On July 4, I’ve always reflected on this country that I call my home. The United States has made many mistakes in the course of its history, but it has also achieved a lot of great things that all Americans should be proud of. I am especially admiring of the history of reform in this country, from the abolitionists to the women’s suffragists to the civil rights activists to the activists working for change today. These reformers have worked to help its country live up to its highest ideas. The Founding Fathers were not perfect, but many of them were also reformers who worked to created a more perfect union. Two of the most celebrated Founding Fathers were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. They were best friends and they also were important leaders in the fight to free this country from the British Empire. One of the most fascinating things about Jefferson and Adams is that they both died on the same day: July 4, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met in the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War. They worked together in various committees, with Adams doing most of the speaking and Jefferson doing a lot of the writing, and they became friends. Their friendship deepened when they served as ambassadors to France and England, as John and Abigail Adams felt Jefferson was part of the family. Those were tough times for Jefferson, as his beloved wife Martha had just died, and the Adams were there to console Jefferson during his time of grieving. Abigail felt Thomas Jefferson was “the only person with whom my companion could associate with perfect freedom and reserve.” Joseph Ellis wrote about them in his book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation:
They were an incongruous pair, but everyone seemed to argue that history had made them into a pair. The incongruities leapt out for all to see: Adams, the short, stout, candid-to-a-fault New Englander; Jefferson, the tall, slender, elegantly elusive Virginian; Adams, the highly combustible, ever combative, mile-a-minute talker, whose favorite form of conversation was an argument; Jefferson, the always cool and self-contained enigma, who regarded debate and argument as violations of the natural harmonies he heard inside his own head. The list could go on – the Yankee and the Cavalier, the orator and the writer, the bulldog and the greyhound. They were the odd couple of the American Revolution.
…There were, to be sure, important political and ideological differences between the two men, differences that became the basis for the opposing sides they took in the party wars of the 1790s. But as soulmates who had lived together through some of the most formative events of the revolutionary era and of their own lives, Adams and Jefferson bonded at a personal and emotional level that defied their merely philosophical differences. They were charter members of the “band of brothers” who had shared the agonies and ecstasies of 1776 as colleagues. No subsequent disagreement could shake this elemental affinity. They knew, trusted, even loved each other for reasons that required no explanation.
During the 1790s, their political differences led to a rift between the Republican Jefferson and the Federalist Adams that last for over a decade. They finally reconciled after Jefferson left the Presidency, thanks to the efforts of their mutual friend, Benjamin Rush. In their last years, they maintained a wonderful correspondence where they discussed politics, literature, family, and the state of the country that they had such a big part in founding.
When the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence approached, Jefferson and Adams were asked to give a few words to commemorate the special day. John Adams, the more skeptical of the pair, felt that the American experiment was something that always had to be worked on with diligence by its citizens. Adams had less faith in human nature than Jefferson did, and always felt that the checks and balances that were set up in the American government were necessary to reign in the passions that might destroy a republican government. Joseph Ellis summed up Adams view in his book Joseph Ellis wrote about them in his book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation:
For Adams, the American Revolution was still an experiment, a sail into uncharted waters that no other ship of state had ever successfully navigated. There were no maps or charts to guide a republican government claiming to derive its authority and legitimacy from public opinion, that murky source of sovereignty that could be as choppy and unpredictable as waves on the ocean. He had been a member of the crew on this maiden voyage, even taken his turn at the helm, so he knew as well as anyone, better than most, that they had nearly crashed and sunk on several occasions, had argued bitterly among themselves throughout the 1790s about the proper course. Jefferson seemed to think that, once unmoored from British docks and unburdened of European baggage, the ship would sail itself into the proverbial sunset. Adams thought he knew better, and he also would go to his grave believing that a fully empowered federal government on the Federalist model was a fulfillment, rather than a betrayal, of the course they had set at the start. Without a sanctioned central government to steer the still-fragile American republic, the new crew was certain to founder on that huge rock called slavery, which was lurking dead ahead in the middle distance and even Jefferson acknowledged to be a “breaker”.
With this in mind, Adams gave this equivocal response to the committee of the citizens of Quincy, Massachusetts on 7 June 1826, as a response to their invitation to the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence:
My best wishes, in the joys, and festivities, and the solemn services of that day on which will be completed the fiftieth year from its birth, of the independence of the United States: a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race, destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall, in time to come, be shaped by the human mind.
Thomas Jefferson was more optimistic than Adams about the ability of the people to govern themselves in the new American republic. Gordon Woods gave a good description of Jefferson’s outlook in his book Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different:
No one of the revolutionary leaders believed more strongly in progress and in the capacity of the American people for self-government than did Jefferson. No one was more convinced that the Enlightenment was on the march against the forces of medieval barbarism and darkness and religious superstition and enthusiasm…
…None of the other major founding fathers was as optimistic and confident of the people as Jefferson was. All the problems of the present, he believed, would eventually be taken care of by the people. This sublime faith in the people and the future is the source of the symbolic power he has had for succeeding generations of Americans. He was never more American than when he told John Adams in 1816 that he liked “the dreams of the future better than the history of the past”.
Thus Jefferson’s commemoration for Independence Day in 1826 offered a more uplifting message than Adams:
May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government… All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others; for ourselves, to let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
A youtube video of a reading of the Declaration of Independence
A youtube video of a scene from HBO’s miniseries “John Adams”, during the making of the Declaration of Independence
A youtube video of a scene from HBO’s miniseries “John Adams”
A youtube video of a lecture on the Declaration of Independence by Professor Freeman for a Yale course
Here are more blogs about the Founding Fathers
Alexander Hamilton and the New York Manumission Society
Benjamin Franklin and His Fight to Abolish Slavery
The Founding Fathers Grapple With Slavery
The Founding Fathers Grapple With Slavery Part 2
Benjamin Banneker, Thomas Jefferson and the Question of Racial Equality
George Washington and the Freeing of His Slaves
The Friendship of Thomas Jefferson and John and Abigail Adams