In life, no two men were more closely associated with the Declaration of Independence, and the birth of our nation that it precipitated, than Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. In death, they are forever linked by the date on which both men passed away: July 4, 1826, the jubilee year of the miracle of 1776.
They were very different in personality. Jefferson was a Virginia aristocrat and Renaissance man; Adams was a brash New Englander with a “type A” personality. Together with the much older Benjamin Franklin, the three formed a sort of subcommittee of correspondence tasked with drafting the declaration. Jefferson was the one selected. Adams told Jefferson why Jefferson would be preferable to Adams:
“Reason first — You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second — I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third — You can write ten times better than I can.”
The draft was reviewed for some weeks in June 1776. Although the Continental Congress declared independence on July 2, the congress approved the final version of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
But during the first half-century of our nation’s existence, the date itself was not celebrated as a holiday.
In fact, divisive passions between the federalists, those who followed John Adams, and the Republican-Democrats, those associated with Thomas Jefferson, precluded a unity around celebrating July 4.
“Adams preceded Jefferson as president (1797-1800); it was during this time that their ideas about policy-making became as distinct as their personalities,” the website of the History Channel says.
“The irascible and hot-tempered Adams was a firm believer in a strong centralized government, while the erudite and gentile Jefferson believed federal government should take a more hands-off approach and defer to individual states' rights. As Adams' vice president, Jefferson was so horrified by what he considered to be Adams' abuse of the presidency — particularly his passage of the restrictive Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 — that he abandoned Adams and Washington for his estate at Monticello. There, he plotted how to bring his Republican faction back into power in the presidential election of 1800. After an exceptionally bitter campaign, in which both parties engaged in slanderous attacks on each other in print, Jefferson emerged victorious. It appeared the former friends would be eternal enemies.”
PBS continues the history:
“In their retirement, they exchanged a memorable correspondence in which they expressed all of their concerns for, as well as their pride in, the new nation. ‘You and I ought not to die,’ Adams wrote Jefferson, ‘before we have explained ourselves to each other.’ Adams, always the more loquacious of the two, did more explaining. He wrote two letters to every one of Jefferson's.”
Their remarkably fruitful correspondence was carried out for 14½ years after Adams sent Jefferson a letter on Jan. 1, 1812. He wished him many happy new years. “I look back with rapture on those golden days when Virginia and Massachusetts lived and acted together like a band of brothers,” Adams wrote Jefferson in 1825.
Jefferson’s last days were recounted by Bruce Rayner in his 1829 biography “Life of Thomas Jefferson.” He desired to live until July 4 so “that he might breathe the air of the Fiftieth Anniversary.” He died early in the afternoon of July 4. His last words are traditionally a variant of “Is it the Fourth?”
According to Finding Dulcinea, “Adams spent his final days at his home in Quincy, Mass. On the morning of July 4, he remarked, ‘It is a great day. It is a good day.' He died in the early evening, hours after Jefferson. According to tradition, Adams uttered the final words, “Thomas Jefferson survives,” unaware of the fact that his longtime friend had just passed away. Though Adams did mention Jefferson, it is uncertain whether he said ‘survives,’ explains Andrew Burstein, author of America’s Jubilee.”
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Writing in 1829, Jefferson biographer Raynor said: “The extraordinary coincidence in the death of these great men is without a parallel in the records of history. Were any doubt harbored of their sincere devotion to their country while living, they must surely be dissipated forever by the time and manner of their death.
They were great and glorious in their lives; in death they were not divided.”
In the eyes of their country, it was their deaths on the same day that made the date of July 4 our national celebration of independence.