Historian Gordon Lucy: Linked together by history, Adams and Jefferson died on the same day

July 4 1826 marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It also marked the deaths of John Adams, America’s second president, and Thomas Jefferson, its third.

Monday, 5th July 2021, 5:32 am
Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson
Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams was a member of the committee which drafted the declaration. Adams insisted that the document be drafted by a cool-headed Virginian rather than a Massachusetts hothead. Jefferson described Adams as ‘our colossus’ in the struggle for independence.

They were very different men in both personality and temperament. Whereas Jefferson was tall and lanky, Adams was short and portly. Adams liked people whereas Jefferson was aloof and remote, being more interested in humanity in the abstract. Adams was an outstanding orator whereas Jefferson was a poor public speaker but excelled on paper. Jefferson was a spendthrift Virginian planter (who was bankrupt at the time of his death) and slave-owner whereas Adams was a Puritan Boston lawyer who viewed slavery as ‘a black cloud’ hanging over the country.

(Over the course of his life Jefferson would have owned about 600 slaves. Of the first 12 presidents, Adams and his son are the only presidents who did not ever own slaves.)

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Yet theirs was a relationship which, in the words of Professor David Reynolds, ‘would shape American history for a quarter of a century’ and one which, ‘oscillated from friendship to enmity and friendship again’.

They had served together in the Continental Congress and as diplomats in Europe (Adams in London and Jefferson in Paris) in 1780s. They took up opposing positions in the Federalist/Republican split of the 1790s, Adams becoming a Federalist and Jefferson a Republican. In the presidential election of 1796 Adams defeated Jefferson and in the presidential contest of 1800 Jefferson defeated Adams. The two men did not communicate directly for approximately a decade after Jefferson’s election in 1800.

Abigail Adams inaugurated a brief correspondence after the death of Polly, Jefferson’s daughter of whom Abigail was very fond, in 1804. If it was an attempt at reconciliation, it failed. Correspondence between Adams and Jefferson only marked a resumption of hostilities.

In 1809 Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia doctor and a signatory of the declaration, attempted to effect a reconciliation and endeavoured to prod them into correspondence. In 1812 Adams sent a brief New Year’s message to Jefferson, to which Jefferson responded warmly. It inaugurated, in the words of David McCullough, the author of a biography of Adams, ‘one of the most extraordinary correspondences in American history’. Over the next 14 years the two former presidents exchanged 158 letters, 109 from Adams and 49 from Jefferson. As the two grew older, the letters became more infrequent.

Both men were frail by 1826 but were determined to survive to celebrate the jubilee of the nation’s birth.

Although mentally alert, Adams was blind and so weak that he rarely ventured out of the family home. Daniel Webster visited him on July 3 1826 and inquired after his health. Adams replied: ‘Not very well. I am living in a very old house, Mr Webster, and from all that I can learn, the landlord does not intend to repair.’

Jefferson was suffering from a combination of rheumatism and intestinal and urinary disorders. By June 1826 he was confined to bed. In early July he was obliged to turn down an invitation to attend the 50th anniversary celebration of the Declaration in Washington.

During the final hours of his life, he was surrounded by family and friends. On July 4 at 12.50 pm, Jefferson died, aged 83, and just a few hours before the death of John Adams. When Adams died at Quincy, Massachusetts, his last words allegedly included an acknowledgement of his long-time friend and rival: ‘Thomas Jefferson survives’. Adams was unaware that Jefferson had died several hours before 450 miles away at Monticello.

Adams’ last words, according to Samuel Smith of Baltimore, were ‘Independence forever’.

Other last words (a subject ripe for mythology) have been attributed to Jefferson: One version is: ‘I resign my Soul to God, and my daughter to my country. And I humbly hope that this country will watch over and guard her, aid and cherish her.’

Another claims that his last words were ‘No, doctor, nothing more,’ refusing laudanum from his physician. According to a third version he enquired: ‘Is it the Fourth?’ And on being told it was, he replied: ‘Just as I had wished.’

Jefferson is buried in the grounds of Monticello. He crafted his own epitaph:

‘HERE WAS BURIED THOMAS JEFFERSON, AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE, OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA’.

Although he was American minister in Paris (1785-89), George Washington’s secretary of state (1789-93), John Adams’ vice-president (1797 -1801) and the third president (1801-09), mention of all these great offices is omitted.

After Jefferson’s death, attendants found a gold locket on a chain around his neck, where it had rested for more than 40 years, containing a small faded blue ribbon that tied a lock of his wife Martha’s brown hair.

Adams, 90 at the time of his death, was the longest-lived president until President Reagan surpass ed him in 2001. Adams was buried in the crypt of the United First Parish Church in Quincy alongside the formidable and impressive Abigail who had died in 1818.

John Quincy Adams, the sixth (and then serving) president and the son of John Adams, construed the death of these two towering figures whose careers interlocked on the 50th anniversary of the United States as ‘visible and palpable remarks of Divine Favor’.

Throughout the 19th century orators endlessly recycled this sentiment by insisting that God had arranged matters that both men had died on that date. For example, in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln observed: ‘This extraordinary coincidence we can understand to be a dispensation of the Almighty Ruler of Events’.