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July 4 In 1826

May 2024
17min read

As Adams and Jefferson died, America came of age

The approach of the fiftieth birthday of the United States, in 1826, naturally animated the minds of Americans with thoughts of the nation’s past, the heritage they had received from those who had asserted and won independence, and the dwindling number of Revolutionary leaders who survived. By far the most conspicuous survivors were three men who had signed the Declaration of Independence—Thomas Jefferson, its author, on his mountain top in Albemarle; John Adams, its chief advocate on the floor of Congress, in his cluttered but commodious home in Quincy; and Charles Carroll, at Carrollton, who, though 89, impressed a young visitor in the anniversary year as “absolutely unconscious of his age.”

If Americans turned their eyes towards the past at this time, it was partly because they knew they had neglected it. They had been too engrossed in exploiting their heritage to appraise it; and the very process of exploitation had created issues that were being fought over with intense partisanship.

Though John Adams on the day following the vote for independence had called for popular celebrations at every anniversary thereafter, the Fourth of July had not in fact become a national holiday until a decade or so before 1826. During the Federalist era, the majority party had taken it over, and their refusal to have any truck with such Jeffersonian utterances as the Declaration of Independence is illustrated by an incident that occurred in Philadelphia in 1800. On that Fourth two reverend gentlemen who were also schoolmasters walked out of a public celebration when one of their pupils insisted on reading Mr. Jefferson’s seditious paper. From 1801 on, the Federalists annually found themselves excluded from official celebrations, just as their opponents had been excluded earlier. They could hold celebrations if they cared to, but only on a separate and strictly partisan basis.

In the “era of good feelings” under President Monroe, this partisan spirit subsided, but there is plenty of evidence to show that it had not died out. Writers of communications to the newspapers as the Jubilee approached appealed for all citizens to participate and to overlook party distinctions. Many worthy citizens feel, said “Gracchus” in the Vincennes Western Sun , that, since “office seekers and demagogues” often monopolize the proceedings, it is undignified to share in them. But if all who sincerely wish to commemorate the nation’s birth turn out, the monopoly can be broken and the politicians discomfited.

Everywhere in the country the newspapers were full of plans and announcements during June. On the great day itself the program followed a pattern that had already become standard. Business was suspended and salutes were fired. The military companies usually led the procession to a grove or riverbank near town. There the reading and speaking were done, and all sat down to a cold but abundant collation.

In the national capital plans for the Jubilee celebration had been formulated by a committee of thirteen under the chairmanship of Mayor Roger Weightman. The mayor was authorized to invite to the ceremonies all the signers of the Declaration of Independence and all the ex-Presidents yet living. Adams and Jefferson fell in both categories; they replied, and so did Charles Carroll, James Madison, and James Monroe. But not one of them was able to attend. However disappointing this may have been to the committee, it yielded one result of incalculable value. All the letters of declination, printed in the Washington papers on the Fourth, were happily phrased, and several contain sentiments worthy of remembrance. Jefferson’s, however, dated from Monticello on June 24, is one of his masterpieces, thrilling in form and substance, and deserving a place alongside the charter of American liberty that he had written precisely half a century earlier. “Respected Sir,” the citizens of Washington read on the anniversary clay, and millions of other Americans read soon afterwards—

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.

The United States in 1826 actually stretched from sea to sea. It had been as wide as the ‘continent since Secretary of State J. Q. Adams’ Convention with Great Britain in 1818 established joint occupation of the Oregon country for ten years. Contemporary maps of this tremendous domain trail off into fantasy in their western reaches, but the psychology of “manifest destiny” would soon provide better ones.

Of the 24 states in the Union two were now established beyond the Mississippi. Senator Benton of Missouri, which was one of them, this year predicted that the lure of the (present) Middle West would largely depopulate tidewater America. Though his enthusiasm had much to justify it, Benton’s prophecy of depopulation was wrong. Virtually all sections of the country shared in the steady increase of population, which, approaching the 12,000,000 mark in 1826, had quadrupled in the fifty years since the first Fourth of July. More than ninety per cent of the American people were still living on farms, but the spectacular development of industry following the War of 1812 was attracting more and more laborers to the northeastern cities.

Niles’ Weekly Register , the earliest national news magazine, is an inexhaustible repository of information on road and canal building throughout the country and the achievements of steamboats in America’s effort at this period to conquer its appalling distances. The Erie Canal had been completed, and dedicated with great pomp, in the fall of 1825, and in the following July Niles joyfully reported that three or four hundred boats now passed through the booming city of Utica every week. No fewer than 102 other canal projects, he added, were under way in various parts of the Union.

The effect of these developments on national politics was profound. The old division between Federalists and Republicans had been largely wiped out, but as early as 1808, when Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin submitted his great Report on internal improvements, the Republicans had divided among themselves on this issue. Gallatin had presented the best of all arguments for the federal government’s undertaking “public works” of national importance. “No other single operation, within the power of Government,” he pointed out, “can more effectually tend to strengthen and perpetuate that Union which secures external independence, domestic peace, and internal liberty.” But to “Old Republicans” like John Randolph of Roanoke, this was heretical doctrine. Randolph “waved his wand-like fingers,” as Van Wyck Brooks remarks, “and forbade the nation to advance in its course.” Yet his spell lasted only temporarily. President Monroe, last of the Virginia dynasty, felt obliged to sign the Survey Bill, which prepared the way for a federal program of internal improvements; and John Quincy Adams’ first Annual Message to Congress (December, 1825) called not only for federal roads and canals but for a national university and observatory, an expedition to explore the northwest coast, and the creation of a Department of the Interior.


The Message offered all the political leaders who disliked Adams—and they were numerous and powerful when acting in concert—a target as broad as a barn door. Disregarding the idealism and the love of country that animated Adams’ whole public career, his enemies denounced him as a tool of the northern financial and manufacturing interests and as a “monarchist” (just like his father, they insisted) intent on stamping out the last vestige of state autonomy. The most absurd evidence was accepted as proof of his avarice, his ambition, and his extravagance with public funds. When it was reported in the spring of 1826 that he had spent $61 of public money for a billiard table for his own household, there were speeches in Congress protesting “gambling at the President’s palace.” Though the report was false, the charge stuck in the public mind, as such charges do.

Clearly the “era of good feelings” had been succeeded by that of embittered feelings in this Jubilee year.

Americans were somewhat better agreed on foreign than on domestic policy. This was perhaps because there had been no grave crises in our foreign relations since the happy outcome of the War of 1812 at New Orleans and at Ghent. The British, with whom we had had to deal most frequently, instead of showing resentment after the war, had actually courted our favor. The Continental powers were too well occupied in detecting and suppressing revolutionary impulses among their own restless peoples to concern themselves greatly with our affairs.

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.

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.

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.

The United States came of age in the summer of 1826, not because of any magic in the number fifty, but because the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson awakened in every thoughtful citizen a consciousness of the republican ideals the two patriots had exemplified. The collaborators of 1776—one from the North and the other from the South—had in their later years come to be regarded as “the embodied spirit of the revolution itself, in all its purity and force, diffusing its wholesome influence through the generations that have succeeded, rebuking every sinister design, and invigorating every manly and virtuous resolution.” They had of course long since surrendered to younger men the active control of public affairs. But they had been onlookers and advisers, and their successors had frequently turned to them. Now their intellectual and moral guidance was withdrawn. But was it really? Not if the citizens and their leaders were willing to study the careers and writings of the two departed leaders and to absorb from them the lessons of personal sacrifice in the interest of public good, wisdom derived from reading and observation, courage to do the right rather than the merely expedient thing, magnanimity toward opponents, sympathy for the oppressed, national rather than sectional views, and the advancement of free institutions. So long as these were the lessons the American people desired to study and to apply, the guidance of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was a living force, and they both survived.

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