Fourth of July Special: Thomas Jefferson Survives

On July 4, 1826, two of the most important men in American history died, leaving us their legacy of freedom and democracy. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson passed away on the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, which both men helped frame and write.

Jefferson and Adams were perfect examples of the values that were prototypical of the American spirit.

Their politics for example, were never identical, but they became friends when they met at the Continental Congress in 1775. In fact, by the turn of the century, with the War of Independence won and the new nation established, Adams and Jefferson diverged dramatically.

Jefferson for one, was alarmed by the formation of the first political party, the Federalists, which advocated a strong central government. To add insult to injury, when Jefferson ran for president 1796 against the Federalists’ choice, John Adams, Jefferson received the larger popular vote, but lost by three electoral votes. He therefore became vice-president. (Jefferson, of course, later had his turn, when he ran against Adams again in 1800, and won.)

Adams and Jefferson clashed on several occasions over the powers of the Federal government. The Alien & Sedition Acts were a perfect example. The Federalist- controlled Congress made it a crime to speak anti-American sentiments in 1798. In response Vice President Jefferson anonymously drafted the Kentucky Resolves that stated the government had gone too far, and that states could declare unconstitutional any federal mandate they felt exceeded the powers prescribed by the Constitution.

Towards the end of their lives, however, the two former Presidents reconciled their differences and kept up a lively correspondence based on common ideals and mutual respect. Their deaths were just hours apart.

According to the memoirs of John Quincy Adams, his father John fell ill in his house in Quincy, Massachusetts on the second of July. On the morning of the Fourth, he said “It is a great day. It is a good day.” His last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Ironically, a thousand miles away in his Monticello home, Thomas Jefferson had already drawn his last breath several hours earlier. Adams was nearly 91, Jefferson was 84.

On this holiday of celebration, we hope you will take time to explore the rich and ever-expanding historical resources available on the Web, to see not just how the spirit of Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries has survived, but also reflect on how our spirits will survive.