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Friends At Twilight
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson stood together in America’s perilous dawn, but politics soon drove them apart. Then in their last years the two old enemies began a remarkable correspondence that is both testimony to the power of friendship and an eloquent summary of the dialogue that went on within the Revolutionary generation—and that continues within our own.
May/june 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 3
Meanwhile, down at Monticello the other great patriarch was receiving the same kinds of requests. Jefferson was also too old and infirm to leave his mountaintop, but he, more than Adams, sensed that this might be the last occasion to register his personal stamp on the public understanding of just what the American Revolution had meant. His most eloquent reply was sent to the committee responsible for the Independence Day ceremonies in Washington. Although his intestinal disorder had become nearly incapacitating, and despite the pessimism that had overtaken him, Jefferson worked over the draft of his reply with great care, correcting and revising with the same attention to detail that he had brought to the original draft of the Declaration, producing one of his most inspired and inspiring renditions of the Jeffersonian message.
After gracefully excusing himself from the ceremonies at the nation’s capital, he regretted his absence from “the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election … between submission and the sword”; then he offered his distilled understanding of just what the band of worthies had done: “May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others late, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.… All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others; for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”
The two men came to embody the American dialogue.
Both the language and the theme were vintage Jefferson and were immediately recognized as such when read aloud before the distinguished gathering in Washington on the Fourth. The fresh, vigorous statement contrasted sharply with Adams’s more cautious message. For Jefferson the American Revolution was the opening shot in a global struggle for liberation from all forms of oppression, a struggle whose final victory was foreordained. Jefferson’s formulation held that something wonderful and elemental had already happened , that the individual energies released by America into the world during the preceding fifty years would run their predestined course regardless of human foibles. Now that the American Revolution had propelled the country into its role as the global model for what he called “self government,” the fate of the American political experiment was no longer in doubt or even in human hands.
The Adams formulation suggested exactly the opposite. He emphasized the precarious and fragile character of the American experiment in republican government, challenging subsequent generations of Americans to meet the inevitable threats to national survival with the same realistic rationality that his and Jefferson’s generation had managed to muster at the very beginning. The destiny of the new nation was contingent upon wise and skillful leadership if it hoped to avoid the same fate of all other republics.
Whatever superiority Adams’s version may have had as an accurate expression of his generation’s best wisdom about America’s prospects, the rhetorical superiority of Jefferson’s was obvious. Anyone poised to assess their relative appeal to posterity would have been forced to conclude that Adams’s chances were just as problematic as his diagnosis of America’s future.
But before the historic reputations of the two patriarchs could diverge, their lives were joined one final time. On the evening of July 3 Jefferson, whose health had been declining since February, fell into unconsciousness. He awoke momentarily that night and uttered his last discernible words: “Is it the Fourth?” As midnight approached, his family, which had gathered around his bedside for the deathwatch, offered a prayer for “a few minutes of prolonged life.” As if in response, life lingered in him until the next morning, and he died at twenty minutes past noon on July 4.
Meanwhile, Adams rose at his customarily early hour, wishing to keep his routine despite the special distinction of the day, and asked to be placed in his favorite reading chair in the study. Around midmorning, however, he began to falter, and family members moved him back to his bedroom. He lapsed into unconsciousness at almost the exact moment that Jefferson died. The end then came quickly, at about five-thirty in the afternoon of July 4. He awakened for a brief moment, indicated his awareness that death was near, and, with obvious effort, spoke his last words: “Thomas Jefferson survives.”