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Thursday, July 4, 2013
There’s a wonderful story from our country’s history I feel everyone should know. Let’s go back to July 3, 1826. On that day, two men were both lying on their deathbeds. One was in Quincy, Mass., the other in Monticello. The first was John Adams, 90 years old. The other was Thomas Jefferson, 83.
When Adams and Jefferson first met in 1775, it was as delegates to the Continental Congress. They had similar views and quickly became friends. When Congress ordered a committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, both men were on it. John Adams was the initial choice to be its author, but Adams told Jefferson:
You should do it. Reason first: you are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write ten times better than I can.
After the revolution, the two continued to be close, with Jefferson often a guest in Adams’ home. Then each man decided to run for president.
Adams defeated Jefferson for the presidency in 1796. Jefferson became his vice president. As time went on, the two began to disagree more and more. The 1800 election was bitter, with Adams especially under attack. When Jefferson emerged the victor, Adams left the White House in disgust. It looked like the friendship between two of America’s greatest statesmen had ended. They exchanged almost no correspondence for the next 10 years.
Then, at the urging of a mutual friend, Adams wrote a letter to Jefferson on New Year’s Day 1812. Jefferson wrote back a few weeks later, saying:
A letter from you calls up recollections very dear to my mind. It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government.
The two then resumed their correspondence for the rest of their lives, penning thoughtful letters that touched on everything from politics and philosophy to religion and morality.
While their words were occasionally pointed, the body of letters they left was for the most part an amazing example of the kind of high-level dialogue that two people can produce when they emphasize respect and admiration for each other.
On July 3, 1826, both men were old and dying. They had written some 380 letters over their lives, but there would be no more. Shortly before one o’clock in the morning on July 4, Thomas Jefferson died. John Adams passed away later in the day. According to his family, his last words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives.”
That these two great founders, signers, presidents and friends died within hours of each other is notable enough. The fact that they died on the Fourth of July is more amazing still. But the most astounding thing of all? It was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
This Independence Day, I’d encourage all of us to remember the ideals John Adams and Thomas Jefferson stood for.
Remember the friendship they had. And remember the connection they shared — they were “fellow laborers in the same cause,” each working in the way they thought best.
Their opinions differed greatly. But they recognized in each other what I hope we all can recognize: We are all Americans continually defending and working on a constitution that enables us all to be free under the rule of law.
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