by Helen Breen
(Header photo courtesy: examiner.com)
Regarding the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote from Philadelphia to his wife Abigail in Braintree, Massachusetts: “It ought to be celebrated as a day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty … with pomp and parade, with shows, games, and sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward.”
The document, framed by Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, had been carefully scrutinized before acceptance by John Adams. The lives of these two Founding Fathers were destined to intertwine until the day of their deaths. Political events in America had moved swiftly. The break with England was painful for many. The concept behind the Declaration was indeed revolutionary. Its dangers did not escape Adams who observed: “You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain … and support and defend these States.”
BOSTON and THE FOURTH
Meanwhile on July 18, 1776, Abigail Adams went with the crowds to King Street in Boston to hear the Declaration of Independence read from the balcony of the Old State House. As a gesture of defiance, the King’s Arms were dismounted from the former seat of British power to the delight of the spectators. Abigail noted, “Thus ends royal authority in this state.”
Church bells rang, cannons fired, privateers in the harbor boomed their guns, and soldiers discharged their muskets. Her husband would have approved of Boston’s first “Fourth.” Years later in 1783 John’s cousin Sam Adams chaired a committee to observe the first official Fourth of July celebration in Boston. This day would replace March 5, the anniversary of the “Boston Massacre,” as the occasion to commemorate independence.
ADAMS and JEFFERSON
John Adams’s and Thomas Jefferson’s involvement in the creation of the Declaration of Independence was only the prelude to their lengthy service to the new nation. Both shared ambassadorial duties in France before the signing of the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War on September 3, 1783. At this time Jefferson became intimate with the Adams family who had also moved to France. The Virginian was most impressed with Adams’s oldest son John Quincy who would soon share his father’s diplomatic calling.
In the spring of 1784 Adams and Jefferson embarked on a delightful excursion through England, touring county estates and gardens. Both were men of the soil whose happiest years would be spent on their own properties, Adams at the “Old House” in Quincy and Jefferson at his plantation at Monticello in Virginia. Page Smith, a biographer of Adams remarked:
“They made an oddly assorted pair as the traveled about the countryside, the tall, thin Virginian aristocrat and the short, stout New England farmer. Their friendship, in a sense, was a triumph of mind over temperament, for the contrast in character and personality was as marked as their physical disparity. Adams was the more original and imaginative, Jefferson the more representative man: Adams was the system builder, Jefferson the brilliant commentator.”
This interlude would be brief. Adams soon became our first ambassador to England while Jefferson was appointed our first ambassador to France. Each performed with distinction. Recalled to America, John Adams served as Vice-President in George Washington’s two administrations. This lackluster position annoyed him. The Quincy patriot called the Vice-Presidency “the most insignificant office ever the imagination of man contrived.”
John Adams then served as our second President from 1797-1801, with Thomas Jefferson as Vice-President. Although an able administrator, his tenure was marked by squabbling and “faction” in his Federalist Party. Thomas Jefferson then defeated Adams after the latter’s first term in a bitter and close election. Most historians agree that the level of acrimony and character assassination that marked these early political contests far exceeded what we see in presidential campaigns today. Jefferson then enjoyed eight years in the White House from 1801-1809, distinguished with considerable success including the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Understandably, such political battles placed a strain on the friendship of Adams and Jefferson. Both retired to their country seats where they pursued a variety of interests. During that time Jefferson celebrated the Fourth of July on his southern plantation while Adams made merry with the gentry of Quincy.
After a silence of eleven years, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson on New Year’s Day, 1812. The truce had been arranged between the two former Presidents by a third party, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a mutual friend of both men. Adams broke the ice by sending the Virginian a copy of a new volume by his son, John Quincy Adams. John referred to the book as “lately produced in the quarter by one who was honored in his youth by some of your attention and much of your kindness.”
In addition to family and domestic matters, the two elderly statesmen exchanged views on politics, religion, literature, the classics, and contemporary affairs. Each carefully avoided subjects painful to the other, especially the looming question of slavery. Their advancing years and the hardships of travel in those days made an actual reunion impossible. However, Jefferson was delighted to send his grandchildren Ellen and Thomas Jefferson Randolph to Quincy where they were warmly received. In 1824, Jefferson shared Adams’s pride when the latter’s son, John Quincy Adams, was elected our sixth President.
In all, 158 letters were sent, 109 from Adams and 49 from Jefferson over a period of 14 years. Both men knew that their writings would be published. The eloquence of the language and the depth of feeling contained in the exchange place this correspondence among the masterpieces of our literature. As the contemporary historian Joseph P. Ellis wrote in FOUNDING BROTHERS:
“… each man came to recognize in the other the intellectual and temperamental qualities lacking in himself; that they, in effect, completed each other; that only when joined could the pieces of the story of the American Revolution came together and make a whole. But the mundane truth is that they never faced and therefore never fully resolved all their political differences: they simply outlived them.”
Americans everywhere looked forward to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Fourth of July with gusto in 1826. Adams and Jefferson both received many invitations for the occasion. Each declined because they knew that death was approaching. However, John Adams sent a toast the townspeople of Quincy – “Independence Forever!”
Adams died quietly at six o’clock on the evening of July 4, 1826 in the “Old House” at the age of 91. His last words were: “Jefferson survives.” He did not know that on the same day in Monticello, Virginia, Jefferson had breathed his last at the age of 82. This singular event thrilled the imagination of the American people. President John Quincy Adams, upon hearing the news, replied: “The time, the manner, the coincidence … are visible marks of Divine favor.”
So ended the circle of events for these two patriots which had begun 50 years before when the Declaration of Independence was signed on a hot summer day in Philadelphia. For John Adams, our second President, and Thomas Jefferson, our third President, July 4 was an extraordinary day in life … and in death.
The “Old House” in Quincy where John Adams died, the family seat for four generations. To the left is the Stone Library, built later to preserve all Adams papers including the Jefferson correspondence. (Photo courtesy: eventbrite.com)