On This Day

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On This Day: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson Die

July 04, 2011 05:00 AM
by Erin Harris
On July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence first asserted American sovereignty, former Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both passed away.

Adams and Jefferson Die on Fourth of July

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John Adams, the second president of the United States, and Thomas Jefferson, Adams’ vice president and successor in office, had worked with each other to draft the Declaration of Independence, published on July 4, 1776. Fifty years to the day, the 90-year-old Adams and 83-year-old Jefferson died just hours apart.

Jefferson’s dying days, spent in his home of Monticello, were recounted by B. L. Rayner in his 1829 biography “Life of Thomas Jefferson.” Jefferson expressed his concern for the future of his university and his country without him; one of his last statements was, “Warn the committee to be on their guard,” a warning to his descendents to be ever vigilant in defending freedom.

Jefferson desired to live until July 4 so “that he might breathe the air of the Fiftieth Anniversary.” His last words, spoken the night before his death in the early afternoon of July 4, are traditionally given as some variation of “Is it the Fourth?”

Adams spent his final days at his home in Quincy, Mass. On the morning of July 4, he remarked, “It is a great day. It is a good day.” He died in the early evening, hours after Jefferson. According to tradition, Adams uttered the final words, “Thomas Jefferson survives,” unaware of the fact that his longtime friend had just passed away.

Though Adams did mention Jefferson, it is uncertain whether he said “survives,” explains Andrew Burstein, author of “America’s Jubilee.”

According to a journal entry by John Quincy Adams, who returned home 13 days after his father’s death, “About one afternoon [1 pm] he said ‘Thomas Jefferson survives,’ but the last word was indistinctly and imperfectly uttered. He spoke no more.”

Louisa Smith, Adams’ niece and possibly the only person in the room at the time of his death, said that she “could not catch the meaning” of what he said about Jefferson.

Though there may be doubt over Adams’ final words, there is no doubt that he and Jefferson maintained tremendous respect for each other even as stood as political adversaries. The timing of their deaths has forever linked them together.

The extraordinary coincidence in the death of these great men is without a parallel in the records of history,” wrote Rayner. “Were any doubt harbored of their sincere devotion to their country while living, they must surely be dissipated forever by the time and manner of their death. … They were great and glorious in their lives; in death they were not divided. It was indeed a fit occasion for the deepest public feeling. Happening singly, each of these events was felt as supernatural; happening together, the astonishment which they occasioned was general and almost overwhelming.”

Daniel Webster’s Eulogy

Renowned American statesman Daniel Webster was called to deliver a eulogy for Adams and Jefferson at Boston’s Fanueil Hall one month after their deaths. His speech praised both men’s achievements, saying that they would influence society for the rest of time: “No two men now live … who, more than those we now commemorate, have ... given a more lasting direction to the current of human thought. Their work doth not perish with them.”

He encouraged the crowd to honor the liberty granted to them by Adams and Jefferson, saying, “let us cherish a strong affection for it, and resolve to maintain and perpetuate it. The blood of our fathers, let it not have been shed in vain; the great hope of posterity, let it not be blasted.”

Biographies: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

John Adams
Born in Massachusetts, John Adams started his career as a Harvard-educated lawyer. He served in the Continental Congress and helped to negotiate treaties with France and Holland during the Revolutionary War.

In 1788, in the inaugural presidential election of the U.S., he was elected as vice president under George Washington. In 1796, Adams was elected as the country’s second president, with Jefferson as his vice president.

During his term, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, a series of four bills written by Federalists which aimed to protect the U.S. from foreign citizens and Republican attacks on the government. Jefferson, a Republican, vociferously opposed the acts, and the American public’s dislike of the acts contributed to Jefferson’s victory over Adams in the 1800 presidential election.

When Adams died in 1826, his son John Quincy Adams was president of the United States.
Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson was one of America’s great political philosophers and Enlightenment thinkers. Chosen along with Adams, Benjamin Franklin and two others to write the Declaration of Independence, he was its principal author, crafting the eloquent preamble known for its affirmation of man’s natural rights.

He served as the minister to France for President Washington and as vice president under Adams. He defeated Adams in the 1800 election to become the third U.S. President. He served from 1801 to 1809, during which time he nearly doubled the size of the U.S. by acquiring 828,000 square miles of land in the Louisiana Purchase and authorizing Lewis and Clark’s legendary Western expedition.

Monroe’s Death on Independence Day

James Monroe, fifth president of the United States, died exactly five years after Adams and Jefferson, on July 4, 1831. During his term in office, Monroe approved the Missouri Compromise in 1820, admitting Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state while banning slavery in northern American territory. He also issued the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, which prevented European powers from interfering with newly independent Latin American colonies.
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