July 4 In 1826
As Adams and Jefferson died, America came of age
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
The Quadruple Alliance, formed in 1815 among Napoleon’s conquerors and dedicated to the principle of “legitimacy,” had soon run into rough water, because Great Britain had less interest in making the world look and behave as it had before the French Revolution than in promoting her own commercial interests. British traders who had enjoyed perfect freedom in the South American ports opened to them by the wars of independence there, could hardly approve proposals for restoring Spanish power in the western hemisphere. Consequently the Quadruple Alliance soon dwindled to the misnamed Holy Alliance among the sovereigns of Russia, Austria, Prussia, and their various “legitimate” satellites. Great Britain’s defection also made possible the celebrated passage in President Monroe’s Annual Message of December 2, 1823, declaring that any intervention by a European power in this hemisphere could be viewed only “as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”
The struggles of the Latin-American peoples to achieve independence had from the outset deeply stirred the citizens of the United States. The circumstances were romantic and sometimes heroic, and the inspiration of our own Revolution was obvious. In his great speech of March 24, 1818, Henry Clay thrilled the country by pointing out that “They adopt our principles, copy our institutions, and, in many instances, employ the very language of our revolutionary papers.”
Americans were watching just as intently, in that spring of 1826, another theater of war far removed from their own hemisphere. The struggle of the Greek people to free themselves from Turkish tyranny had for several years been attracting sympathetic interest everywhere in the western world. Despite secret encouragement from Russia—a power always eager to harass Turkey—the official policy of the Holy Allies opposed the revolution in Greece as it opposed revolution anywhere, though in this case the Legitimists simply stood by and let the blood run without intervening as they had in Italy and Spain.
Greece was a magic name in an age that knew ancient history and the classical languages and that even designed its dwelling houses after the public buildings on the Acropolis. Byron had written of Greece, had enlisted in the patriot cause, and died at Missolonghi. A young New England doctor, Samuel Gridley Howe, became chief surgeon to the Greek army, endured the dirt, hunger, heat and discouragement of a virtually hopeless cause, and returned to America bringing Byron’s helmet and spreading the gospel of Philhellenism. Fitz-Greene Halleck and Mrs. Sigourney wrote poems on Greece that were recited in all the schoolrooms of America and helped make the names of Marco Bozzaris and Ypsilanti household words.
In American minds the question was, must the United States, the advocate and exemplar of free institutions, stand by and helplessly watch the triumph of a Turkish despotism? In the very message that had conveyed his warning to Europe that America was for Americans, President Monroe ventured to express the “strong hope” of the American people that the Greeks would succeed in their “heroic struggle.”
I have chosen to present a sampling of the activities and views of the American people in the Jubilee year rather than to dwell upon the deathbed scenes at Monticello and Quincy. Those scenes were of course reported very fully in the papers, for the two patriots’ fellow citizens thirsted for every detail of the events that had lent such dramatic interest to the fiftieth birthday of the nation. By one means or another, nearly everything we now know about Adams’ and Jefferson’s last days and hours was printed and circulated in the summer and fall of 1826.
Being philosophers and having enjoyed long and active lives and similarly long and fruitful retirements, both men were fully prepared for death. Their only fear, as they had told each other more than once in the wonderful correspondence of their old age, was the fear of surviving their powers of enjoyment and activity. Happily this was not the fate of either. Though toward the end they suffered from increasing physical disabilities (Adams particularly, for he was the elder by nearly eight years), their last letters show, and visitors to their homes unanimously reported, the unimpaired vigor of their minds. Jefferson’s last public act was the composition of his electrifying letter to Mayor Weightman ten days before the Fourth. Two days before the anniversary day, his final illness came on. On the evening of the third he awoke to ask, “Is it the Fourth?"; and as midnight approached, those waiting with him followed the minute hands of their watches, “hoping a few minutes of prolonged life.” Jefferson scarcely spoke again, but life did not flicker out until almost one o’clock the following afternoon.