- Historic Sites
July 4 In 1826
As Adams and Jefferson died, America came of age
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
The approach of the fiftieth birthday of the United States, in 1826, naturally animated the minds of Americans with thoughts of the nation’s past, the heritage they had received from those who had asserted and won independence, and the dwindling number of Revolutionary leaders who survived. By far the most conspicuous survivors were three men who had signed the Declaration of Independence—Thomas Jefferson, its author, on his mountain top in Albemarle; John Adams, its chief advocate on the floor of Congress, in his cluttered but commodious home in Quincy; and Charles Carroll, at Carrollton, who, though 89, impressed a young visitor in the anniversary year as “absolutely unconscious of his age.”
If Americans turned their eyes towards the past at this time, it was partly because they knew they had neglected it. They had been too engrossed in exploiting their heritage to appraise it; and the very process of exploitation had created issues that were being fought over with intense partisanship.
Though John Adams on the day following the vote for independence had called for popular celebrations at every anniversary thereafter, the Fourth of July had not in fact become a national holiday until a decade or so before 1826. During the Federalist era, the majority party had taken it over, and their refusal to have any truck with such Jeffersonian utterances as the Declaration of Independence is illustrated by an incident that occurred in Philadelphia in 1800. On that Fourth two reverend gentlemen who were also schoolmasters walked out of a public celebration when one of their pupils insisted on reading Mr. Jefferson’s seditious paper. From 1801 on, the Federalists annually found themselves excluded from official celebrations, just as their opponents had been excluded earlier. They could hold celebrations if they cared to, but only on a separate and strictly partisan basis.
In the “era of good feelings” under President Monroe, this partisan spirit subsided, but there is plenty of evidence to show that it had not died out. Writers of communications to the newspapers as the Jubilee approached appealed for all citizens to participate and to overlook party distinctions. Many worthy citizens feel, said “Gracchus” in the Vincennes Western Sun , that, since “office seekers and demagogues” often monopolize the proceedings, it is undignified to share in them. But if all who sincerely wish to commemorate the nation’s birth turn out, the monopoly can be broken and the politicians discomfited.
Everywhere in the country the newspapers were full of plans and announcements during June. On the great day itself the program followed a pattern that had already become standard. Business was suspended and salutes were fired. The military companies usually led the procession to a grove or riverbank near town. There the reading and speaking were done, and all sat down to a cold but abundant collation.
In the national capital plans for the Jubilee celebration had been formulated by a committee of thirteen under the chairmanship of Mayor Roger Weightman. The mayor was authorized to invite to the ceremonies all the signers of the Declaration of Independence and all the ex-Presidents yet living. Adams and Jefferson fell in both categories; they replied, and so did Charles Carroll, James Madison, and James Monroe. But not one of them was able to attend. However disappointing this may have been to the committee, it yielded one result of incalculable value. All the letters of declination, printed in the Washington papers on the Fourth, were happily phrased, and several contain sentiments worthy of remembrance. Jefferson’s, however, dated from Monticello on June 24, is one of his masterpieces, thrilling in form and substance, and deserving a place alongside the charter of American liberty that he had written precisely half a century earlier. “Respected Sir,” the citizens of Washington read on the anniversary clay, and millions of other Americans read soon afterwards—