July 4 In 1826

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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:

Must We, before We take our departure from this grand and beautiful World, surrender all our pleasing hopes of the progress of Society? Of improvement of the intellectual and moral condition of the World? Of the reformation of mankind?

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.

Yet [Jefferson went on] I will not believe our labors are lost. I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance. We have seen indeed once within the records of history a complete eclipse of the human mind continuing for centuries. And this too by swarms of the same northern barbarians, conquering and taking possession of the countries and governments of the civilized world. Should this again be attempted, . . . the art of printing alone, and the vast dissemination of books, will maintain the mind where it is, and raise the conquering ruffians to the level of the conquered, instead of degrading these to that of their conquerors. And even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them. In short, the flames kindled on the 4th of July 1776 have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism. On the contrary they will consume these engines, and all who work them.