Monday, July 4, 2011

My favorite 4th of July story

As I probably mention every year, the 4th of July is my day. A couple years ago I wrote about the special 4th of July celebrations I grew up with in Pease, Minnesota (which you can read here), and even on my 54th 4th of July, the day still brings out the little kid in me. You might not think of me as a guy who enjoys musical theater, but my favorite play of all time is 1776, the musical that tells the story of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and others in the Continental Congress.

These men were giants; Visionaries who risked their "lives, fortunes and our sacred honor" to challenge the most powerful nation in the world over the concept of liberty, and then saw the battle through to the very end. Their actions changed the course of history and still resonate today.

One of my favorite 4th of July stories took place in 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. That day, Jefferson and Adams both passed away, and the story of their passing is one of history's great tales. Bill Bennett told the story in his book, "Our Sacred Honor," and I'll let him take it from here:

"It was if Adams and Jefferson willed themselves to live to see July 4, 1826. There was much anticipation regarding the Fiftieth Anniversary of America's Independence in Adams' hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts. Adams was too weak to attend any of the planned festivities, so a local committee approached him in late June to ask him for a toast. Adams replied "Independence forever," and refused to add another word.

Though bedridden, when the great anniversary arrived, Adams asked to be seated in his chair in front of the window, so that he could take in the festivities. Soon after he slipped into a state of unconsciousness, and his doctor predicted he would not live to see another day. Adams' last thought - at least the last one he uttered out loud - was of his friend and fellow laborer for independence, Thomas Jefferson. Adams woke from his coma and said, "Jefferson still survives." Those were his last words. He died that evening.

But Adams was mistaken - Jefferson did not survive him. Jefferson's health had been on the decline. He told his grandson in the spring of 1826 that he did not expect to live to see midsummer...In the weeks that followed, Jefferson prepared for his death. On the morning of July 3, Jefferson's doctor reported that his "stupor" or coma was "almost permanent." However, Jefferson woke up at seven o'clock in the evening and asked the doctor,"Is it the Fourth?" The doctor assured him it soon would be. He clung to life long enough to die peacefully at around one o'clock in the afternoon on July 4, 1826."

It was left to the great Daniel Webster, speaking at Faneuil Hall in Boston a month later, to sum up the momentous event:

"Adams and Jefferson are no more. On our fiftieth anniversary, the great day of national jubilee, in the very hour of public rejoicing, in the midst of echoing and reechoing voices of thanksgiving, while their own names were on all tongues, they took their flight together to the world of spirits...Poetry itself has hardly terminated illustrious lives, and finished the career of earthly renown, by such a consummation. If we had the power, we could not wish to reverse this dispensation of the Divine Providence. The great objects of life were accomplished, the drama was ready to be closed. It has closed; our patriots have fallen; but so fallen, at such age, with such coincidence, on such a day, that we cannot rationally lament that the end has come, which we knew could not be long deferred."

Indeed, the "great objects of life" had been accomplished, because these two great men believed certain "truths to be self evident." And now, 235 years later, we live free because of their vision. I know it's a day for picnics and golf and time on the boat, etc., but take a moment to thank "Divine Providence" for what happened in Philadelphia more than two centuries ago.


  1. Although not really on point, Bennett's book also has an obscure, but interesting fact, connecting the founders and perhaps our greatest President. Among the congressional honor guard at the funeral of John Quincy Adams, the son of John Adams, 5th (?) President and subsequent distinguished antislavery member of Congress, was a young freshman member from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.

  2. I had not read that...THANK YOU for a great tidbit. The church I visited in Quincy also holds the crypts of JQA and his wife. I was there in October, and it's closed to tourists from Labor Day to Memorial Day, but I used the "just a dumb guy from Minnesota" gambit that often works, largely because I genuinely am just a dumb guy from Minnesota. It's on the walls of that church where the epitaph JQA wrote for his parents is posted. (It's at the end of the first chapter in Our Sacred Honor.)

  3. Further to my earlier comment, I wonder did JQ Adams and Lincoln every meet -- what did they talk about -- speculation could make a nice one act play. "One thing you must remember, my young Illini friend, is that a House divided against itself cannot stand."