In which we see Franklin and Adams as roommates, 1776.
Yes, Sadie? C’mon in. I’m just catching up on some paperwork. You need something? Is that your sweater back there on the chair?
—No, it isn’t, thanks. You said a while back that John Adams and Benjamin Franklin once slept together. Were you joking?
Well, sort of, Sadie. They did sleep together once, but not sleep together, if you know what I mean.
—You said you would tell us the story after class one day. I have a few minutes before I have to catch the bus. Could you—wait a second. There’s Emily. Em! You taking the bus home?
—Mr. K. was just about to tell me the story of how Benjamin Franklin and John Adams slept together. You wanna hear it?
—Sure. Why not. I love thinking about the Founding Fathers having sex.
In that case, Em, I’m going to disappoint you.
—I’m shocked. Go ahead. I’m curious.
All right then. So it’s September 9, 1776. And there they are, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, one a youthful 70 and the other a fussy 41. They’re on their way from Philadelphia to Staten Island, part of a delegation sent by the Continental Congress to negotiate with Admiral Lord Richard Howe of the Royal Navy, who’s still hoping the American Revolution can be contained. Two weeks earlier, George Washington’s tiny army escaped complete destruction in Brooklyn and is for now, at least, alive to fight another day. Lord Howe hopes he can talk his American friends out of making a huge mistake. Adams considers Howe a phony. That’s why Congress chose him to be one of the negotiators. At the other end of the spectrum is Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, a man who had been reluctant to support independence (he’s worried about preserving slavery). And then there’s old Ben Franklin, who knew Howe back in England, to be the third member of the team.
The negotiators pause in their journey to spend the night in Brunswick, New Jersey. Unfortunately, there’s not much lodging to be had in the local taverns. Franklin and Adams have to share a tiny room, no fireplace, with a single bed and an open window. It’s chilly, and Adams, who’s a bit of a hypochondriac, is afraid of the night air and shuts it. “Oh!” says Franklin. “Don’t shut the window. We shall be suffocated.” When Adams relates his fears of coming down with an illness from the bad night air, Franklin, ever the scientist, replies by saying that the air in the room is far more likely to be a problem than the air outside. “Come!” he tells Adams. Open the window and come to bed and I will convince you. I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds.”
Adams agrees and joins Franklin in bed. He’s curious to hear Franklin’s reasoning. Lying there in the dark, side by side, Franklin begins his explanation, which literally puts him to sleep (“I left him and his Philosophy together,” he will later write, hearing Franklin trail off just as he does.) They will argue the point again, and Adams will consider Franklin’s reasoning but remain unconvinced.
At this point in his life, Adams admires Franklin. He likes to say that had Franklin done nothing more than invent the lightning rod, the world would justly honor this “great and good man.” But the next time they team up again, this time in Paris to negotiate an alliance with the French government, Adams begins to have his doubts. Mr. “Early to Bed and Early to Rise” sleeps late all the time. (He slept through a lot of the Continental Congress, and though Adams will not be there to catch him, Franklin will sleep through a lot of the Constitutional Convention as well.) He drinks too much; he spends too much. And his behavior with French women is downright embarrassing. Adams feels self-conscious about his French, but as he learns it himself he begins to realize that Franklin understands a lot less than he lets on. And when Adams annoys the French foreign minister, Franklin writes a letter to Congress telling them that Adams is getting in the way and should be sent home. Adams is. And he will never forget or forgive Franklin for that.
—Should Franklin really have done that?
My guess, Sadie, is yes. Adams is an intelligent and decent man. But he’s too stubborn, moralistic and vain to be a successful diplomat. He’s honest to a fault—he can’t play the game the way Franklin, who laughs right along when the King puts his image on the bottom his girlfriend’s chamber pot. Adams tries not to lie, even to himself. That’s why he probably knows in his heart that Franklin was right to dump him.
Part of the reason why someone like Franklin is such a trial to Adams is that he understands that the man really does exhibit traits Adams himself would be lucky to have. Adams has a hunger for recognition that will never be satisfied. There’s a famous line he wrote that captures his frustration: “The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. Then Franklin electrified him with his rod and thenceforth these two conducted all the policy, negotiations, legislatures, and war.” (It was Adams who had proposed Washington take command of the Continental Army – an excellent idea, and one he can’t help but regret.)
Adams had about as successful a career as any person could hope have. From modest beginnings as a shoemaker’s son, he became a self-educated lawyer, political activist, and diplomat. He collaborated with Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence, and his work on the Massachusetts constitution was a major influence on the federal one. He managed to spend eight years generally keeping his mouth shut as vice president—no small achievement, particularly for him—and went on to become president himself. And he had the good sense and good fortune to marry Abigail, who brought wisdom, humor, and joy into his life. He lived to see his son John Quincy, become president. We should all be so lucky.
But somehow, you rarely get the impression that John Adams was happy. To be sure, he had real sorrows, among them a son who drank himself to death and a daughter who died of cancer. He had powerful enemies, notably Alexander Hamilton and (for a while, anyway) Thomas Jefferson, who, despite hating each other, worked to deny Adams a second term as president. It’s to their credit that Adams and Jefferson were later able to patch things up—though perhaps it’s no accident that they did so while remaining 500 miles apart. Still, you get the sense that the hardest single thing about John Adams’s life is that he had to live with John Adams. Feeling that way is hard enough. But it’s even harder when you’ve got people like Franklin, so seemingly self-assured, by your side.
Adams recorded the scene of his night with Franklin in the autobiography he began writing after his forced retirement from politics following his failed bid for re-election in 1800. I see him at his estate, Peacefield, in Quincy, Massachusetts, an old man remembering himself as a younger one, with Franklin, who had been dead for ten years, alive and likeable. I imagine him chuckling at Franklin, and himself, as he remembers sharing that bed. I’m thinking that the memory of that night brings him pleasure and maybe even comfort in the long twilight of his life. Writing it down gives him something to do.
You two have a bus to catch. No go savor the company of each other.
—Thanks, Mr. K.
Thanks, Mr. Adams. Thanks, Mr. Franklin. See you tomorrow.
Next: We’ve won. Now what?