July 4, 1826: Astonishing coincidences on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration

July 4, 2014

You know the story, don’t you? If you don’t, you should commit this one to memory.  It’s not fiction, and if you proposed it for fiction, the editors would reject it as too improbable, or too sappy, a tug on your heartstrings and tear ducts.  It’s true, better than the faux patriot fiction we often get on July 4.

July 4, 2014, is the 238th anniversary of the announcement of the Declaration of Independence.  I hope you’re thinking about how you’ll fly the flag this weekend in honor of the Declaration of Independence.

The resolution proposed by Richard Henry Lee calling for independence of the 13 colonies passed the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776.  The Declaration would be Thomas Jefferson’s crowning achievement, outshining even his presidency and the Louisiana Purchase.   John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that July 2 would forever be marked by patriotic displays.

But the Declaration itself, which gave teeth to the resolution, was adopted two days later on July 4.  That has come to be the day we celebrate.

Detail, John Trumbull's Signing of the Declaration of Independence - Theodor Horydczak photo, Library of Congress

Detail, John Trumbull’s Signing of the Declaration of Independence – The committee of five presents the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock, the President of the Second Continental Congress; from left, the committee is John Adams, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin.  Theodor Horydczak photo, Library of Congress

Adams didn’t miss a beat.  Who quibbles about a couple of days when the celebrating is so good?

Adams and Jefferson were two of the five-member committee the Congress had tasked to write a declaration.  Adams and Ben Franklin quickly determined to leave it up to Jefferson, who had a grand flair with words, and who had just written a couple of stirring documents for Virginia.  Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston, the other two members, went along.  And so it was that the Declaration of  Independence is almost completely the work of Thomas Jefferson.

Adams and Jefferson became friends only later, when they both served the nation at war as ambassadors to France, and then for Adams, to England.  A widower, Jefferson was taken in by Abigail Adams who worried about him.  After the war, Jefferson was in England when Adams was to meet King George III in a grand ceremony in which the king would accept the credentials of all the ambassadors of foreign nations to England.  As the king strode down the line, each ambassador or delegation would bow, the king would acknowledge them, the papers would be passed, and the king would move on.  Adams and Jefferson bowed.  King George moved on, ignoring them completely.

In such a case of such a snub, the snubbed foreigners usually made a quick exit.  Adams and Jefferson did not.  They stood at attention as if the king had treated them like all the rest, reversing the snub.  From the beginning, Americans and the United States pushed for more practical, reasonable, and compassionate government and relations.  Standing together, against the snub of the British King one more time, Adams and Jefferson formed a silent bond that held them the rest of their lives.

Back in America in peacetime, and both members of the administration of George Washington, Adams and Jefferson fell out.  Secretary of State Jefferson favored a more limited federal government; Vice President Adams favored a more powerful one.  By the end of Washington’s second term, party politics had been well developed.  Adams defeated Jefferson in the election of 1796.  As was the law then, Jefferson was vice president as the runner-up vote getter in the electoral college; but Adams kept Jefferson out of all government affairs.  Perhaps because he didn’t have Jefferson to help, Adams’s presidency did not go well.  In the rematch election in 1800, one of  the bitterest election fights ever, Jefferson’s party defeated Adams.  The gleeful Democratic-Republican electors all voted one ballot for Jefferson, the presidential candidate, and one ballot for Aaron Burr, the party’s vice presidential candidate.

Alas, that produced a tie vote in the electoral college.  Adams’s party, the Federalists, still held the House of Representatives before the new Congress came in.  A tie vote goes to the House for decision.  They could not bring themselves to vote for Jefferson, and the deadlock continued for 37 ballots.  Finally Jefferson’s former friend but now arch-enemy Alexander Hamilton intervened, explaining that Burr was clearly the greater scoundrel, and the House elected Jefferson.  Adams slunk out of town, avoiding the inauguration.

It wasn’t until after 1809 when Benjamin Rush hoodwinked Jefferson into writing to Adams, and Adams to Jefferson, that the two became friendly again.  For the next 17 years Jefferson and Adams carried on perhaps the greatest series of correspondence in history between two great minds.  Letters went out almost daily, from Monticello, Virginia,  to Braintree, Massachusetts, and from Braintree to Monticello.  They discussed the weather, their families, old times, farming — but especially the republic they had been most instrumental in creating, and how it might be preserved, and made to prosper.  Eventually the letters became harder to read, both because their eyesight was failing, and because their penmanship deteriorated, too.

The ideas, however, flowed like a great river of freedom.  Perhaps this correspondence was the river flowing justice the prophet Amos foretold.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 15th, 1820 - Library of Congress image

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 15th, 1820. From The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827. Library of Congress image

Both men took ill early in 1826.  This was a landmark year, 50 years since the Declaration of Independence.  In Massachusetts, a grand display of fireworks was planned to cap off a day of feasting and celebration.  Adams hoped he might attend.  In Virginia, a week before, it became clear Jefferson was too ill to venture even as close as Charlottesville for the celebration.  Jefferson sent his regrets to invitations from several celebrations.  Jefferson slept through most of July 3, but awoke about 9:00 p.m., and asked, “This is the fourth?”  It was not.  These are the last significant, recorded words of Jefferson.  He awoke at about 4:00 a.m. on the Fourth of July, 1826, but could not make a rally.  He died at 12:50 in the afternoon.

Adams, too, was too ill to attend the celebrations.  In the late afternoon or early evening of the Fourth, he awoke, and heard the celebration in the town.  Almost as if he had worked just to live to see that particular day, he checked the date.  Realizing he was near the end, happy that he’d seen 50 years after the Declaration, and unaware of the events a few hours earlier that day in Virginia, Adams said, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”  Adams, too, died on July 4, 1826.

Fly your flag July 4th. Remember John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  Remember their great work in creating the nation that protects our freedoms today.  Remember their great friendship.  Write a letter to a good friend you’ve not written to lately.

It is Independence Day, a day created and celebrated by great men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  Their spirit survives in us, as we celebrate, and if we remember why we celebrate as friends.

More:


John Adams’s greatest error

July 2, 2014

“The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776

In writing to his wife Abigail on July 3, John Adams committed one of those grand errors even he would laugh at afterward.  We’ll forgive him when the fireworks start firing.

1776 filled the calendar with dates deserving of remembrance and even celebration. John Adams, delegate from Massachusetts to the Second Continental Congress, wrote home to his wife Abigail that future generations would celebrate July 2, the date the Congress voted to approve Richard Henry Lee’s resolution declaring independence from Britain for 13 of the British colonies in America.

Continental congress DSC_0607

Scene of the crime — Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Second Continental congress approved the resolution to declare the colonies independent from Britain – (Photo credit: diablodale)

Two days later, that same Congress approved the wording of the document Thomas Jefferson had drafted to announce Lee’s resolution to the world.

Today, we celebrate the date of the document Jefferson wrote, and Richard Henry Lee is often a reduced to a footnote, if not erased from history altogether.

Who can predict the future?

(You know, of course, that Adams and Jefferson both died 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1826. In the 50 intervening years, Adams and Jefferson were comrades in arms and diplomacy in Europe, officers of the new government in America, opposing candidates for the presidency, President and Vice President, ex-President and President, bitter enemies, then long-distance friends writing almost daily about how to make a great new nation. Read David McCullough‘s version of the story, if you can find it.)

(Yes, this is mostly an encore post.)

More, and Related articles:

The Lee Resolution.

The Lee Resolution, passed by the Second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776 – Wikipedia image (Wait a minute: Are those numbers added correctly? What are they?)

 

 


Quote of the moment: Useless men a Congress? Not John Adams, but Peter Stone who said it

October 1, 2013

It’s a great line, an almost-Mark Twain-ism that makes people of all political strips smile.  It’s attributed to John Adams:

I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm; and that three or more become a Congress!

There’s a problem: John Adams didn’t say it.

It’s a line from the 1969 Broadway musical comedy 1776!

The character John Adams in the play said it.  It’s art in pursuit of history, but it’s not really history.

Playwright Peter Stone, Theatrical Rights image

Playwright Peter Stone wrote the witticism attributed to John Adams.  Theatrical Rights image

We should more accurately attribute it to the play’s book’s author, Peter Stone.  What John Adams did not say about Congress, Peter Stone wrote.  Such wit deserves proper attribution.

Especially on a day when the U.S. Congress appears to be not only a collection of useless people, men and women, but useless people bent on destruction of our national institutions.  Congress has fallen down on the job, failing to play its vital, Constitutional role of appropriating money to run the government.

Stone’s mention of “law firms” gives away the quote’s origins being much later than Adams — Adams died, as you know, on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.   “Law firms” is 20th century language.

In an era of law firms so big the people in them cannot comprehend their size, such a statement might emerge.  The distaste with lawyers in the Stone quote also doesn’t ring to the times of the American Revolution.  Good lawyer jokes probably existed then, but they didn’t really rise until the lawyerly pettifogging of the 19th century — see Dickens’ Mr. Bumble in Chapter 51 of Oliver Twistor the entire text of Bleak House, for examples.  Law firms in 1776 simply did not exist as large corporations, but more often as an office of an individual lawyer, or two or three.  Mark Twain joked about Congress, but a joke about both Congress and lawyers probably was rare before 1910.  (I am willing to be disabused of this idea, if I am wrong . . . comments are open.)

Wikiquote’s rapid improvement provides us with a good check on whether Adams said it — Wikiquote points us clearly to Peter Stone instead.

Stone died in 2003, much underappreciated if you ask me.  Stone might be said to be among the greatest ghost speechwriters in history based on 1776! alone,  creating lines for John Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson — three of the greatest authors and (sometimes reluctant) speakers of their day, and of all history.  Stone’s plays include Titanic and Two by Two, his screenplays include Charade, Arabesque, Mirage, The Taking of Pelham 123, and Father Goose.  (The first two of those movies favorites of mine solely for the scores by Henry Mancini.)

1776! plays in revival in California’s Bay Area, at A.C.T. (see reviews from both the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle, linked below).  One might wish Congressmen today would see the play.  In 1776 the colonies in rebellion were unsure what to do next; the Declaration of Independence was not a foregone conclusion.  The amazing collection of men — unfortunately no women — who populated the Second Continental Congress were predisposed to find ways around their differences, to make wise policies, and to keep things functioning.  Rather than shut government down, they carefully instructed individual governments in the states to make preparations to operate without infusions of cash or policy direction from the Crown, even before deciding independence made sense.  In short, they were dedicated to making things work.

Ironic that so many remember Peter Stone’s slam of Congress as incompetent, when the rest of his play book demonstrates that particular congress of men took quite an opposite view of life, and created a model for leadership we marvel at today.

More:

This is an edited encore post, sadly made salient today by Congress’s inaction on required spending bills.

Photo from the San Francisco Chronicle: Jarrod Zimmerman, as Edward Rutledge, makes a passionate appeal to delegates of the Second Continental Congress in the Tony Award-winning musical

Useless men? Funny quip, but the Second Continental Congress was far from a group of useless men thrown together. Photo from the San Francisco Chronicle: Jarrod Zimmerman, as Edward Rutledge, makes a passionate appeal to delegates of the Second Continental Congress in the Tony Award-winning musical “1776,” coming to ACT. Photo: Juan Davila

 


Even when he’s almost correct, David Barton doctors his accounts of history to make them false: Misquoting John Adams

July 5, 2013

Here’s David Barton‘s screw-up of a John Adams letter:

David Barton cuts John Adams's words off

David Barton’s “Wallbuilders” website featured John Adams’s description of July 2 — but conveniently edited out Adams’s own words, to make it appear as something else. Barton misses the history! What sort of anti-American cuts the words of John Adams when Adams defends liberty’s heritage?

“The . . . day of July, 1776?”  What day?

Faithful readers, and good students of history know that John Adams thought, in 1776, that July 2 would be celebrated as Independence Day.  Why?  July 2, 1776, was the day the 2nd Continental Congress voted to declare the colonies independent of Britain, and no longer under the rule of the Crown or Parliament.

The Declaration of Independence — the press release explaining Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence — sat ready to be discussed.  The Congress did not adopt the Declaration until two days later, on July 4.

Our Independence Day celebration falls on the date of the adoption of the Declaration, not the date of the actual resolution declaring independence.

This is a point of great humor among historians.  Even John Adams, more prescient than most soothsayers, could not predict accurately when Americans would celebrate independence.  Here at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, we often make a post on or about July 2, noting that humorous discrepancy.

That’s interesting.  It’s inspiring to know these august figures, near-gods in the American pantheon of the 21st century, got things wrong.  It’s humorous.  It’s good history.

What in the hell was David Barton thinking?

What evil purpose is he trying to serve by hiding real history, in such a bizarrely petty way?  Why create a hoax when the words themselves support the point you’re wishing to make, that John Adams thought Americans should celebrate independence?

Screenshot of David Barton's webpage, showing his bizarre butchery of Adams's words.

Screenshot of David Barton’s webpage, showing his bizarre butchery of Adams’s words.

Sheesh! He comes so close to getting something accurate, but he can’t resist monkeying with the words of the Founders.  David Barton reminds me of the guy who cheated at golf so much that, one day when he hit a hole-in-one, he wrote “0!” on the scorecard.  A man who will lie to us about one of the most famous letters in American history will lie about anything, for fun.

More:

John Adams, ca 1816, by Samuel F.B. Morse (Bro...

‘David Barton said what?’ By the time this portrait was painted, Adams knew Americans would celebrate the 4th, and not the 2nd; he seems to be glaring right at David Barton, to tell Barton to quit jerking around with history – John Adams, ca 1816, by Samuel F.B. Morse (Brooklyn Museum) Wikipedia image


Quote of the moment, still: John Adams, July 2 “the most memorable Epocha in the History of America”

July 2, 2013

“The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776

1776 filled the calendar with dates deserving of remembrance and even celebration. John Adams, delegate from Massachusetts to the Second Continental Congress, wrote home to his wife Abigail that future generations would celebrate July 2, the date the Congress voted to approve Richard Henry Lee’s resolution declaring independence from Britain for 13 of the British colonies in America.

Continental congress DSC_0607

Scene of the crime — Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Second Continental congress approved the resolution to declare the colonies independent from Britain – (Photo credit: diablodale)

Two days later, that same Congress approved the wording of the document Thomas Jefferson had drafted to announce Lee’s resolution to the world.

Today, we celebrate the date of the document Jefferson wrote, and Richard Henry Lee is often a reduced to a footnote, if not erased from history altogether.

Who can predict the future?

(You know, of course, that Adams and Jefferson both died 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1826. In the 50 intervening years, Adams and Jefferson were comrades in arms and diplomacy in Europe, officers of the new government in America, opposing candidates for the presidency, President and Vice President, ex-President and President, bitter enemies, then long-distance friends writing almost daily about how to make a great new nation. Read David McCullough‘s version of the story, if you can find it.)

(Yes, this is mostly an encore post.)

More, and Related articles:

The Lee Resolution.

The Lee Resolution, passed by the Second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776 – Wikipedia image (Wait a minute: Are those numbers added correctly? What are they?)


Quote of the moment: John Adams, on government debt

December 12, 2012

John Adams, by Asher B. Durand

President John Adams, painted by Asher B. Durand; U.S. Navy image, via Wikipedia

Our second President, the author of the Constitution and Bill of Rights of Massachusetts, John Adams was quite pragmatic about debt — use it when you have to, don’t use it too much. In his first Annual Message to Congress, on November 22, 1797, Adams said:

Since the decay of the feudal system, by which the public defense was provided for chiefly at the expense of individuals, the system of loans has been introduced, and as no nation can raise within the year by taxes sufficient sums for its defense and military operations in time of war the sums loaned and debts contracted have necessarily become the subjects of what have been called funding systems. The consequences arising from the continual accumulation of public debts in other countries ought to admonish us to be careful to prevent their growth in our own. The national defense must be provided for as well as the support of Government; but both should be accomplished as much as possible by immediate taxes, and as little as possible by loans.

Taxes over loans.  Who would have guessed that?

In contrast to some of the things circulating around the internet today attributed to John Adams, he actually wrote this in his message to Congress.


Quote of the moment: What John Adams DID NOT SAY about Congress

November 15, 2012

It’s a great line, an almost-Mark Twain-ism that makes people of all political strips smile.  It’s attributed to John Adams:

I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm; and that three or more become a Congress!

There’s a problem: John Adams didn’t say it.

It’s a line from the 1969 Broadway musical comedy 1776!

The character John Adams in the play said it.

Playwright Peter Stone, Theatrical Rights image

Playwright Peter Stone wrote the witticism attributed to John Adams.  Theatrical Rights image

We should more accurately attribute it to the play’s book’s author, Peter Stone.

What John Adams did not say about Congress, Peter Stone wrote.  Such wit deserves proper attribution.

Mention of “law firms” gives away the origin’s being much later than Adams’s — Adams died, as you know, on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.   “Law firms” is 20th century language.

A day after Fulbright & Jaworski LLC announced a merger with Norton Rose, one might almost wish that law firms would be just three people.  Norton Rose Fulbright starts out with 3,800 lawyers in 55 offices around the world.  [Conflict of interest note:  My spouse works at Fulbright & Jaworski.]  The distaste with lawyers in the Stone quote also doesn’t ring to the times of the American Revolution.  Good lawyer jokes probably existed then, but they didn’t really rise until the lawyerly pettifogging of the 19th century — see Dickens’ Mr. Bumble in Chapter 51 of Oliver Twistor the entire text of Bleak House, for examples.   Twain joked about Congress, but a joke about both Congress and lawyers probably was rare before 1910.  (I am willing to be disabused of this idea, if I am wrong . . . comments are open.)

Wikiquote’s rapid improvement provides us with a good check on whether Adams said it — Wikiquote points us clearly to Peter Stone instead.

Stone died in 2003, much underappreciated if you ask me.  Stone might be said to be among the greatest ghost speechwriters in history based on 1776! alone,  creating lines for John Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson — three of the greatest authors and (sometimes reluctant) speakers of their day, and of all history.  Stone’s plays include Titanic and Two by Two, his screenplays include Charade, Arabesque, Mirage, The Taking of Pelham 123, and Father Goose.

More:


Quote of the moment: Adams, July 2 “the most memorable Epocha in the History of America”

July 2, 2012

“The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776

1776 filled the calendar with dates deserving of remembrance and even celebration. John Adams, delegate from Massachusetts to the Second Continental Congress, wrote home to his wife Abigail that future generations would celebrate July 2, the date the Congress voted to approve Richard Henry Lee’s resolution declaring independence from Britain for 13 of the British colonies in America.

Continental congress DSC_0607

Scene of the crime — Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Second Continental congress approved the resolution to declare the colonies independent from Britain – (Photo credit: diablodale)

Two days later, that same Congress approved the wording of the document Thomas Jefferson had drafted to announce Lee’s resolution to the world.

Today, we celebrate the date of the document Jefferson wrote, and Richard Henry Lee is often a reduced to a footnote, if not erased from history altogether.

Who can predict the future?

(You know, of course, that Adams and Jefferson both died 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1826. In the 50 intervening years, Adams and Jefferson were comrades in arms and diplomacy in Europe, officers of the new government in America, opposing candidates for the presidency, President and Vice President, ex-President and President, bitter enemies, then long-distance friends writing almost daily about how to make a great new nation. Read David McCullough‘s version of the story, if you can find it.)

More, and Related articles:

 


Quote of the moment: John Adams, necessity of public schools to make the nation work

May 30, 2012

Capitalization, spelling punctuation, insertions and grammar, as in the original; highlighting added:

John Adams' residence at Grosvenor Square, in London

John Adams’ residence at Grosvenor Square, in London; presumably, his letter to John Jebb took form in this house. Image from Non-Political Politics

the social science will never be much improved untill the People unanimously know and Consider themselvs as the fountain of Power and untill they shall  know how to manage it Wisely and honestly. reformation must begin with the \Body of the/ People which can be done only, to affect, in their Educations. the Whole People must take \upon/ themselvs the Education of the Whole People and must be willing to bear the expences of it. there should not be a district of one Mile square without a school in it, not founded by a Charitable individual but maintained at the expence of the People themselv[s] they must be taught to reverence themselvs instead of adoreing their servants their Generals Admirals Bishops and Statesmen — Instead of Admiring so extravegantly a Prince of Orange, we Should admire the Botavian Nation which produced him. Instead of Adoring a Washington, Mankind should applaud the Nation which Educated him. If Thebes owes its Liberty and Glory to Epaminandas, She will loose both when he dies, and it would have been as well if she had never enjoyed a taste for either: but if the Knowledge the Principles the Virtues and Capacities of the Theban Nation produced an Epaminandas, her Liberties and Glory will remain when he is no more: and if an analogous system of Education is Established and Enjoyed by the Whole Nation, it will produce a succession of Epaminandas’s, the Human Mind naturally exerts itself to form its Character according to the Ideas of those about it.

♦  Letter from John Adams to John Jebb, September 10, 1785, from Grosvenor Square, London

Tip of the old scrub brush to Diane Ravitch’s Blog.


Quote of the moment: John Adams, celebrating the 2nd of July

July 1, 2011

“The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776

1776 filled the calendar with dates deserving of remembrance and even celebration.  John Adams, delegate from Massachusetts to the Second Continental Congress, wrote home to his wife Abigail that future generations would celebrate July 2, the date the Congress voted to approve Richard Henry Lee’s resolution declaring independence from Britain for 13 of the British colonies in America.

Two days later, that same Congress approved the wording of the document Thomas Jefferson had drafted to announce Lee’s resolution to the world.

Today, we celebrate the date of the document Jefferson wrote, and Richard Henry Lee is often a reduced to a footnote, if not erased from history altogether.

Who can predict the future?

(You know, of course, that Adams and Jefferson both died 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1826.  In the 50 intervening years, Adams and Jefferson were comrades in arms and diplomacy in Europe, officers of the new government in America, opposing candidates for the presidency, President and Vice President, ex-President and President, bitter enemies, then long-distance friends writing almost daily about how to make a great new nation.  Read David McCullough‘s version of the story, if you can find it.)

Update, July 4, 2013: You may want to check the updated version of this post, with more links, and even more history.


Something to think about as you get your flag ready to fly for July 4

July 2, 2010

This is mostly an encore post, from last year.

July 4th is the 234th anniversary of the announcement of the Declaration of Independence.  I hope you’re thinking about how you’ll fly the flag this weekend in honor of the Declaration of Independence.

The resolution proposed by Richard Henry Lee calling for independence of the 13 colonies passed the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776.  The Declaration would be Thomas Jefferson’s crowning achievement, outshining even his presidency and the Louisiana Purchase.   John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that July 2 would forever be marked by patriotic displays.

But the Declaration itself, which gave teeth to the resolution, was adopted two days later on July 4 — and that has come to be the day we celebrate.

Detail, John Trumbull's Signing of the Declaration of Independence - Theodor Horydczak photo, Library of Congress

Detail, John Trumbull's Signing of the Declaration of Independence - The committee of five presents the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock, the President of the Second Continental Congress; from left, the committee is John Adams, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin. Theodor Horydczak photo, Library of Congress

Adams didn’t miss a beat.  Who quibbles about a couple of days when the celebrating is so good?

Adams and Jefferson were two of the five-member committee the Congress had tasked to write a declaration.  Adams and Ben Franklin quickly determined to leave it up to Jefferson, who had a grand flair with words, and who had just written a couple of stirring documents for Virginia.  Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston, the other two members, went along.  And so it was that the Declaration of  Independence is almost completely the work of Thomas Jefferson.

Adams and Jefferson became friends only later, when they both served the nation at war as ambassadors to France, and then for Adams, to England.  A widower, Jefferson was taken in by Abigail Adams who worried about him.  After the war, Jefferson was in England when Adams was to meet King George III in a grand ceremony in which the king would accept the credentials of all the ambassadors of foreign nations to England.  As the king strode down the line, each ambassador or delegation would bow, the king would acknowledge them, the papers would be passed, and the king would move on.  Adams and Jefferson bowed.  King George moved on, ignoring them completely.

In such a case of such a snub, the snubbed foreigners usually made a quick exit.  Adams and Jefferson did not.  They stood at attention as if the king had treated them like all the rest, reversing the snub.  From the beginning, Americans and the United States pushed for more practical, reasonable, and compassionate government and relations.

Back in America in peacetime, and both members of the administration of George Washington, Adams and Jefferson fell out.  Secretary of State Jefferson favored a more limited federal government; Vice President Adams favored a more powerful one.  By the end of Washington’s second term, party politics had been well developed.  Adams defeated Jefferson in the election of 1796.  As was the law then, Jefferson was vice president as the runner-up vote getter in the electoral college; but Adams kept Jefferson out of all government affairs.  Perhaps because he didn’t have Jefferson to help, Adams’s presidency did not go well.  In the rematch election in 1800, one of  the bitterest fights ever, Jefferson’s party defeated Adams.  The gleeful Democratic-Republican electors all voted one ballot for Jefferson, the presidential candidate, and one ballot for Aaron Burr, the party’s vice presidential candidate.

Alas, that produced a tie vote in the electoral college.  Adams’s party, the Federalists, still held the House of Representatives before the new Congress came in.  A tie vote goes to the House for decision.  They could not bring themselves to vote for Jefferson, and the deadlock continued for 37 ballots.  Finally Jefferson’s former friend but now arch enemy Alexander Hamilton intervened, explaining that Burr was clearly the greater scoundrel, and the House elected Jefferson.  Adams slunk out of town, avoiding the inauguration.

It wasn’t until after 1809 when Benjamin Rush hoodwinked Jefferson into writing to Adams, and Adams to Jefferson, that the two became friendly again.  For the next 17 years Jefferson and Adams carried on perhaps the greatest series of correspondence in history between two great minds.  Letters went out almost daily, from Monticello, Virginia,  to Braintree, Massachusetts, and from Braintree to Monticello.  They discussed the weather, their families, old times, farming — but especially the republic they had been most instrumental in creating, and how it might be preserved, and prosper.  Eventually the letters became harder to read, both because their eyesight was failing, and because their penmanship deteriorated, too.

The ideas, however, flowed like a great river of freedom.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 15th, 1820 - Library of Congress image

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 15th, 1820. From The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827. Library of Congress image

Both men took ill early in 1826.  This was a landmark year, 50 years since the Declaration of Independence.  In Massachusetts, a grand display of fireworks was to cap off a day of feasting and celebration.  Adams hoped he might attend.  In Virginia, a week before, it became clear Jefferson was too ill to venture even as close as Charlottesville for the celebration.  Jefferson slept through most of July 3, but awoke about 9:00 p.m., and asked, “This is the fourth?”  It was not.  These are the last significant, recorded words of Jefferson.  He awoke at about 4:00 a.m. on the Fourth of July, 1826, but could not make a rally.  He died at 12:50 in the afternoon.

Adams, too, was too ill to attend the celebrations.  In the late afternoon or early evening of the Fourth, he awoke, and heard the celebration in the town.  Almost as if he had worked just to live to see that particular day, he checked the date.  Realizing he was near the end, happy that he’d seen 50 years after the Declaration, and unaware of the events earlier that day in Virginia, Adams said, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”  Adams, too, died on July 4, 1826.

Fly your flag July 4th. Remember John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  Remember their great work in creating the nation that protects our freedoms today.  Remember their great friendship.  Write a letter to a good friend you’ve not written to lately.

It is Independence Day this Sunday.  Their spirit survives in us, as we celebrate, and if we remember why we celebrate.


Fly your flag today, July 4, 2009

July 4, 2009

Soldiers raise the U.S. flag at a base in Afghanistan, 2003

Soldiers raise the U.S. flag at a base in Afghanistan, 2003

It’s the 233rd anniversary of the announcement of the Declaration of Independence.  The resolution calling for independence of the 13 colonies passed the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776.  The Declaration would be Thomas Jefferson’s crowning achievement, outshining even his presidency and the Louisiana Purchase.   John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that July 2 would forever be marked by patriotic displays.

But the Declaration, which gave teeth to the resolution, was adopted on July 4.  Adams didn’t miss a beat.  Who quibbles about a couple of days when the celebrating is so good?

Adams and Jefferson were two of the five-member committee the Congress had tasked to write a declaration.  Adams and Ben Franklin quickly determined to leave it up to Jefferson, who had a grand flair with words, and who had just written a couple of stirring documents for Virginia.  Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston, the other two members, went along.

Adams and Jefferson became friends only later, when they both served the nation at war as ambassadors to France, and then for Adams, to England.  A widower, Jefferson was taken in by Abigail Adams who worried about him.  After the war, Jefferson was in England when Adams was to meet King George III in a grand ceremony in which the king would accept the credentials of all the ambassadors of foreign nations to England.  As the king strode down the line, each ambassador or delegation would bow, the king would acknowledge them, the papers would be passed, and the king would move on.  Adams and Jefferson bowed.  King George moved on, ignoring them completely.

In such a case of such a snub, the snubbed foreigners usually made a quick exit.  Adams and Jefferson did not.  They stood at attention as if the king had treated them like all the rest, reversing the snub.

Back in America in peacetime, Adams and Jefferson fell out.  Jefferson favored a more limited federal government; Adams favored a more powerful one.  By the end of Washington’s second term, party politics had been well developed.  Adams defeated Jefferson in the election of 1796.  As was the law then, Jefferson was vice president; but Adams kept Jefferson out of all government affairs.  Perhaps because he didn’t have Jefferson to help, Adams’s presidency did not go well.  In the rematch election in 1800, one of  the bitterest fights ever, Jefferson’s party defeated Adams.  The gleeful Democratic-Republican electors all voted one ballot for Jefferson, the presidential candidate, and one ballot for Aaron Burr, the party’s vice presidential candidate.

Alas, that produced a tie vote in the electoral college.  Adams’s party, the Federalists, still held the House of Representatives before the new Congress came in.  A tie vote goes to the House for decision.  They could not bring themselves to vote for Jefferson, and the deadlock continued for 37 ballots.  Finally Jefferson’s arch enemy Alexander Hamilton intervened, explaining that Burr was clearly the greater scoundrel, and the House elected Jefferson.  Adams slunk out of town, avoiding the inauguration.

It wasn’t until after 1809 when Benjamin Rush hoodwinked Jefferson into writing to Adams, and Adams to Jefferson, that the two became friendly again.  For the next 17 years Jefferson and Adams carried on perhaps the greatest series of correspondence in history between two great minds.  Letters went out almost daily.  They discussed the weather, their families, old times, farming — but especially the republic they had been most instrumental in creating, and how it might be preserved, and prosper.  Eventually the letters became harder to read, both because their eyesight was failing, and because their penmanship deteriorated, too.

The ideas, however, flowed like a river.

Both men took ill early in 1826.  This was a landmark year, 50 years since the Declaration of Independence.  In Massachusetts, a grand display of fireworks was to cap off a day of feasting and celebration.  Adams hoped he might attend.  In Virginia, a week before, it became clear Jefferson was too ill to venture even as close as Charlottesville for the celebration.  Jefferson slept through most of July 3, but awoke about 9:00 p.m., and asked, “This is the fourth?”  It was not.  These are the last significant, recorded words of Jefferson.  He awoke at about 4:00 a.m. on the Fourth of July, 1826, but could not make a rally.  He died at 12:50 in the afternoon.

Adams, too, was too ill to attend the celebrations.  In the late afternoon or early evening of the Fourth, he awoke, and heard the celebration in the town.  Almost as if he had worked just to live to see that particular day, he checked the date.  Realizing he was near the end, happy that he’d seen 50 years after the Declaration, and unaware of the events earlier that day in Virginia, Adams said, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”

Fly your flag today. Remember John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  Remember their great work in creating the nation that protects our freedoms today.  Remember their great friendship.  Write a letter to a good friend you’ve not written to lately.

It’s the Fourth of July.  Their spirit survives in us, as we celebrate, and as we remember why we celebrate.


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