Few dates in American history have been so profound.
On July 4, 1826, as the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died. The loss of two of the first three Presidents, as well as two of its founding fathers, is one of the most remarkable coincidences in the history of the nation.
The two men are inextricably linked to the Revolution. Both were among the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, and Adams and Jefferson were on the Continental Congress’ Committee of Five to compose the document.
Both debated who should take the lead, and Adams finally persuaded Jefferson, claiming that a Virginian “ought to appear at the head of this business.” Adams also assessed himself as “obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular,” while adding that Jefferson “can write ten times better than I can.” Jefferson then drafted the document.
Despite their mutual efforts for independence, Adams and Jefferson later became political rivals. The short-tempered, prickly Adams clashed with Jefferson’s laid-back approach, and Adams’ Federalist devotion was also at odds with Jefferson, who believed the states should have more power.
The two former friends met in the 1796 Presidential election, which became a mud-slinging affair of polarizing political views, largely on foreign affairs. The outcome, however, was razor-thin, as Adams edged Jefferson in electoral votes, 71-68.
As was custom in the day, the loser became the Vice-President, and Jefferson soon opposed Adams on a host of issues. Among them was the controversial Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, which induced Jefferson to forego Washington in favor of his Monticello home.
They again squared off in the 1800 Presidential election, and this time, Federalism vs. states’ rights was the dominant theme. The rematch was even more bitter than the 1796 campaign, and is considered one of the dirtiest elections in American history. Jefferson tied Aaron Burr with 73 electoral votes, while Adams, with 65, went down in defeat.
Adams, stung by the loss, proceeded to reel off a succession of “midnight appointments” of Federalists to judicial offices and in his last hours in office, designed to leave his mark against Jefferson. He then slipped out of town early in the morning of the inauguration, choosing not to welcome the incoming President, as is tradition.
The relationship remained frigid for many years until intervention by a mutual friend, Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia doctor who had also signed the Declaration. Though Adams was noncommittal to Rush’s efforts, he took the initiative, and on Jan. 1, 1812, wrote a note with well-wishes to Jefferson. On January 21, Jefferson responded in kind, recalling when “we were fellow laborers in the same cause” of independence and extending “my sincere esteem for you…I salute you with unchanged affections and respect.”
Thus renewed a friendship of decades past, and Adams and Jefferson continued to send respectful, thoughtful letters to each other, a source of great mutual satisfaction.
Jefferson, who suffered from rheumatism and an enlarged prostate, was forced to decline an offer to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations that July 4 in Washington. By July 2, he was barely lucid, and died at Monticello around 12:50 on the Fourth. At his Quincy, Mass. home, Adams had also declined an invitation to a 50th anniversary extravaganza in Boston due to poor health. Early on July 4, he lost consciousness. He recovered slightly near mid-day, and according to most accounts, his final words were some form of the words “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”
The irony is that Jefferson had just died, though modern researchers cite no proof that Adams made such an utterance. He died around 6 p.m. that evening.
Incredibly, Adams and Jefferson were not the only early Presidents to die on July 4. Five years later in 1831, James Monroe passed away at age 73, marking the third of the first five chief executives to die on the date of the nation’s birth.
One President, Calvin Coolidge, was born on the Fourth of July holiday in 1872, though most historians rate him among the weakest of chief executives, unlike Adams and Jefferson.