As we celebrate Independence Day, it's a good time to pause for a moment and reflect upon the lives of two men who were as responsible as anyone for the birth of the United States.
The loud and brash lawyer from Massachusetts, John Adams. The intellectual and reserved man from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson.
Most Americans know that Adams and Jefferson are among those forever dubbed as 'founding fathers' of our nation. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, with assistance from Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and two other members of the Continental Congress. The document declaring our separation from Great Britain was adopted on this day in 1776.
And in one of history's most stunning ironies, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson would die on the same day: July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day after the declaration was approved in Philadelphia.
Between those 50 years, the relationship between the Adams and Jefferson had many ups and downs.
Both men went on to become diplomats after the Revolutionary War. Both would go on to become Vice President and then President of the new United States.
They went from patriots, to close friends, to political rivals, to bitter enemies, and then ultimately, back to friends at the end of their distinguished lives.
It's a lesson for all of us on what is truly important in life.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had already made names for themselves in the colonies prior to being appointed to the Second Continental Congress in 1775. Adams had actually defended the British soldiers who had fired into a crowd, setting off the Boston Massacre in 1770. But he had become a strong advocate for American independence as hostilities between England and the colonies intensified.
Jefferson gained fame for his document “Summary View of the Rights of British America” written in 1774 for the First Continental Congress. In that work, Jefferson stated that King George III “is no more than the chief officer of the people, appointed by the laws, and circumscribed with definite powers, to assist in working the great machine of government. . . .”
As the American Revolution began, Adams was growing impatient with Congress' failure to declare independence in the year following the battles of Lexington and Concord. He and Jefferson soon became colleagues and friends. By the summer of 1776, the duo were appointed the Committee of Five to write the document which would spell out why it became necessary to separate from Great Britain. Adams reportedly told Jefferson, "you write ten times better than any man in Congress, including me."
Thus on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress.
The relationship between the two men grew in the 1780s in a time when they served as diplomats following the American Revolution. Adams had helped to draft the Treaty of Paris before becoming the nation's first ambassador to Great Britain. Jefferson was grieving when he went to Paris to become a trade commissioner, then U.S. minister to France. His wife Martha had died in 1782. John and Abigail Adams took it upon themselves to act as a surrogate family for Jefferson.
According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Monticello: "Through their work and play, Jefferson and the Adamses became close friends. Jefferson revealed his affection to James Madison, writing that Adams "is so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him if ever you become acquainted with him." Mrs. Adams once called Jefferson "one of the choice ones of the earth," and Mr. Adams wrote Jefferson that "intimate Correspondence with you ... is one of the most agreable Events in my Life."
As the 1780s continued, Jefferson became swept up in the events of the French Revolution. It affirmed his belief that the new United States should not have a strong, centralized government. Jefferson brought that mentality home with him when new President George Washington appointed him the first Secretary of State. Adams was elected as Vice President.
If you've seen the musical "Hamilton," you probably have an idea of how bitter the fighting was in Washington's cabinet between Jefferson and the Federalist Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton wanted the U.S. government to establish a national bank with national credit, assuming the debts of the states from the war. Adams largely stayed out of that debate, but was a Federalist and had several Hamilton supporters in his cabinet when he became president in 1796.
By the way, who did Adams beat out for the presidency? None other than Thomas Jefferson, who became Vice President.
After his inauguration, Adams had asked Jefferson to serve as his special envoy to France to help quell a growing rift between the two nations. You can see their friendship come apart in this terrific scene from the HBO miniseries John Adams, with Paul Giamatti as Adams and Stephen Dillane as Jefferson.
The relationship deteriorated during Adams' presidency as political party affiliation moved them further and further apart.
The two men faced off once again in the 1800 presidential election. This time, it was a nasty, vindictive campaign. Jefferson’s supporters accused Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character,” while Adams’ camp called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow.” That was just a sample.
In the days before social media and television, Jefferson utilized muckraking journalist James Callendar to smear Adams in newspapers. This included the "fake news" account that the president wanted to start a war with France.
Jefferson was victorious. Adams decided to get the last word by skipping the inauguration and went home to Massachusetts.
The two would not speak again for 12 years.
While John Adams tended to his farm, Peacefield, in Massachusetts, Thomas Jefferson served two terms as president. There was no communication whatsoever between the two.
One of history's unsung heroes deserves thanks for reconciling the two founding fathers. His name is Benjamin Rush.
Rush, like Adams and Jefferson, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He stayed close to both men in the years following the American Revolution and started encouraging the former friends to reach out to each other in 1809, according to Founding Brothers author Joseph Ellis.
The correspondence began with a New Year's Day letter from Adams to Jefferson in 1812. For the next 14 years, the two men exchanged 158 remarkable letters to each other. This is captured so well in "John Adams," although to be historically clear, the letters between the two began several years prior to Abigail Adams' death.
The two men both passed away on the same day, July 4, 1826. The 83-year-old Jefferson died first, just after noon at his mansion, Monticello. The 90-year-old Adams passed away several hours later, reportedly saying "Thomas Jefferson survives" or "Thomas Jefferson lives."
They both were lost to history.
It's important on this day we celebrate our freedom and independence that we consider the story of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. If it's possible for these two men to come back together despite bitter political and personal differences, maybe it's possible for us as a nation to find a way to end our divisiveness.
John Adams wrote to Abigail after the Declaration of Independence was adopted that the day "ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."
He's not wrong.
But it's also a time to remember that there is more that unites us than divides us.