John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died within hours of each other, on the 50th
anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826.
There is probably no greater coincidence in American history.
Together, and as political rivals, they had done as much or more to shape the
nation in those first 50 years as any two people in the country.
In many respects, the two were poles apart. Adams was a New England
overachiever; Jefferson, a southern aristocrat. Adams was a Federalist;
Jefferson, the classic Republican. Adams was a political animal; Jefferson was
most at home on his Virginia mountaintop. But according to historian Joseph
Ellis, They "came to embody the American dialogue."
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. Both worried about the future of the
country, especially as it concerned the growing divide between the north and
the south. "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 had been asked to prepare a speech for that last 4th of July. Though
ill health prevented him from delivering this valedictory, it contained some of
his most stirring language. Speaking of the celebration, he wrote, "May it be
to the world, what I believe it to be, 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
Adams, too, was asked to help celebrate the occasion in Washington,
Philadelphia, and New York. Likewise, illness prevented him from traveling.
He died at about five o'clock on the 4th. His last words were, "Thomas
Jefferson survives." Adams was wrong by about five hours.