What Thomas Jefferson and John Adams Can Teach Us About Working With Someone We Despise

How do you live or work with someone who sees the world through a different lens than you do?

This was the challenge facing Thomas Jefferson and John Adams back in 1776.

Jefferson and Adams

Adams, considered by most historians to be a conservative, and Jefferson, whom most view as a liberal, were the two men primarily responsible for writing and presenting the Declaration of Independence.

Espousing seemingly competing ideals – ideals that many suggest represent the roots of this country’s liberal versus conservative debates – Jefferson and Adams came together in that one shining moment to create something that was bigger than either of them could have envisioned alone.

Jefferson, an advocate for freedom of thought, and Adams, a staunch believer in the rule of law, were unlikely allies.  Some may believe that we would better off if only one voice had prevailed. Yet it was their very combination of the ideals that made our nation great.

In the years that followed their collaboration on The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and Adams’ political differences frequently put them at odds, and for many years they were bitter rivals.

They continued their synergistic push/pull relationship even in death.  In a you-can’t-make-this-up-history-meets-divine-intervention moment, both men died on the same day, the fourth of July.  Jefferson passed first and then Adams.

On July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day from the birth of the country they founded, both men passed away without even knowing that their long-time co-creator and nemesis was facing his demise as well.

Popular history says that John Adams’ last words were, “Jefferson survives.”

Was he terrified of what might happen if he left the earth with Jefferson still on it?  Or was he eager to greet his partner and frequent nemesis on the other side?

Perhaps both.  Perhaps, in the space between his last breath and his passing, John Adams saw the beauty of it all.  He saw how the Universe had sent two stubborn idealists to the time and place the world needed them most.  How their ideals and their love for their cause had conspired to create something amazing at a time when much of the world didn’t even believe it was possible.  And perhaps he also saw how he had become a better person as a result of it.

If there is an afterlife, I imagine Mr. Adams and Mr. Jefferson in their breeches and hats, greeting each other with a hearty handshake saying, “Well done partner. Well done.”

The path to greatness is forged by people who have the courage to assimilate big picture ideas.

It might be easier to live, work or govern with people who agree with you about everything.  But, often the people who disagree with us are helping us even more.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams love their country too much to settle for simplistic either/or debates.  They believed we deserved better than that.

We still do.

The next time you find yourself in a situation where it seems like you have to choose between two important ideals or you find yourself arguing with someone about one idea versus another, pause and ask yourself, “Do we really have to decide?  Is this really all we’re capable of being? Or is there another way?”

And if you’re feeling frustrated with the people around you, you might want to consider the possibility that perhaps the Universe has sent you a John Adams.

Excerpted from The Triangle of Truth: The Surprisingly Simple Secret To Resolving Conflicts Large And Small (Penguin).  Now available in paperback.

McLeod & More, Inc. is an international training and consulting firm specializing in sales, leadership, and customer/employee engagement.  McLeod & More President Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, columnist, keynote speaker and business consultant. Her newest book, The Triangle of Truth, has been cited as the blueprint for “how smart people can get better at everything.” Visit for a short video intro.   Copyright 2011 Lisa Earle McLeod.  All rights reserved.