John Adams (our second president) and Thomas Jefferson (our third president) died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826 — the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Their legendary relationship began in 1775, and that relationship is a lesson for us, in this divided America, about how we can disagree yet still find common ground and accord.
During the early days of our new nation, Adams and Jefferson had different views of the United States: Adams wanted a strong central government; Jefferson was an advocate for states’ rights. Physically they were different as well: Adams was short, stout and emotional; Jefferson was tall, handsome and philosophical. Even so, they held each other in high esteem. Adams personally selected Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence.
As both men served diplomatic missions to Europe in the 1780s, they became closer. Adams and his wife Abigail consoled Jefferson when his wife Martha passed away. The Adamses considered Jefferson part of the family.
Upon ratification of the Constitution and the formation of a new government, Adams served as George Washington’s vice president, while Jefferson served as secretary of state. This is when they really started to disagree. While Jefferson backed the French Revolution, Washington and Adams preferred a policy of neutrality. Jefferson resigned his position in protest, and retired to his home at Monticello to plot his next move.
Disregarding Washington’s warning of political parties in the new Union, Adams joined the Federalist Party, while Jefferson co-founded the Democratic-Republican Party. Both ran for president when Washington declined a third term, and Adams won a narrow victory. Adams offered Jefferson the opportunity to form a bipartisan administration, but Jefferson declined, saying it would not serve him well in his position as the leader of the opposition party.
Jefferson ran against Adams in 1800 in an election that stands as one of the nastiest in American history. Jefferson’s supporters accused Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character,” while Adams’ camp called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow.” Jefferson’s victory embittered Adams to the point where he took the early stagecoach out of town on Inauguration Day and skipped the festivities. They wouldn’t speak for 13 years.
It was a mutual friend and fellow Declaration of Independence signer who reunited the former presidents. Benjamin Rush simultaneously was writing letters to both Adams and Jefferson, suggesting that the other was eager to resume the friendship. So in 1812, Adams sent a note to Jefferson at Monticello.
Over the next 14 years, Jefferson and Adams exchanged 158 letters. It was almost as if they were writing for American posterity as much as to each other. From History.com:
“The famous correspondence touched on Adams’ vilification as a tyrant by Jefferson and his fellow Republicans, the unfairness of which Jefferson acknowledged. The two men also discussed the fallout of the French Revolution, the issue that had initially divided them back in the 1790s. In their later letters, Adams and Jefferson even anticipated the growing sectional tensions between North and South that would eventually result in the Civil War. However, true to the revolutionary generation’s shameful silence on the issue of slavery, they rarely touched on the taboo topic itself.”
On the evening of July 3, 1826, Thomas Jefferson fell into a coma as a result of an ongoing intestinal disorder. He lingered in a semi-conscious state until noon on the Fourth. On that morning, as he suffered from typhoid, John Adams collapsed into his reading chair and became unconscious at the same time Jefferson died. He woke up briefly around 5:30 p.m. and uttered his last words: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” It’s incredibly ironic that two of our nation’s Founders both passed away on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration that bound their fates together. As we celebrate the strangest Independence Day ever, let’s reflect on what binds us together as a nation. Let’s understand that we can find that important common ground by just talking — and listening — to each other the way Adams and Jefferson finally did.