July 4 In 1826

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Respected Sir: The kind invitation I received from you, on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of American Independence, as one of the surviving signers of an instrument, pregnant with our own and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in (he rejoicings of that day; but acquiescence is a duty under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. 1 should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations, personally, with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make, for our country, between submission and the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all.) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains, tinder which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. The form which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes arc 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.

Jefferson’s last testament to his countrymen, as we know from his heavily interlined draft, had not been tossed off in a mere moment of inspiration. He had labored over its phrasing, distilling to the very essence his thoughts on American institutions and their influence on the world at large.

A member of the committee brought the several letters from the signers to President John Quincy Adams on July g. The President noted with pleasure that his lather (who was ninety) had contrived to sign his letter and that Ca: roll’s was in his own hand, but he marveled at the vigor and freedom of Mr. Jefferson’s message. Within a few days it was being reprinted up and down and across the land, and plans were made to issue a facsimile on silk.

A Confident Nation Celebrates the Fourth

 

Mayor Weightman’s committee had planned simple and dignified ceremonies of observance for the Fourth. In the morning the volunteer military companies assembled in Lafayette Square, saluted President John Quincy Adams, and marched to the Capitol, accompanied by the Marine Band and followed by Mr. Adams in a carriage and cabinet members and military and naval officers on horseback. In the House chamber, after an opening prayer, the Declaration was read by Comptroller Joseph Anderson, an oration of an hour’s length was delivered by the Washington attorney Walter Jones, and a closing prayer followed.

July 5 passed normally in Washington, the President studying books on forestry, with a view to starting a nursery, and the ladies of his family making sketches of leaves he had gathered in his walks. But on the sixth, Secretary Barbour brought word that at midday on the Fourth, at the moment the Jubilee celebrations were at their height, Mr. Jeffereson had died at Monticello—“a strange and very striking coincidence,” Adams noted in his diary.

Three days later, the mail brought the President several letters from members of his family at Quincy, the latest of them written on the morning of the Fourth. All said much the same thing—that John Adams’ death was fast approaching. John Adams’ son prepared at once to leave for Quincy, setting out on the ninth soon after the sun rose at 4:39, “with my son John, in my own carriage with four horses.” In midmorning at Waterloo, a dozen miles short of Baltimore, they breakfasted, and learned that they need not have hurried so fast. The innkeeper, a Mr. Merrill, “told me [says the diary] that he had come this morning out from Baltimore, and was informed there that my father died on the 4th of this month about five o’clock in the afternoon.”

So the coincidence that John Quincy Adams had pronounced “strange and very striking” on the sixth was not singular; it was dual, and the country would interpret it, as the President immediately did, not as a mere coincidence, but as a “visible and palpable” manifestation of “Divine favor” to the two departed founders and the nation they had helped to bring forth.

What was this young nation like in its Jubilee year? One can hardly judge the meaning of the anniversary celebrations or the impact of the deaths of Adams and Jefferson without a close look at the Republic fifty years after the “bold and doubtful election” of independence.