimately forced him to not only leave his beloved surviving daughter indigent but put his slaves on the block, separating families and causing incredible grief all as a result of his extravagant lifestyle.

OTOH, those who knew them both found him by far the more personable and generous and intellectual (Adams was a brilliant man, but less well rounded). Adams was such a narcissist and so insecure and belligerant that even those who worshipped him as statesman detested him in person. Both men were hypocrites, Adams for his thundering of the ideals of freedom while at the same time being terrified of “the mob” and willingness to jail even cartoonists for slights to him and Jefferson of course with his slavery (though he never truly had the liberty to do as Washington and others had done in the freeing of his slaves- they were mortgaged to the teeth) and his preaching of religious tolerance while going ballistic when his daughter tried to convert to Catholicism, etc… But they were also both indispensable in the formation of the country and in the fact they risked their lives for their beliefs. Impossible almost to judge them.