blank.gif (51 bytes) Second Thoughts

A 'Mighty Coincidence'
172 Years Ago on Independence Day

By Ralph Heller

The following newspaper story was never published, but has been plucked from the files of the grateful memory of mankind:

Quincy, Massachusetts, July 4, 1826—John Adams, the second President of the United States, died at his farm here today shortly before dark as the community’s Fourth of July merrymaking was subsiding. He was 91. His last words were spoken to a longtime friend: "Thomas Jefferson still lives."

He had no way of knowing that just a few hours earlier Jefferson, his presidential successor, had also died, precisely 50 years to the day after the founding of the nation which elected both men to the presidency.

Neighbors report that Adams enjoyed remarkably robust health since leaving the Presidency a quarter of a century ago, but that he began to fail seriously last fall. He had then written to former President Jefferson that he dreaded the oncoming of winter, a time he described for Jefferson as a time "as terrible for me as for you, in which one feels reduced to the life of a bear or a torpid swallow."

In recent years the two former presidents, once bitter political rivals, communicated frequently in an increasingly friendly correspondence apparently instigated by the death of Mrs. Adams. When his "beloved Abigail" died eight years ago, Adams wrote to Jefferson: "All is now still and tranquil. There is nothing to try nor excite men’s souls but agriculture, and I say God speed the plough."

Perhaps it was the agricultural reference that appealed to Jefferson, once one of the nation’s great planters. For whatever reason the ice had been broken, ending a 15-year silence, and the two patriarchs became again the fast friends they were in the early days of the Republic. Adams, the more irascible of the two, wrote at considerable length to explain the wisdom of his foreign policy which he told Jefferson had been finally justified by publication of the famous "XYZ Papers."

It had not been easy, he wrote, to steer a middle course between Jefferson’s pro-French attitudes and Alexander Hamilton’s agitation for war against France.

Always the southern gentleman, Jefferson declined to argue the point. Moreover, he graciously suggested that he never would have become president, and certainly could not have denied Adams a second term, had it not been for the backstage maneuverings of Hamilton who had been one of Adams’ fellow Federalists.

More importantly, the letters reveal that both men had been greatly concerned that posterity receive a true impression of the principles upon which they had fought the Revolution. Both were acutely aware that they were the sole surviving Founding Fathers.

Earlier this year, as the nation prepared to celebrate its 50th birthday, the former presidents were invited to attend the ceremonies. But at 91 and 83 they were too feeble to venture out and agreed instead to simply offer their respective toasts to local celebrants. Here in Quincy today Adams had difficulty finding the right words, finally settling for "Independence forever!" Those two words having been passed along to the holiday crowd, Adams remarked that he had no further duties, and a few hours later he died, apparently grateful—as he mistakenly told his friend—that "Thomas Jefferson still lives."

The deaths of the nation’s second and third presidents on this 50th anniversary of the Republic is a mighty historical coincidence, a sobering reminder of the dreams and aspirations invested in our Declaration of Independence by men who dared to believe that something nobler could be built upon all that had passed before. u

Ralph Heller is Senior Consulting Editor of Nevada Journal.


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