Across a burgeoning empire, people gathered in town squares to celebrate. Bands played and cannons roared, saluting one of the great moments in history. The scene was different and considerably more somber at Monticello and in Quincy, where two great architects of that moment fought for the last freedom, an escape from tired, mortal bodies. Both had outlived the average life expectancy of the time by a full generation. But on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day from the publication of the Declaration of Independence, 90-year-old John Adams and 82-year-old Thomas Jefferson breathed their last.
The fact that the these two giants would exit the stage together cannot be coincidence; it is more a testament to the will that defines the American spirit. For weeks their deaths had been expected; it was against all odds that both lived to see their beloved country’s 50th birthday.
Centuries later it is easy to remember the men simply as peas in a pod, part of the brave band of patriots from whom we derive. But the arc of their relationship says so much more about who we are that it bears closer attention.
In one sense, the men were similar. Both were prosperous and blessed with genius. Without the revolution, it is most likely that Jefferson would be remembered by some as an architect, writer and scientist; Adams would have enjoyed some small renown as a lawyer of the first class. Absent their defiance of King George, the men would have anticipated a comfortable and satisfying life. But in a twist of the human political drama that remains unique to this day, these gentlemen of the aristocracy risked everything for the freedom of people who would benefit far more than they from a changed status quo. Janis Joplin may have said “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose” but that sentiment surely did not apply to Adams and Jefferson. They had everything to lose. In the early years of their relationship, the intensity of the risk they faced and the energy they expended bound them together. They cared for each other deeply and extended the greatest of kindnesses between their families.
Their differences, however, were just as remarkable. Physically, Jefferson was imposing; Adams an every-man. The Massachusetts man was deeply puritan; the Virginian a libertine with religious views that strayed from the mainstream. Jefferson was a spendthrift who died in a mountain of debt; Adams’ frugality left a sizable estate. But most of all, the rhythms of their youth informed their politics. Adams, familiar with Boston Harbor, valued commerce. Jefferson, raised in the tidewaters of Virginia, was agrarian to the core of his soul.
Commerce requires cooperation, agriculture relies on rugged independence. So as the two men set out to mold the country they had helped birth, their paths radically diverged. Adams favored a forceful central government, Jefferson argued to keep power diffuse so that it would remain with the people. In other words, Jefferson and Adams were having the exact same argument that animates so much of our political discussion today. Nor was the argument gentile. Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, letting him jail his critics; Jefferson and Madison used the State Department as a payroll for critics of the administration they served. Of course, the two men drifted apart.
But after Jefferson left the presidency, rapprochement came. Haltingly at first, with guarded correspondence. But over the years, each re-discovered the best in the other man. So much so that Adams’ last words were reportedly “Jefferson still survives,” not knowing that his brother-in-arms had passed a mere five hours earlier.
Almost two centuries later I think the men would still be proud of what they accomplished. And I am pretty sure they would tell us that the important thing is that whatever your political views, no matter how hard or petty the dispute, “America still survives.” Happy Fourth of July! Grill me a burger.