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July 4 In 1826
As Adams and Jefferson died, America came of age
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
At Quincy that June, John Adams continued his usual routine. On the seventh he answered, and regretfully declined on account of his health, an invitation from the local committee to attend the approaching celebration in his native town. The anniversary, he observed, would mark “a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race"—an epoch “destined, in future history, to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall, in time to come, be shaped by the human mind .” Some days later, the committee called on the former President and requested a sentiment for a toast to be presented on his behalf at the celebration. “I will give you,” said he, “INDEPENDENCE FOREVER.” When asked if he wished to add something further, he firmly replied, “Not a word.”
On the last day of June he received neighborly callers, and next day he insisted on repaying their call, though he had to be lifted into his carriage. The exertion had been too great, and he was ill on July 2. But on the Fourth he refused to keep to his bed and took his usual chair in his upstairs study. He commented on the anniversary and sometime after noon said, with difficulty, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He died shortly before six that evening. His last thoughts were on his collaborator, rival, and friend.
As the news spread over the land, citizens vied with one another in paying tribute to the two departed leaders. “There is one universal burst of generous feeling from the east to the west, and from the north to the south,” Hezekiah Niles reported in mid-July. On July 8, when the news of Jefferson’s death reached New York, following so closely on the news of Adams', “it roused the attention of every individual in this great community. Nothing was heard after the first silent emotions of astonishment, but ‘how strange! how singular! what a coincidence!’ and other interjectional expressions of the like kind.”
In all the cities municipal authorities met and passed resolutions ordering flags to be flown at half-mast, minute guns to be fired, bells to be tolled, and crape to be worn. There were numerous funeral processions, among the most spectacular of which took place at Baltimore on July 20, where 20,000 people gathered in a natural amphitheater to hear General Samuel Smith eulogize the dead statesmen and to pay their respects to Charles Carroll, now the only living signer. In Washington a public meeting had been held on the eleventh to arrange for formal testimonials of respect.
The eulogists everywhere agreed that this was not really a mournful occasion. The circumstances of the two patriots’ deaths had robbed them of much of their pain, had made them a fulfillment rather than a loss. Dying “amid the hosannas and grateful benedictions of a numerous, happy, and joyful people,” as Sheldon Smith said at Buffalo, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had lived long enough to see that what they had built would endure. They had witnessed “a complete fulfillment of their sanguine hopes,” said John A. Shaw at Bridgewater, Massachusetts, “in the expanded greatness and consolidated strength of a pure Republic.” To which Joseph Sprague, speaking at Salem, added: “Could they have chosen the day of their death, it would have been the one decreed by Providence.”
But the eulogists were much less well agreed on the comparative value of the services rendered by Adams and Jefferson during their lives. In striving to avoid a partisan tone, most of the orators simply avoided comparisons between the public careers of the two men. Repeatedly they pointed out that all who had been followers of either leader could, and should, heartily join in extolling both, since they themselves had set an example of magnanimity by forgiving each other for past opposition.
More often, however, the public spokesmen maintained a nonpartisan tone by skipping over or treating in a very gingerly manner issues that were still controversial. They emphasized, of course, the collaboration of Adams and Jefferson in bringing the nation to birth, and many pointed out that the two men were partners again in their missions abroad. Scarcely any of them, however, discussed the origin of parties during Washington’s administrations, and they usually passed over Adams’ term as President with a few phrases in order to bring him to his happy and useful retirement. Jefferson’s presidency was given a good deal more attention. Even in the New England orations this was true; even Daniel Webster, speaking in Faneuil Hall, though he invented a brilliant speech for Adams advocating independence, barely mentioned Adams as President. Evidently by 1826 the chief Jeffersonian principles had become as accepted in New England as elsewhere in the nation. Such important national services by Adams as his keeping the peace in 1799-1800, at the sacrifice of his own political fortunes, were still poorly understood.