On July 4, 1776, the 13 American colonies famously declared independence from the British Monarchy by issuing a decree signed by the 56 men of the Second Continental Congress. Two of them, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, would go on to have one of the most contentious and productive political relationships in the history of the United States. Fifty years after helping giving birth to a new nation, Jefferson and Adams would die on the same day, July 4, 1826.
The story of these two legendary figures is defined as much by differences as it is similarities. Both had served in the Continental Congress. Both would eventually be sent as emissaries of the United States to France, appointed for a time in overlapping terms (when they developed a friendship). Both would be elected President of the United States – Adams right before Jefferson, which would lead to nasty falling out between them.
Some historians argue the problems began when Adams won the highest office in the land in 1797. A quirk of the political system at the time meant Jefferson, one of his rivals, would serve as Vice President – a job the handsome Virginian didn’t take kindly to thanks to the strength of his belief in states’ rights. Adams, a stubborn Massachusetts politician believing in the importance of the national government, was left to face opposition from his own Vice President!
Jefferson retreated to his home in Virginia after the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, feeling as though Adams had overstepped the bounds of his office. Seeing an opportunity to become President in 1800, Jefferson began crafting a strategy to defeat his former friend. The result, a series of progressively vicious editorials from both men in the newspapers, expanded the enmity between them personally and exposed the young nation to its first truly partisan election.
The Virginian would serve two terms as President, leaving office in 1809 after greatly expanding American territory on the continent. Privately, the two men wished to rebuild their relationship and, nearly three years later, Adams sent a letter to his old friend dated January 1, 1812. Jefferson replied with memories of their work together on the Declaration of Independence and other matters of state. Over the remaining thirteen-plus years of their lives, the two discussed the deep details of their lives in letters moving back and forth between Adams’ home in Quincy and Jefferson’s estate at Monticello.
In old age, the friendship between the two men surpassed what had developed when they had shared meals and diplomacy in Paris four decades before. Adams’ son, John Quincy, had become the fifth President of the United States as the country neared its 50th year of independence and the two men continued to write. As the crowds gathered to celebrate the nation’s golden anniversary, Adams lay on his deathbed. Noticeably weak, he uttered his last words before passing away at the age of 90: “Thomas Jefferson survives.”
The hot-tempered man from Massachusetts was wrong, though – his dear friend had preceded him in death by a mere five hours, at the age of 82.