The story of our second and third presidents dying on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence has intrigued me for years. In case you haven’t pondered it lately, let me remind you of that account. I have to wonder what these and others who risked everything to earn our freedom would think about what is happening right now in their beloved United States of America.
David McCullough in his scholarly and thoroughly interesting book John Adams describes the relationship between these two Founding Fathers. McCullough used letters from Adams and to Adams as well as letter and diary entries from Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams, and others to glean the details of their lives.
John Adams, second president, was known by many as the “voice” for pushing the long and sometimes heated discussions that led to the writing of that marvelous document. Jefferson, third president, was known as the “pen” being responsible for the actual writing of the Declaration with the other four on the committee giving strong input. Through those terrible times leading up to the Revolution they were friends, not agreeing by any means on everything but working together and enjoying each other. You might say they were like the proverbial “iron sharpening iron” as they forged through danger and conflict molding a nation.
The two men had grown up in vastly different surroundings. Adams’ family owned a farm in Quincy, Massachusetts where he grew up working the land and never lost his love for it. He became a lawyer, was a respected leader in his community, but always lived simply. On his frequent trips to Washington, he rode his horse, often alone.
Jefferson’s father was a plantation owner in Virginia. Jefferson naturally inherited the plantation, the slaves, and the lifestyle of a southern aristocrat. He, being an architect as well as lawyer, built himself a mansion and named it Monticello.
Both men were scholars, each acquiring in their lifetime a huge library. Jefferson is quoted as saying he could not live without books. Adams read constantly even during his last years when he was becoming blind. Jefferson had more than six thousand volumes in his library and Adams more than three thousand. Both were dedicated to serving their fellow man. Neither would sit by and let injustice rule.
It was at the end of Washington’s two terms as president that John Adams became the nominee and Jefferson ran against him. Adams was a federalist pushing for more centralized government whereas Jefferson was striving for far more government by representation of the people. Adams won by a narrow margin and Jefferson became his vice president. As Adams began to campaign for his second term Jefferson turned on him. It was the first and last time in history that a vice president has run against a president. The smears and lies that Jefferson circulated pained Adams to the core, as well as his dear first lady, Abigail, who often had hosted Jefferson in their home. One would presume they could never be friends again after all the hate Jefferson slung towards Adams in his fervor to win the presidency.
But in their later years these two past presidents became close friends again, corresponding regularly. Adams wrote more than Jefferson, almost twice as many letters during their last year. It was a happy correspondence, each dwelling on things he knew the other would understand. They generally avoided subjects that would raise conflict. It was time to enjoy their friendship.
Asked on one occasion how he, Adams, could be on such good terms with Jefferson after the abuse he had suffered, Adams answered that he didn’t believe Jefferson ever hated him, just his whole administration. Jefferson wished to be President of the United States and Adams stood in his way. Adams is quoted as saying, “I forgive all my enemies and hope they may find mercy in Heaven.”
Jefferson sent warm congratulations to his old friend on the occasion of his son, John Quincy, being elected president in 1825: “It must excite ineffable feelings in the breast of a father to have lived to see a son…so eminently distinguished by the voice of his country.”
The year of 1826 was to be a big one with wonderful celebrations. Ninety-year-old Adams, eighty-three-year-old Jefferson and eighty-eight-year-old Charles Carroll, the third living Declaration signer, were invited to a variety of commemorable celebrations. Though Adams and Jefferson in their years as negotiators and diplomats had both traveled to France, England, and the Netherlands, now they were too feeble to plan on being in Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, or New York for the Fourth. But they each voiced to those around them that they would live to see the Fourth.
Dr. Holbrook, Adams’ doctor, was with him early on Tuesday, July 4 as was the Reverend George Whitney. Cannons were already booming in the distance. It was obvious that the old president could not last much longer. Adams woke and on being told it was the Fourth, he answered in a clear voice, “It is a great day. It is a good day.”
“At Monticello,” David McCullough writes, “Thomas Jefferson had been unconscious since the night of July 2…At about seven o’clock the evening of July 3, Jefferson awakened and uttered a declaration, ‘This is the Fourth’ or ‘This is the Fourth of July.’ Told it would be soon, he slept again.” Jefferson died at approximately 1:00 the afternoon of July 4. Bells in Charlottesville were ringing in the distance celebrating the Fourth.
At Quincy, Adams lay peacefully resting as cannons grew louder. A loud thunderstorm showed off the “artillery of Heaven” as some would describe it. Adams stirred and whispered, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He died at about six-twenty in the evening of the Fourth, unaware that Jefferson was already gone.
Two great statesmen, flawed men used by God to build a nation where everyone could worship freely, two strong leaders who deserve our honor and respect–both died on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
As you hear fireworks in the distance, or even see them light the sky, and as you furl your flag, say a prayer of thanksgiving for these presidents of the past. And pray for our current president, Donald Trump who also, though flawed, I believe, is the man God chose “for just such a time as this.”