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 huge 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 come. 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, two of the main architects of the American Revolution, long estranged due to political differences, (and Jefferson referring, in public, to “political heresies” among some of his colleagues, a clear dig at Adams, and a clear sign of Jefferson’s belief in political orthodoxy, which was 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 correspond, and it lasted over a period of 12-years, a correspondence that has to be read to be believed. Rush’s dream was 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.”
When Adams and Jefferson finally began corresponding again, Rush (who had also been writing to Jefferson, urging him to make peace) wrote to Adams, and you can feel his excitement in his words:
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.
They certainly did.
And then … on the same day in 1826 … which happened to be July 4 … which happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence … both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died. Within hours of each other.
David McCullough writes in his biography of 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.”
I will never get tired of thinking about that, wondering, contemplating, shaking my head. I think I know what it means, and WHY Adams said it, and then I realize – No, I have no idea – and I prefer it that way. I prefer the mystery of it, the question, the open-endedness of interpretation. I adore lack of certainty. It’s a much better story. It could be an outcry of jealousy, that he was dying while Jefferson was still alive. You know, a final gasp of the old hatred. Or it could be a statement of hope, that while he may be gone, Jefferson was still here, to watch over things.
Whatever the case may be, it’s glorious. Either way.
Amazingly, though, Jefferson actually had died a couple of hours earlier, which makes this an even better story. It is like twins who live on opposite sides of the planet, and one twin knows when the other twin has died, without having to be told. 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. (I love the discrepancy, by the way. I love it because it just adds to the mystery.)
According to Robley Dunglison, the attending physician, Jefferson dozed through the day on July 3rd, and woke up in the early evening, saying as he awoke, “Is it the Fourth?” (A lump in my throat …)
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, the Fourth, he called out for help at one point and someone remembers him saying, “No, doctor. Nothing more.” But it is his question/statement about what date it was that has passed down through the years as Jefferson’s final words. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, of course, although the story itself is one I treasure, in all its different details.
Did Jefferson wait? When he found out it was still just the Third, did he wait? In order to die on the Fourth?
I wouldn’t put it past him, he always loved symmetry.