July 4th marks our country's birthday. 246 years ago the Declaration of Independence was signed by 56 patriots who risked life, liberty and their private fortunes to declare an independence from England. These 56 men came from all walks of life. Through the first year and three months of the conflict with the mother country, the young colonists battled superior numbers and fought against troops with the best training and discipline in the world. General George Washington played more of a cat and mouse game against the British army in order to keep his rag tag army intact. As the Continental Congress discussed a formal declaration of independence from Great Britain, they settled on five men to draft this document. Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were the men selected for the task and all five men went on to significant contribution in the early history of an independent United States.
Robert Livingston, one of the five, represented the colony of New York. After the war, he became the man who swore George Washington in as first President of the United States on April 30, 1789. Later, he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and remained in New York politics until his death in 1813. Roger Sherman, was the only man to sign the four of the most important documents of early American history- The Continental Association- a formal trade embargo of Great Britain, the Declaration of Independence, the precursor to the Constitution- The Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. He later became a member of the first House of Representatives in 1789 and died in 1793. Benjamin Franklin was arguably the most famous American at the time of the Revolution already having established himself as a politician, a scientist, an inventor and a writer. His credibility with France allowed that country to become an ally to the colonists and was instrumental in funding coming to the young country. Later, in 1787, his presence at the Constitutional Convention provided a soothing voice to the proceedings. John Adams was a lawyer who gained a top notch reputation, ironically, by defending British troops charged with killing colonists during the Boston Massacre in 1770. His intellect was respected amongst the delegates of the Continental Congress and his negotiations with The Netherlands further strengthened the finances of America. He became the first Vice President under Washington in 1789 and the second President of the United States in 1796. Thomas Jefferson was considered the best writer of the five and to him was given the task of drafting the actual document. Jefferson was a farmer and a Renaissance man, interested in everything from weather to crop rotation to scientific discovery. He became Secretary of State under Washington and Vice President under Adams. He became our third President in 1800 and served two terms. He later founded the University of Virginia. He and John Adams were extremely close friends and that is the basis of this strange coincidence.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson formed an interesting alliance. John Adams was short, stocky and somewhat vain. Thomas Jefferson was tall, lanky and as contemporaries put it, extremely soft spoken. Adams came from the Boston area and was steeped in New England history. Jefferson was from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and was the son of a farmer who passed away when Jefferson was 14. These two met and became fast friends, confidantes and their treasury of letters is well worth a read. As these two men went through the process of drafting a document that would survive all of these years, their friendship deepened. John's wife Abigail said of Jefferson " He is one of the choice ones of the Earth".
After the war, both Adams and Jefferson found themselves serving in Paris. Jefferson had lost his wife in 1782 and the widowed Jefferson spent many hours with John and Abigail Adams in Paris. As important members of the Washington administration, they continued to work together until Jefferson left the administration in 1793. Although their friendship cooled to an estrangement as political differences began to take hold in the late 1790's, they found themselves as President (Adams) and Vice President (Jefferson) in 1796. When the Election of 1800 came around, it was Jefferson that came out victorious and the split between the two men seemed unrepairable. The 1800 election was dirty, putting some of the modern elections to shame in its ruthlessness. For the next 11 years, the two men did not speak.
In 1812, physician Benjamin Rush facilitated a reconciliation of the two great statesmen, both retired by this time. Adams, at 77 and Jefferson at 69 had both seen the country that they helped establish thrive under its system of government with several peaceful transitions of power. When Rush died a year later, Jefferson wrote to Adams about the absence and dying off of the "revolutionary generation". Their correspondence resumed with dozens of letters passing back and forth. When Adams' wife Abigail died in 1818, it was Jefferson who soothed his friend. When Adams' son John Quincy Adams became the 6th President in 1824, it was Jefferson who congratulated the older Adams on the great achievement. Their letters, addressing issues confronting the growing country, make a wonderful contribution to the intellectual world and the governance of the nation.
By the late spring of 1826, both 90 year old Adams and 83 year old Jefferson were ailing. Both declined invitations to speak at 4th of July ceremonies in their respective states. With the 50th anniversary of the country fast approaching, both men reflected on their roles in the formation of the country and its successes and setbacks. On July 4th 1826, both men were on their deathbeds. Jefferson was the first to die, early on the morning of the 4th. Adams reported final words when he passed away later that day were "Jefferson still survives". Although that was not true, it was apparent that both men knew the significance of two of the drafters of the Declaration dying, not only on the same day, but on the 50th anniversary of the document that survives to this day. For the two men to die on the same day is a 1/365 possibility, to die on exactly the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence is one of the amazing coincidences in American history.
An interesting side note to this is that our 5th President, James Monroe, an aide to General George Washington during the Revolution also died on July 4th in 1831. When the 4th President, James Madison was on his deathbed in late June 1836, his physicians discussed methods to try to keep him alive until the 4th. Madison did not agree to the physicians interference and died on June 28th. I have always found the coincidence of the deaths of Adams, Jefferson and Monroe to be one of the great mysteries of Presidential history. I encourage you to read their correspondence, especially as a way to understand the dedication and sacrifice these men made to the development of our American way of life.