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Friends to the End

The story is pretty well known. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the voice and the pen (respectively) of the American Revolution, two of the three surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence (and first person who can tell me who the third one was wins a free signed book from me), and the second and third Presidents of the United States both died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of Independence Day.

It was perceived as a momentous event. Imagine, two of the Big Four Founding Fathers (along with George Washington and Benjamin Franklin), members of the “Brothers of ’76,” arguably the two intellectual leaders of the Revolutionary Generation, both gone on the very day that the still new nation celebrated the jubilee of their signature historical achievement, the grand experiment in self-government, the birth of the United States.

Adams and Jefferson themselves appreciated the significance of the moment as the anniversary approached. Both were too ill to accept invitations to the many public events planned to mark the occasion, but they still issued statements that reflected their unique personalities and personas. Jefferson, the wordsmith of the Revolution, penned an eloquent letter in declining an invitation to participate in the ceremonies in Washington. As David McCullough recounted in his biography of Adams, Jefferson wrote in part:

May it be to the world, what I believe it will 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 blessing and security of self-government . . . . let the annual return to this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

Adams, the Revolution’s lawyer, provided a more succinct encomium when asked by civic leaders to provide a toast for the July 4 celebration in his home town of Quincy, Mass. “Independence forever!” the still all-business old man said.

Shortly before he died early in the evening of July 4, the failing Adams reportedly whispered, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Seemingly, it was important to him that one of the two of them should survive as valedictorian of the Founding Generation beyond this 50th anniversary of independence. But alas, he was wrong. Jefferson had already died several hours earlier.

Commentators at the time attributed much significance to the passing of these two giants on that date, and still do today. Many have seen the hand of Providence in the event, a sign from the Creator, a blessing for their achievement, and an omen for its continuance.

I think it’s a remarkable event, one that I think about every year around the Fourth of July, but it’s not the most remarkable thing I associate with Jefferson and Adams. (Well, OK, maybe it is, but it’s not what I want the point of this post to be, so work with me here.)

What impresses me most about Adams and Jefferson is the remarkable friendship they shared and, more than that, their shared sense of purpose even though they had entirely different ideas about the role of government.

Adams and Jefferson first met when they served on the Continental Congress and were quickly impressed with other. Though different in every imaginable way (Jefferson was tall and slender, Adams was short and rotund; Jefferson was a Southern gentleman, Adams was a New England farmer; Jefferson was quiet and reserved, Adams was loud and pushy; Jefferson owned slaves, Adams thought slavery was terrible; Jefferson was a young man just starting to attract notice in the public life, Adams, seven years older, was already an accomplished lawyer and spokesperson for the people of Massachusetts), they developed a mutual respect for each other.

The respect deepened when both served on the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence, and Adams asked Jefferson to be the principal author. Jefferson wrote most of the wording that we now know, but it was Adams who was the Declaration’s principal advocate in the Continental Congress and helped get it approved.

Their professional relationship developed into a warm bond of friendship when both served as ambassadors for the United States in Paris. Jefferson, whose wife had died shortly before his service in Europe, became especially close to the Adams family. John Adams’ wife Abigail was a confidante for Jefferson, and Jefferson became a mentor to John Quincy Adams, the son of John and Abigail who would himself eventually become a President.

But their friendship became strained during the early years under the Constitution when Adams as Washington’s vice president advocated the type of strong central government favored by the so-called “Federalists,” such as Alexander Hamilton, while Jefferson became the leader of the Democratic-Republican party that wanted very limited government. By the time of Adams presidency in 1797 and the election of 1800 between him and Jefferson, the friendship had ended. Many historians have blamed Jefferson’s political tactics for damaging the relationship. His attacks on Adams were relentless and he had even hired a newspaper reporter to spread lies about Adams and the Federalists.

But many years later, when Adams and Jefferson reconciled and resumed their friendship, they began an exchange of letters that are remarkable not only for their insight into what the leaders of the Revolution had in mind, but for the genuine care and affection the two men have for each other.

How could this happen? Again as described by McCullough, Adams explained it this way:

I do not believe that Mr. Jefferson ever hated me. On the contrary, I believe he always liked me; but he detested Hamilton and my whole administration. Then he wished to be President of the United States, and I stood in his way. So he did everything that he could to pull me down. But if I should quarrel with him for that, I might quarrel with every man I have had anything to do with in my life. This is human nature . . . .

I think we, and our political leaders today, could learn a lot from Adams and Jefferson. Despite all the sometimes mean and nasty things politicians and voters say about each other and each other’s political parties, it doesn’t necessarily mean they dislike each other. On the contrary, people with very different points of view can still like each other and appreciate that they both have the same goals in mind: They both want what is best for their country, even though they have different ideas for how to do that. To disagree, as Adams said, is simply “human nature.”

So on this Fourth of July, I’m going to note the remarkable circumstances of their deaths, but even more I am going to try to emulate their friendship and the important message of their lives: That people can disagree without being disagreeable, that people can treat each other with respect and civility even if they have different points of view on civics, and that when they do and work together to find common ground, they can accomplish something wonderful.

Happy Fourth of July, Mr. Adams and Mr. Jefferson. The United States survives.

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