July 4 is an important date in our country’s history. It was also an important date in the lives of two notable Founding Fathers who were friends and rivals.
On July 4, 1776, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were in Philadelphia as the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. The Massachusetts lawyer Adams had been an outspoken advocate for independence from Britain, but when an author for the declaration was required, he encouraged Jefferson the Virginian to take the lead.
Jefferson accepted the task and took up his pen. He drafted what he considered “an expression of the American mind.”
Adams and Benjamin Franklin, also on the committee charged with writing the declaration, offered their comments on the draft, and then Congress began debating it on July 1. Jefferson resented that the body continued to change his work, but his ideals and language still shone through in the final draft approved on July 4.
The words of the Declaration became famous, and so did its date of final adoption (although Adams had expected July 2, when Congress actually agreed to declare independence, to become the national holiday).
The paths of Adams and Jefferson later crossed again in Europe. Both represented our young nation in France for a time in the 1780s. Adams, his wife Abigail, and Jefferson enjoyed each other’s company as they dined and talked together in Paris.
When Adams went to Great Britain to serve as the American minister, Jefferson maintained a correspondence with John and Abigail and eventually visited them. After Adams introduced Jefferson to King George III, who treated the Virginian rudely, they toured the gardens of England and stole a sliver of wood from a chair at William Shakespeare’s birthplace.
After the ratification of the Constitution back home, Adams and Jefferson each assumed high office under the new government. Adams won election as the first vice president, and Jefferson was appointed secretary of state by President George Washington.
Political differences pulled them apart in the 1790s. Adams aligned with the Federalists and Jefferson with the Democratic-Republicans. They faced each other in the election of 1796 after Washington chose to retire. Adams gained the most electoral votes and became president; under the rules of the time, since Jefferson earned the second-most votes, he became vice president.
They disagreed profoundly over the direction of the country, including the possibility of war with France and the Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams did not consult Jefferson on his decisions, and Jefferson stoked opposition to Adams’ administration.
In 1800, the pair faced off again for the presidency. It was a nasty campaign, with the characters, backgrounds, and agendas of each savaged. Jefferson won this time. Early in the morning of Inauguration Day, Adams left Washington, D.C. for home, not wanting to participate in the ceremonies marking the transfer of power.
While Jefferson served two terms as president, Adams brooded on his Massachusetts farm. But passions cooled, and their mutual friend Benjamin Rush encouraged the two to exchange letters. Adams finally wrote his old friend on New Year’s Day 1812, and Jefferson quickly responded. As Adams wrote, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”
Over the ensuing years, the former presidents exchanged 158 letters, ranging from discussions of day-to-day habits to great philosophical questions. Jefferson comforted Adams on the death of Abigail in 1818. Despite their political disagreements, politics remained up for debate in the letters. The disagreements remained, but any acrimony had faded.
Their example still shines for us today. Americans may hold differing opinions, but we can hold them while still respecting each other, carrying on friendships, and exchanging our views without rancor. If Adams and Jefferson could do so after contending with each other for the highest office in the land, so can we in our daily lives.
On Independence Day, when we celebrate the country we share, we ought to remember their example. After all, they were deeply involved in the events of July 4, 1776 when, as Jefferson wrote Adams, “We acted in perfect harmony through a long and perilous contest for our liberty and our independence.”
And they would share one more notable July 4. On the 50th anniversary of the Declaration, July 4, 1826, Thomas Jefferson died at Monticello. His last words were said to be a question: “Is it the Fourth?”
On the same day on his farm in Massachusetts, John Adams died. His last words: “Thomas Jefferson survives.”