John Adams and Thomas Jefferson could be considered “the odd couple of the American Revolution.” They first met as delegates to the Continental Congress in 1775; the following year, Adams would personally select Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence. Profoundly different in physical appearance and demeanor—Jefferson was tall, elegant and philosophical, while Adams was short, stout and prone to vivid outbursts of emotion—the two men nevertheless became close friends.
The friendship grew stronger in the 1780s, when Adams and Jefferson served diplomatic missions to Europe. While living in England and France, both Adams and his wife, Abigail, consoled Jefferson after the loss of his wife, Martha, and grew to consider him almost a part of the family.
Things got more complicated, however, when both men returned to the United States, and the heated debate over the new nation’s government. As secretary of state in George Washington’s cabinet, Jefferson was driven by a fear of a powerful central authority and gravitated toward the new Republican Party. Adams, who as vice president was largely marginalized in Washington’s administration, favored a strong central government to ensure the new nation’s survival, and aligned himself with the Federalist Party.
Jefferson’s enduring support for the French Revolution—even after the execution of King Louis XVI and the dawn of the Reign of Terror—further soured his friendship with Adams. His anger over Washington’s policy of neutrality led Jefferson to resign from the cabinet at the end of 1793 and withdraw to Monticello, his Virginia estate. It was during this period, according to Mark Silk, that Adams took the opportunity to gossip about his former friend in letters to his sons Charles and John Quincy.
Silk, a professor of religion and director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, writes in Smithsonian about two letters written by Adams in January 1794, soon after Jefferson’s return to Monticello. In the first, addressed to Charles, Adams wrote of Jefferson’s supposed retirement from public life, saying that when Washington died or resigned, his former friend expected to be “invited from his conversations with Egeria in the Groves” to take control of the government. In a similar reference the following day, he wrote to John Quincy of Jefferson being “summoned from the familiar society of Egeria” to take the reins of power.
At the time, Silk argues, “conversation” was a euphemism for sexual intercourse, while “familiar” was a synonym for “intimate.” He believes the references to Egeria were Adams’ sly way of referring to Sally Hemings, the slave woman whose longstanding relationship with Jefferson produced (according to DNA evidence) at least one and probably six children between 1790 and 1808. In the early mythology of early Roman history (as chronicled by Livy and Plutarch), Egeria was a divine nymph or goddess who became the lover of Numa, a man chosen by Roman senators as their king after the death of Romulus, Rome’s founder.
Numa was a widower (like Jefferson) and the more philosophical and intellectual successor to a military hero. Silk believes the classical reference, though overlooked by later historians and biographers, would have been clear at the time. A French writer had published a popular novel about Numa in 1786—a year before Hemings, a half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife, accompanied Jefferson’s younger daughter, Mary, to Paris, where Jefferson was serving as a minister. Adams would certainly have known about the young, attractive slave girl in Jefferson’s household, as she and Mary stayed with the Adamses in London after their transatlantic voyage. If Silk’s theory is correct, it would suggest that the rumors of Jefferson’s liaison with Hemings would have been circulating—at least among the political elite—by 1794, long before they were first reported in the press.