It was July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of July 4, 1776.
Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, old men by that point, had been invited to attend celebrations in honor of the day, but due to illness both had sent their regrets and also best wishes, saying they would not be able to attend. Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the mayor of Washington, declining the invitation, ended as follows:
May it be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition and persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government … All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God. These are the grounds of hope for others; for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
Adams was too ill to put pen to paper. The light was going out. For both of them.
These two men, long estranged due to political differences, (Jefferson referring, in public, to “political heresies” among some of his colleagues, a dig at Adams – the breaking point for the overly sensitive Adams) had finally reconciled. The reconciliation had been engineered by Benjamin Rush, who thought it a shame that these two great patriots, once dear friends, would go to their graves without making up. Benjamin Rush had a dream that Adams and Jefferson became friends again (I wonder if he really had that dream? Or if it was just a fabrication in order to move things along). Rush wrote to Adams,
“And now, my dear friend, permit me again to suggest to you to receive the olive branch which has thus been offered to you by the hand of a man who still loves you. Fellow laborers in erecting the great fabric of American independence! … embrace – embrace each other!”
Adams and Jefferson began to exchange letters, and the correspondence lasted over a period of 12-years, a correspondence that is a must-read: The Adams-Jefferson Letters.
Rush’s dream ended up being prophetic and Adams said so himself: “your prophecy fulfilled! You have worked wonders! …. In short, the mighty defunct Potentates of Mount Wollaston and Monticello by your sorceries … are again in being.” (Adams was always more of an expressive gusher than Jefferson.)
Rush wrote back to Adams, his excitement apparent:
I rejoice in the correspondence which has taken place between you and your old friend Mr. Jefferson. I consider you and him as the North and South Poles of the American Revolution. Some talked, some wrote, and some fought to promote and establish it but you and Mr. Jefferson thought for us all.
Cut to years later: 1826.
On the same day … which happened to be July 4 … which happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence … John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died. Within hours of each other.
David McCullough writes in John Adams:
That John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had died on the same day, and that it was, of all days, the Fourth of July, could not be seen as a mere coincidence: it was a “visible and palpable” manifestation of “Divine favor,” wrote John Quincy Adams in his diary that night, expressing what was felt and would be said again and again everywhere the news spread.
John Adams’ last words were either “Jefferson … still lives.” or “Jefferson … survives.”
You could interpret it many ways and that’s what I love about it. His old nemesis, outlasting him. Or feeling hopeful that TJ was still out there. It’s great, either way.
Adams had no way of knowing that Jefferson had actually died a couple of hours earlier, which makes this an even better story. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Thomas Jefferson’s last words are in dispute, but there are enough similarities to suggest that something along these lines occurred. (And these actually weren’t his final words – maybe they should be called his second to final words. His penultimate words.)
According to Robley Dunglison, the attending physician, Jefferson dozed through the day of July 3rd, and woke up in the early evening, saying as he awoke, “Is it the Fourth?”
Dunglison told Jefferson that it soon would be.
Nicholas Trist, married to Jefferson’s granddaughter, remembers it this way: Jefferson woke and said, “This is the Fourth?” Trist remembers pretending not to hear the question, because he didn’t want to tell Jefferson that it was still only the 3rd of July. But Jefferson asked again, “This is the Fourth?” Trist caved, and nodded, and he felt very bad about his lie.
Virginia Randolph, Jefferson’s granddaughter, remembers it differently. She remembers Jefferson waking and saying, clearly, “This is the Fourth.” No question. A statement.
Jefferson faded out after that, and the next day, July 4th, he called out for help at one point and someone remembers him saying, “No, doctor. Nothing more.”
Did Jefferson wait? When he found out it was still just the Third of July, did he wait? In order to die on the Fourth?
I wouldn’t put it past him, he loved symmetry.