Deaths of Two American Presidents
On America’s 50th birthday, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, two of the men that helped forge the nation, died hours apart.
Jefferson and Adams first met at the 1775 Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The following year, they were both appointed to the “Committee of Five” to draft what would become the Declaration of Independence. Though Jefferson was the document’s chief author, he referred to Adams as “…the great pillar of support to the Declaration of Independence, and its ablest advocate and champion on the floor of the House.”
From that time, Jefferson and Adams became close friends. After the war they both went to France on a diplomatic mission. Though Jefferson remained in France, Adams was sent to London. But two years later Jefferson visited his old friend there. During the visit they toured English gardens and visited Shakespeare’s home, reportedly chipping off part of his chair, as was custom at the time.
Jefferson once proclaimed that Adams was “so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him if you ever become acquainted with him.” And Adams once told Jefferson that their correspondence was “one of the most agreeable events” of his life.
Despite their fondness for each other, Jefferson and Adams had differing views on politics. While they were often able to set these views aside to maintain their friendship, they unfortunately came into conflict.
The estrangement was largely based on ideological differences and fueled by acquaintances who sought to sway the leaders into their opposing camps. Jefferson favored a strong political alliance with France, while Adams aligned the United States with Britain during the war between the two other nations. Jefferson advocated a weak central government and was a staunch defender of state’s rights. The Alien and Sedition Acts signed by Adams further strained the friendship, in spite of the fact that Adams merely signed the legislation.
Political parties began to form during Adams’ term as president. Alexander Hamilton, a brilliant man whose foreign birth made him ineligible for the nation’s highest office, led the Federalist Party. Thomas Jefferson, who advocated strong relations with France, led the opposing Democratic-Republican Party. Adams aligned himself with the Federalist Party, and was selected to be its presidential nominee in 1796. By a margin of only 3 votes, Adams won the presidency and Thomas Jefferson became his vice president. It was the only time in U.S. history that opponents held the nation’s two highest offices from different political parties.
The 1799 death of George Washington shattered any remnants of unity within the Federalist Party, leaving Adams vulnerable as he sought re-election in 1800. Once ardent patriots who worked together to free a great nation from the tyranny of King George III, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams waged a bitter battle for the presidency. When the electoral votes were counted, Jefferson won by a margin of 73 to 65 votes.
As his term expired, Adams appointed a series of Federalist allies to federal judicial seats. Known as the “Midnight Judges,” most were eventually unseated by the Jefferson administration. Jefferson admitted this was the “one act of Mr. Adams’ life, and one only, [that] ever gave me a moment’s personal displeasure.”
Deeply depressed, Adams retired to his farm in Quincy without attending Jefferson’s inauguration. In spite of his losses, Adams found an oasis of peace in his retirement. In 1812, mutual friend Benjamin Rush encouraged Adams to send a short letter to Jefferson. Their friendship quickly resumed, and the two great leaders enjoyed corresponding with one another for the rest of their lives. Adams confided to a mutual friend, “I always loved Jefferson, and still love him.” Upon hearing the words, Jefferson exclaimed, “This is enough for me. I only needed this knowledge to revive toward him all the affections of the most cordial moments of our lives.” Their surviving letters offer remarkable insight into historical events as seen through the eyes of two of America’s leading patriots.
As America prepared to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the nation lost two of its authors. John Adams died at his home on July 4, 1826, after uttering the words, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Adams was unaware that Jefferson, his greatest political rival and closest friend, had died a few hours earlier.
It’s interesting to note that a third U.S. president also died on July 4. Our fifth president, James Monroe, died on Independence Day in 1831. And 41 years later, Calvin Coolidge became the only future U.S. president to be born on the fourth of July, in 1872.
Click here to view some of the correspondence between Jefferson and Adams.
And click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.