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Two great American thinkers, who helped help frame the Declaration of Independence, were free to differ ’til the day they died

By Jim Kempton

Both Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As we all know, Jefferson drafted the declaration in committee with Adams, along with James Monroe and Benjamin Franklin.

Although both were passionate patriots, they were at odds about its implementation.

After George Washington retired from the presidency, John Adams became president and Thomas Jefferson became his vice-president. The two men had fought persistently about politics throughout the Washington administration. They were only both elected because during the early years of the republic, whoever received the second highest vote count in the presidential election became vice-president.

Jim Kempton. File photo
Jim Kempton

During Adams’ administration, the two powerful personalities differed on almost every issue. Adams, a devoutly religious, yet often vindictive man, believed in a strong central government. Jefferson, a more secular philosopher, but just as vindictive, believed that states’ rights should take precedence.

Jefferson was appalled at Adams decision to pass and then enforce sedition laws meant to punish anyone speaking badly about him. Adams on the other hand was disgusted with Jefferson’s willingness to slander his enemies without mercy—or in some cases without legitimacy. Running for a second term, Adams was defeated by Jefferson, who took the presidency in 1800, after a particularly vicious and slanderous campaign by both men’s parties.

Despite having worked together as patriots of the Revolution, Adams and Jefferson became truly bitter political adversaries for many years. Their opposing philosophies in some ways defined the national issues we still argue about today.

There is however, a happy ending to the story. After both men had retired and settled into their twilight years, Adams offered an olive branch. Jefferson accepted and returned the apology. They reconciled and became the absolute best of friends, trading long, warm, respectful personal letters to one another as they lived out their final years.

Both men were conscious of living to see the 50th Fourth of July, and both, despite knowing they were on their death beds, were determined to hang on to dear life until the day had come.

Supposedly, John Adams’ final words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” But he was wrong. Jefferson had died just hours earlier at Monticello. Five years to the day after Adams and Jefferson died, on July 4, 1831, the fifth president, James Monroe, passed away. So three of the nation’s founding fathers—the second, third and fifth American Presidents—died on an anniversary of the day they fought to bring our nation into the world.

Jim Kempton has always believed that Independence Day is the most unique and most American of holidays. Although many countries celebrate their day of independence, we actually invented it. Combine great food, fireworks, family and friendship – along with the celebration of a free, people with unalienable rights to watch whatever baseball game they want? Ain’t nothing like it in the world.

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