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July 4 In 1826
As Adams and Jefferson died, America came of age
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
One significant parallel in the careers of the departed patriots was emphasized again and again by their eulogists. Adams and Jefferson were both men of peace. “They had not fought battles,” observed William Wirt, “but they had formed and moved the great machinery of which battles were only a small, and, comparatively, trivial consequence.” “Their conquests,” echoed Caleb Gushing, “were won by intellectual and moral energies alone.” They were learned men, literary men, and much of their influence and accomplishment was directly attributable to their scholarly attainments and writings. Both had been deeply interested in promoting educational institutions. There was a lesson in this, too, for their fellow Americans.
But the dominant theme of all the eulogies, swelling to a mighty diapason, was the advancement of the United States in power and influence in the fifty years since Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence and John Adams championed its acceptance. The western orators particularly stressed the theme of material progress, reminding their listeners that their own populous and flourishing cities had been Indian villages or mere military outposts in 1776.
Still, northerners and southerns, easterners and westerners alike recognized that the most meaningful results of the “bold and doubtful” choice made by Adams, Jefferson, and their colleagues fifty years before were not those that could be counted, weighed, or measured. They were, rather, moral results. Conscious as never before of its rising strength, its heritage from the founders, and its larger role in world affairs, the young nation listened happily while its spokesmen prophesied that “before the revolution of another jubilee,” the principles proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence “will take root and flourish in every soil and climate under Heaven! The march of Light, of Knowledge, and of Truth, is irresistible, and Freedom follows in their train.”
Though clothed in an allegorical dress now hopelessly old-fashioned, it was a magnificent vision that these spokesmen of a bereaved yet confident nation conjured up. And it was to be realized in substantial part. In 1848 the European revolutionaries looked to the Declaration of Independence for inspiration and to the American people for help and guidance. So did the Irish in their long struggle for freedom; so did the Czechoslovaks after the first World War.
Looking at the world today, it is possible for a cynic to conclude that our ancestors’ faith was, at the very least, naive. A good antidote for such cynicism will be found in the later correspondence of Adams and Jefferson, both of whom had looked on tyranny and knew its form and features well. Noting the quick suppression of the popular revolts in the Piedmont and in Naples, and the feebleness of the constitutional movements in Spain and Portugal, John Adams asked Jefferson in May, 1821:
Adams did not think so, but, as so often before, he wanted to hear what his philosophical friend at Monticello would say about the present state of the world.
Adams’ wishes were gratified. In replying Jefferson agreed that there were plenty of reasons to feel gloomy, adding to the evidence submitted by Adams that the Greek cause seemed nearly hopeless and the repressive measures of the Tory government against the discontented classes in England augured civil war there.