John's Notebook: Friends and foes -- a lesson from the founders

John's Notebook: founders
John's Notebook: founders 01:57

One of the great coincidences in American History took place on the Fourth of July 191 years ago.  Two of the country's founders died on the same day, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. One was its author Thomas Jefferson, the third president. The other was John Adams, a signer of the declaration and the country's second leader.

Also amazing was that they died friends, because they had once been vicious enemies.

They had worked together forging the nation-- one the pen, one the voice, of independence-- but by 1800, they competed for the presidency in a campaign far uglier than ours today. Jefferson employed one of the greatest hatchet men in politics -- James Callender-- who attacked President Adams so viciously that Adams threw Callender in jail. He lost anyway.

Jefferson and Adams didn't communicate for 11 years until a mutual friend reminded them of their past, calling them the "north and south poles of the American Revolution."

It didn't take much. "A letter from you calls up recollections very dear to my mind," wrote Jefferson. "It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause." They exchanged 150 letters after that. What allowed them to knock off the crust of hatred was their love for a shared set of values.

The Jefferson and Adams reconciliation matched their hopes for the nation. America would be able to survive the bad spells--partisanship and pride and abuse of power-- because its citizens would keep their commitment to freedom, equality and justice and pull the country back on track. The risky experiment is now 241 years old, only because each generation fought to keep faith with that foundation that Jefferson and Adams laid.

Happy Fourth of July. For Face the Nation, I'm John Dickerson.  We'll see you next week.