July 4, 1826, as America celebrated the 50th anniversary of the
adoption of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams and Thomas
Jefferson, the second and third presidents of the United States,
respectively, died. From the very first the careers and fortunes
of Adams and Jefferson were intertwined.
Adams, attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia as a delegate
from Massachusetts, was one of the most outspoken leaders of the
independence movement. Indeed it was John Adams alone whom British
soldiers during the war had orders to hang if caught. In the summer
of 1776, Adams was assigned to the committee that would write the
formal document explaining to Britain and the world the reasons
for America's drive for independence. The head of the committee,
Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, was the primary author of this "Declaration
Jefferson was a southerner and eight years Adams's junior, but this
did not stop him and the more famous northerner from forging a friendship
in Philadelphia. It would be a friendship strained many times in
the years to come.
After the successful revolution, Adams and Jefferson traveled together
to England to negotiate a U.S.-British trade treaty. Upon returning
home, Adams was elected vice president under President George Washington
and Jefferson was appointed Secretary of State. However it was during
their time in the Washington administration that a rift developed
between the two men. Put simply, Adams, a Federalist, supported
a strong federal government. Jefferson believed in the concept of
greater states' rights. This fundamental difference in what direction
the new republic should take led Jefferson to run against Adams
in the presidential election of 1796. Adams won, but as the runner-up
Jefferson became his vice president. Four years later, Jefferson
would finally defeat Adams and relegate his old friend to a one-term
While in office Adams and Jefferson attacked each other's positions
and policies unmercifully. But when both had retired from public
life, Adams to Quincy and Jefferson to Monticello, their friendship
was renewed. The 14 years of letters they wrote to each other, covering
the far-ranging challenges facing the young country, are today considered
the masterworks of the American Enlightenment.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in
1826, President John Quincy Adams listened to patriotic speeches
in Washington unaware that in Quincy, Mass., his father lay dying.
John Adams, 91 years old, knew it was the Fourth: "It is a great
day," he said to the family members gathered around him. Later that
evening he slipped quietly into death. His last words were spoken
around one o'clock, "Jefferson still survives."
Adams was wrong. An hour earlier and hundreds of miles to the south,
Thomas Jefferson, age 86, went fitfully to his maker. He had slipped
into a coma the night before, but awoke briefly that morning, asking
his physician: "Is it the Fourth?" His last sounds were semiconscious
rambling. He was back in the 1770s giving orders about the Committees
of Safety and the need to stand firm against British tyranny.
The deaths of Adams and Jefferson, who had been colleagues in Philadelphia,
then rivals, presidents, and in the end, friends once again, seemed
to the nation beyond mere coincidence. President John Quincy Adams,
upon learning of both deaths wrote, "The time, the manner, the coincidence
visible and palpable marks of Divine favor."