275: Happy birthday, Thomas Jefferson! Born April 13, 1743

April 13, 2018

Library of Congress's South Reading Room. Mural of Thomas Jefferson with his residence, Monticello, in the background, by Ezra Winter. Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C.

South Reading Room. Mural of Thomas Jefferson with his residence, Monticello, in the background, by Ezra Winter. Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C.; photo by the great photographic historian Carol Highsmith

So, what are you doing to celebrate the birthday of Thomas Jefferson on April 13?

You might visit the Library of Congress, and see Jefferson’s advice to Presidents on a variety of issues, including freedom, labor, kids today, education, and the difficulty of keeping our democratic republic:

Murals by Ezra Winter also decorate the South Reading Room. The theme for these four murals is drawn from Thomas Jefferson’s writings, which are inscribed on the paintings and reflect Jefferson’s thoughts on Freedom, Labor, the Living Generation, Education, and Democratic Government. The characters and costumes depicted are those of Jefferson’s time. A portrait of Jefferson with his residence, Monticello, in the background is in the lunette above the reference desk at the north end of the room; the words in the lower left- had corner explain that THIS ROOM IS DEDICATED TO THOMAS JEFFERSON .

On the left half of the panel on the east wall, Jefferson’s view on Freedom is depicted:

THE GROUND OF LIBERTY IS TO BE GAINED BY INCHES. WE MUST BE CONTENTED TO SECURE WHAT WE CAN GET FROM TIME TO TIME AND ETERNALLY PRESS FORWARD FOR WHAT IS YET TO GET. IT TAKES TIME TO PERSUADE MEN TO DO EVEN WHAT IS FOR THEIR OWN GOOD.

Jefferson to Rev. Charles Clay, January 27, 1790

Jefferson’s views on labor [and farmers], also on the east wall, are taken from his Notes on Virginia:

THOSE WHO LABOR IN THE EARTH ARE THE CHOSEN PEOPLE OF GOD, IF HE EVER HAD A CHOSEN PEOPLE, WHOSE BREASTS HE HAS MADE THE PECULIAR DEPOSITS FOR SUBSTANTIAL AND GENUINE VIRTUE. IT IS THE FOCUS IN WHICH HE KEEPS ALIVE THAT SACRED FIRE WHICH OTHERWISE MIGHT NOT ESCAPE FROM THE EARTH.

From Notes on Virginia, 1782

On the south wall, the panel over the clock contains a quotation about the Living:

THE EARTH BELONGS ALWAYS TO THE LIVING GENERATION. THEY MAY MANAGE IT THEN AND WHAT PROCEEDS FROM IT AS THEY PLEASE DURING THEIR USUFRUCT. THEY ARE MASTERS TOO OF THEIR OWN PERSONS AND CONSEQUENTLY MAY GOVERN THEM AS THEY PLEASE.

Jefferson to James Madison, September 6, 1789

On the left half of the panel on the west wall, Jefferson’s view of Education is illustrated:

EDUCATE AND INFORM THE MASS OF THE PEOPLE. ENABLE THEM TO SEE THAT IT IS THEIR INTEREST TO PRESERVE PEACE AND ORDER, AND THEY WILL PRESERVE THEM. ENLIGHTEN THE PEOPLE GENERALLY, AND TYRANNY AND OPPRESSION OF THE BODY AND MIND WILL VANISH LIKE EVIL SPIRITS AT THE DAWN OF DAY.

Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787 (first two sentences);
Jefferson to P.S. Dupont de Nemours, April 24, 18l6 (last sentence).

Usufruct,” the Word of the Day for April 13.

Jefferson was born April 2, 1843, under the old Julian calendar (O.S., or Old System) — April 13 on the Gregorian calendar, the calendar we use today.

How should we celebrate?

Is there a monument or memorial to Thomas Jefferson in your town? Please tell us about it, and give us a photo if you can, in comments.

More:

Actors dressed in American Revolution-era garb mark Thomas Jefferson's 275th birthday in a ceremony at Jefferson's home, Monticello. WVIR-TV Channel 29 image

Actors dressed in American Revolution-era garb mark Thomas Jefferson’s 275th birthday in a ceremony at Jefferson’s home, Monticello. WVIR-TV Channel 29 image

This is an encore post.

Yes, this is an encore post. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.

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January 16, 2017: Religious Freedom Day in the USA

January 16, 2017

Interesting timing in 2017, falling on the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday:  January 16 is Religious Freedom Day in the U.S.  Not a holiday (sadly), Religious Freedom Day commemorates the heritage of religious freedom in the U.S.

Statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, in Colonial Williamsburg, Va.

Statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, in Colonial Williamsburg, Va.

January 16 is the anniversary of the adoption of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786.  Thomas Jefferson drafted the law in 1779, in his work to create a body of new laws suitable for a new republic based on freedom.  After the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolutionary War in 1783, the 13 independent states in America continued in a difficult federation.  Patrick Henry in Virginia proposed in 1785 to roll back part of the Virginia Bill of Rights, and reestablish government paychecks to the clergy — partly to fund educated people in towns who could organize schools  in their non-preaching hours, but partly to reestablish the church in government.  Fellow legislator James Madison managed to delay consideration of the bill, urging such important matters needed time to develop public support.

Madison had other ideas.  He composed a petition eventually signed by thousands of Virginians, the Memorial and Remonstrance, defending religious freedom and stating the necessity of separating church and state to preserve religious freedom.  When the legislature reconvened in 1786, Henry had moved on to another term as governor; the legislature rejected Henry’s proposal and instead took up the bill Jefferson proposed earlier, and passed it.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom remains in effect, unaltered, today.  It is generally regarded as the best statement on separation of state and church in law.  Within a year Madison was shepherding the construction of a new charter for the 13 American states that would become the Constitution; and in 1789, Madison proposed a much-refined religious freedom amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified as the First Amendment in 1791.

Every January 16, we honor the work of defenders of religious freedom, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, the Virginia Assembly, and all who work today to keep religious freedom alive.

President Barack Obama issued a proclamation for Religious Freedom Day:

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM DAY, 2017

– – – – – – –

BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

A PROCLAMATION

Believing that “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” Thomas Jefferson authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom after our young Nation declared its independence. This idea of religious liberty later became a foundation for the First Amendment, which begins by stating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” On Religious Freedom Day, we rededicate ourselves to defending these fundamental principles, pay tribute to the many ways women and men of different religious and non-religious backgrounds have shaped America’s narrative, and resolve to continue forging a future in which all people are able to practice their faiths freely or not practice at all.

Religious freedom is a principle based not on shared ancestry, culture, ethnicity, or faith but on a shared commitment to liberty — and it lies at the very heart of who we are as Americans. As a Nation, our strength comes from our diversity, and we must be unified in our commitment to protecting the freedoms of conscience and religious belief and the freedom to live our lives according to them. Religious freedom safeguards religion, allowing us to flourish as one of the most religious countries on Earth, but it also strengthens our Nation as a whole. Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to the expansion of civil rights and workers’ rights. And throughout our history, faith communities have helped uphold these values by joining in efforts to help those in need — rallying in the face of tragedy and providing care or shelter in times of disaster.

As they built this country, our Founders understood that religion helps strengthen our Nation when it is not an extension of the State. And because our Government does not sponsor a religion — nor pressure anyone to practice a particular faith or any faith at all — we have a culture that aims to ensure people of all backgrounds and beliefs can freely and proudly worship without fear or coercion. Yet in 2015, nearly 20 percent of hate crime victims in America were targeted because of religious bias. That is unacceptable — and as Americans, we have an obligation to do better.

If we are to defend religious freedom, we must remember that when any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up. At times when some try to divide us along religious lines, it is imperative that we recall the common humanity we share — and reject a politics that seeks to manipulate, prejudice, or bias, and that targets people because of religion. Part of being American means guarding against bigotry and speaking out on behalf of others, no matter their background or belief — whether they are wearing a hijab or a baseball cap, a yarmulke or a cowboy hat.

Today, we must also remember those outside the United States who are persecuted for their faith or beliefs, including those who have lost their lives in attacks on sacred places. Religious liberty is more than a cornerstone of American life — it is a universal and inalienable right — and as members of a global community, we must strive to ensure that all people can enjoy that right in peace and security. That is why my Administration has worked with coalitions around the globe to end discrimination against religious minorities, protect vulnerable communities, and promote religious freedom for all. We have also worked to ensure that those who are persecuted for their religious beliefs can find safety and a new home in the United States and elsewhere.

America has changed a great deal since Thomas Jefferson first drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, but religious liberty is a right we must never stop striving to uphold. Today, let us work to protect that precious right and ensure all people are able to go about their day in safety and with dignity — without living in fear of violence or intimidation — in our time and for generations to come.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim January 16, 2017, as Religious Freedom Day. I call on all Americans to commemorate this day with events and activities that teach us about this critical foundation of our Nation’s liberty, and that show us how we can protect it for future generations at home and around the world.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirteenth day of January, in the year of our Lord two thousand seventeen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-first.

BARACK OBAMA

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Happy birthday, Thomas Jefferson! Born April 13, 1743

April 13, 2016

Library of Congress's South Reading Room. Mural of Thomas Jefferson with his residence, Monticello, in the background, by Ezra Winter. Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C.

South Reading Room. Mural of Thomas Jefferson with his residence, Monticello, in the background, by Ezra Winter. Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C.; photo by the great photographic historian Carol Highsmith

So, what are you doing to celebrate the birthday of Thomas Jefferson on April 13?

You might visit the Library of Congress, and see Jefferson’s advice to President Obama on a variety of issues, including freedom, labor, kids today, education, and the difficulty of keeping our democratic republic:

Murals by Ezra Winter also decorate the South Reading Room. The theme for these four murals is drawn from Thomas Jefferson’s writings, which are inscribed on the paintings and reflect Jefferson’s thoughts on Freedom, Labor, the Living Generation, Education, and Democratic Government. The characters and costumes depicted are those of Jefferson’s time. A portrait of Jefferson with his residence, Monticello, in the background is in the lunette above the reference desk at the north end of the room; the words in the lower left- had corner explain that THIS ROOM IS DEDICATED TO THOMAS JEFFERSON .

On the left half of the panel on the east wall, Jefferson’s view on Freedom is depicted:

THE GROUND OF LIBERTY IS TO BE GAINED BY INCHES. WE MUST BE CONTENTED TO SECURE WHAT WE CAN GET FROM TIME TO TIME AND ETERNALLY PRESS FORWARD FOR WHAT IS YET TO GET. IT TAKES TIME TO PERSUADE MEN TO DO EVEN WHAT IS FOR THEIR OWN GOOD.

Jefferson to Rev. Charles Clay, January 27, 1790

Jefferson’s views on labor, also on the east wall, are taken from his Notes on Virginia:

THOSE WHO LABOR IN THE EARTH ARE THE CHOSEN PEOPLE OF GOD, IF HE EVER HAD A CHOSEN PEOPLE, WHOSE BREASTS HE HAS MADE THE PECULIAR DEPOSITS FOR SUBSTANTIAL AND GENUINE VIRTUE. IT IS THE FOCUS IN WHICH HE KEEPS ALIVE THAT SACRED FIRE WHICH OTHERWISE MIGHT NOT ESCAPE FROM THE EARTH.

From Notes on Virginia, 1782

On the south wall, the panel over the clock contains a quotation about the Living:

THE EARTH BELONGS ALWAYS TO THE LIVING GENERATION. THEY MAY MANAGE IT THEN AND WHAT PROCEEDS FROM IT AS THEY PLEASE DURING THEIR USUFRUCT. THEY ARE MASTERS TOO OF THEIR OWN PERSONS AND CONSEQUENTLY MAY GOVERN THEM AS THEY PLEASE.

Jefferson to James Madison, September 6, 1789

On the left half of the panel on the west wall, Jefferson’s view of Education is illustrated:

EDUCATE AND INFORM THE MASS OF THE PEOPLE. ENABLE THEM TO SEE THAT IT IS THEIR INTEREST TO PRESERVE PEACE AND ORDER, AND THEY WILL PRESERVE THEM. ENLIGHTEN THE PEOPLE GENERALLY, AND TYRANNY AND OPPRESSION OF THE BODY AND MIND WILL VANISH LIKE EVIL SPIRITS AT THE DAWN OF DAY.

Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787 (first two sentences);
Jefferson to P.S. Dupont de Nemours, April 24, 18l6 (last sentence).

Usufruct,” the Word of the Day for April 13.

Jefferson was born April 2, 1843, under the old Julian calendar (O.S., or Old System) — April 13 on the Gregorian calendar, the calendar we use today.

How should we celebrate?

Is there a monument or memorial to Thomas Jefferson in your town? Please tell us about it, and give us a photo if you can, in comments.

More:

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.


March 4, 1801: Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration as 3rd president

March 4, 2016

Words to be sung at a service honoring the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson as President. Image from the Treasures of the Library of Congress.

Words to be sung at a service honoring the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson as President. Image from the Treasures of the Library of Congress. (If we only knew the music . . .)

Thomas Jefferson ascended the the presidency to save the American Revolution, and to celebrate American arts and sciences, his friends and supporters said. The lyrics to be sung at the service at the German Reformed Church reflect those views.

What joyful prospects rise before!
Peace, Arts, and Science hale our shore
      And thro’ the country spread.
Long may these blessings be preserv’d,
And by a virtuous land deserv’d
      With JEFFERSON our head.

1800’s election campaign was a bitter one. Because balloting was not for president and vice president, but instead with the second-leading vote-getter taking the vice presidency, the Electoral College deadlocked on Jefferson and his vice president running mate, Aaron Burr. The election then went to the House of Representatives — the holdover House, dominated by Federalists who supported the vanquished John Adams. The House had great difficulty choosing between Jefferson and Burr, but at length picked Jefferson when Alexander Hamilton pushed his influence, favoring his once-friend Jefferson, and snubbing his enemy and eventual killer, Burr.

The Library of Congress briefly described Jefferson’s inauguration:

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, was the first to be inaugurated in the capital city of Washington, D.C. The ceremonies took place on March 4, 1801, in the Senate wing of the not yet finished Capitol building. Chief Justice John Marshall administered the oath of office to Jefferson, the first of five presidents-elect he would induct. In his speech Jefferson attempted to assuage the bitter rivalry between the Federalist and Republicans that had culminated in a deadlock election broken by Congress’s election of Jefferson on the 36th ballot. Jefferson remarked: “but every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principles. We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.” Jefferson’s sentiments notwithstanding, his predecessor, former president John Adams, did not attend the ceremony — the first president to do so.

Mathematicians and scientists celebrate the election of Jefferson as a triumph for reason and science in politics. Jefferson was an accomplished and proud American naturalist, and often turned to scientists for advice on issues. Ironically perhaps, he never did reconcile his belief that rocks could not “fall from the sky,” doubting the provenance of meteoroids; skeptic to the end.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Pat’s Blog.


Misquoting the founders, still: Jefferson didn’t say banking is the end of America

May 20, 2015

He may have believed something similar, but Jefferson did not say this:

Quote, maybe edited, falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson; gathered from Twitter, 2015

Quote, maybe edited, falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson; gathered from Twitter, 2015

I’m not sure who originated the poster.  They probably had good intentions.

But turn to the Monticello website, the scholars who track Jefferson’s words most closely, in February 2012.

Quotation: “The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations.”

Sources consulted:

  1. Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Digital Edition
  2. Thomas Jefferson: Papers collection in Hathi Trust Digital Library
  3. Retirement Papers

Earliest known appearance in print: 19941

Earliest known appearance in print, attributed to Thomas Jefferson: see above

Status:  This exact quotation has not been found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson.  It may be a mistaken amalgamation of the author’s comments in the above 1994 reference with a real Jefferson quotation.  Jefferson wrote in 1825 to William Branch Giles of “vast accession of strength from their younger recruits, who having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of ’76 now look to a single and splendid government of an Aristocracy, founded on banking institutions and monied in corporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry.”2  Chomsky’s 1994 book quotes Jefferson’s 1825 letter to Giles and then comments that “[Jefferson] warned that that would be the end of democracy and the defeat of the American revolution.”

Jefferson didn’t like the idea of the marriage of banks, rich people and control of government policy.  Jefferson scholar Anna Berkes commented at the Monticello site:

Yes, I’ve quoted this letter myself above – I’m seeing that quote a lot lately. The full sentence as it appeared in Jefferson’s letter is, “I hope we shall take warning from the example and crush in it’s birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and to bid defiance to the laws of their country.” The letter was first published in Ford’s Writings of Thomas Jefferson in 1892 (see http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t3pv6bn68?urlappend=%3Bseq=93 – the edition you link to is a 1904 commemorative edition of Ford), and the polygraph copy is also online: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mtj.mtjbib022651.

Anna Berkes
February 29, 2012 – 4:24pm

In any case, it’s not the end of our democratic republic yet! Get out there and organize, and vote.

Jefferson always offered good advice.

Jefferson's advice on quotes found on the internet

Jefferson’s advice on quotes found on the internet


January 16 is Religious Freedom Day in the USA

January 16, 2015

Great timing in 2015:  January 16 is Religious Freedom Day in the U.S.  Not a holiday (sadly), Religious Freedom Day commemorates the heritage of religious freedom in the U.S.

Statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, in Colonial Williamsburg, Va.

Statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, in Colonial Williamsburg, Va.

January 16 is the anniversary of the adoption of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786.  Thomas Jefferson drafted the law in 1779, in his work to create a body of new laws suitable for a new republic based on freedom.  After the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolutionary War in 1783, the 13 independent states in America continued in a difficult federation.  Patrick Henry in Virginia proposed in 1785 to roll back part of the Virginia Bill of Rights, and reestablish government paychecks to the clergy — partly to fund educated people in towns who could organize schools  in their non-preaching hours, but partly to reestablish the church in government.  Fellow legislator James Madison managed to delay consideration of the bill, urging such important matters needed time to develop public support.

Madison had other ideas.  He composed a petition eventually signed by thousands of Virginians, the Memorial and Remonstrance, defending religious freedom and stating the necessity of separating church and state to preserve religious freedom.  When the legislature reconvened in 1786, Henry had moved on to another term as governor; the legislature rejected Henry’s proposal and instead took up the bill Jefferson proposed earlier, and passed it.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom remains in effect, unaltered, today.  It is generally regarded as the best statement on separation of state and church in law.  Within a year Madison was shepherding the construction of a new charter for the 13 American states that would become the Constitution; and in 1789, Madison proposed a much-refined religious freedom amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified as the First Amendment in 1791.

Every January 16, we honor the work of defenders of religious freedom, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, the Virginia Assembly, and all who work today to keep religious freedom alive.

President Barack Obama issued a proclamation for Religious Freedom Day:

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM DAY, 2015

– – – – – – –

BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

A PROCLAMATION

From many faiths and diverse beliefs, Americans are united by the ideals we cherish. Our shared values define who we are as a people and what we stand for as a Nation. With abiding resolve, generations of patriots have fought — through great conflict and fierce debate — to secure and defend these freedoms, irrevocably weaving them deep into the fabric of our society. Today, we celebrate an early milestone in the long history of one of our country’s fundamental liberties.

On January 16, 1786, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was adopted. It was one of the first laws in our Nation to codify the right of every person to profess their opinions in matters of faith, and it declares that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any” religion. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson and guided through the Virginia legislature by James Madison, this historic legislation served as a model for the religious liberty protections enshrined in our Constitution.

The First Amendment prohibits the Government from establishing religion. It protects the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free from persecution and fear. This religious freedom allows faith to flourish, and our Union is stronger because a vast array of religious communities coexist peacefully with mutual respect for one another. Since the age of Jefferson and Madison, brave women and men of faith have challenged our conscience; today, our Nation continues to be shaped by people of every religion and of no religion, bringing us closer to our founding ideals. As heirs to this proud legacy of liberty, we must remain vigilant in our efforts to safeguard these freedoms.

We must also continue our work to protect religious freedom around the globe. Throughout the world, millions of individuals are subjected to discrimination, abuse, and sanctioned violence simply for exercising their religion or choosing not to claim a faith. Communities are being driven from their ancient homelands because of who they are or how they pray, and in conflict zones, mass displacement has become all too common.

In the face of these challenges, I am proud the United States continues to stand up for the rights of all people to practice their faiths in peace. Promoting religious freedom has always been a key objective of my Administration’s foreign policy because history shows that nations that uphold the rights of their people — including the freedom of religion — are ultimately more just, more peaceful, and more successful. In every country, individuals should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind — and of the heart and soul. Today, let us continue our work to protect this tradition and advance the cause of religious freedom worldwide.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim January 16, 2015, as Religious Freedom Day. I call on all Americans to commemorate this day with events and activities that teach us about this critical foundation of our Nation’s liberty, and that show us how we can protect it for future generations at home and around the world.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this fifteenth day of January, in the year of our Lord two thousand fifteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-ninth.

BARACK OBAMA

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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.

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