Authors: Virginia N. Sanders and Maxine J. Bersch, collaborating. Virginia did the research and the historic notes in sequence and Maxine wrote the narrative. The two of us did the rewrite and edit. Virginia sent it to the Story Art magazine for publishing including my name in the authorship. I had just gone around to help her and did not want to take any credit, but Virginia wanted it that way. Virginia told the story at our historic annual meeting when the bicentennial celebration took place.
A few years after that, actually 1991, the club honored Virginia and her whole family was in attendance at that meeting and the president requested that I tell the story for that occasion. I did that, but adapting it as I show here. I told it this way.
Emerson said that a true friend is somebody who can make us do what we can. Since the language of friendship is more than mere words but meanings, an intelligence above spoken language, we use examples when we try to define it. We tell of Damon and Pythius, or we remember Jonathan and David as examples of true friendship, and in history we have the friendship of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
It all began in Philadelphia, in 1775. An air of excitement was abroad for the Continental Congress was in session and men sought the news at the taverns, the inns and on the street corners. Women passed on all the latest tidbits to their friends where ever they would meet–for the news was that of controversy and change. Men were hammering out their differences while young Thomas Jefferson sat quietly taking it all in.
This was his first appearance as delegate and as he looked around he saw so many men of importance. By their speech he knew them to be thinking men. While he was cooly observing this group of notable men his glance fell on one John Adams of Braintree, Massachusetts.
At that moment their eyes met and Jefferson raised his hand in silent greeting.
Adams acknowledged the gesture with a smile and a nod. Tom settled back and listened as John Adams raised his voice again and again to defend his ideas. “Such eloquence!” Jefferson thought. “Here is one I must get to know!”
So began a friendship–a friendship based on mutual respect and admiration. Each measured the other for qualities which would be useful to the cause of the new nation. Certainly this friendship did not spring from any common likeness. They were decidedly different in looks and in personality as well as many of their philosophical views.
Adams was the son of New England Puritanism. To him religion was the sure foundation of public virtue, political life and sound government. His father was a farmer. He was an avid reader but always with a purpose in mind.
Jefferson was also the son of a farmer. He loved to read just for the joy of it, anything and everything he could put his fingers on. He had definite ideas and began writing them down at an early age. As for religion, the Anglican Church was the traditional church of Virginia. Jefferson felt absolutely no need for that at the center of human affairs.
You would have marveled even more at their friendship if you had met the two and compared them at close hand. Adams was short while Jefferson was tall. Adams lacked tact and diplomacy, Jefferson was cool and easy going.
Adams was impulsive while Jefferson was deliberate. Adams excelled at debate, but Jefferson listened intently. So there in Philadelphia, in 1775, their friendship began for each recognized the gifts of the other. Someone has said, “Adams was the tongue–Jefferson the pen and Washington the sword of the Revolution.”
In May Adams read a resolution. “Be it resolved that the Colonies form governments of their own. It is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the British crown should be totally suppressed.”
The die was cast, or should we say, the fat was in the fire! No one entertained any idea of reconciliation now. It was out of the question. Jefferson backed the resolution and independence was uppermost in the minds of everyone.
Adams said to Jefferson, “You should write the Declaration. You write ten times better than I.” Jefferson accepted the task and he set to work at once. Of course, Adams was the first person to read the finished document. Up and down, up and down he paced as he read it aloud in his fiery style. “By Jove, you have it all here!” “This is the spirit!” “Now, Tom, not one jot or tittle can be added or subtracted from this document!” “Man! This is from the heart of every man of us!” Again and again he interrupted his reading with such exclamations.
When the Declaration was up for discussion and debate it was Adams who defended the document when John Dickinson argued for postponement. Naturally this endeared him to Jefferson.
Sentence by sentence the Declaration of Independence was hammered out on the anvil of mature judgment. These issues of freedom, equality and justice were red hot. At times the discussion became so heated that Jefferson found himself squirming uneasily in his chair but just when the danger would seem most imminent John Adams would leap to his feet. Time and again he rose to argue against change or omission. Jefferson was amazed at his ability to defend so brilliantly and at the same time allow his emotions full sway. Later he said, “Mr. Adams kept fighting fearlessly for every word of it!” So that is how the Declaration of Independence came through the test clothed in all its original splendor. No two men had done more to make America free. They were bound together then in that union of minds not shared by any other two delegates in this great American adventure.
The following spring a letter arrived at Braintree from Monticello. It was the first of many such letters John Adams would open and read with eagerness. The first letter closed with the statement, “I shall ever esteem it a happiness to hear of your welfare.” At this we think of Thoreau’s words, “We do not wish for friends to feed and clothe our bodies, but to do the like office for our spirits.” This great boon to mankind, friendship, could be communicated with the pen. Yes! The pen is mightier than the sword!
Then after a while, Thomas Jefferson became Ambassador to France, and John Adams served in England as well as on the continent. During these years the two friends began to differ sharply on political issues. Jefferson began to champion the Age of Enlightenment, and Adams strongly opposed Jefferson’s views.
Adams had a lofty manner even though he was the son of a simple farmer. Jefferson wanted to know, “Is he really an aristocrat who believes in the rule of the elite?” “Does he suggest that we call Washington “His Highness, President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of the Same?”
And Adams just could not forget that Thomas Jefferson had led the anti-Federalist faction against him in his bid for the vice presidency AND Jefferson had dared to criticize both Washington and Adams in letters which had come into print. Now the friendship was on the wane, to say the least; Jefferson openly described Adam’s views as suggesting a constitutional monarchy!
True, Adams feared the masses, he was frightened at the thought of an enraged mob. Jefferson had seen the oppression of the masses by a little band of tyrants . He said, “Let us trust men of reason and goodwill.” He said, “Education will make it possible for every man to choose for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom.”
Soooo! Tensions grew. Washington was the seat of the social as well as the political whirl. Hostesses would comment to each other, “I can’t decide whether to invite Mr. Adams or Mr. Jefferson. I declare, Thomas Jefferson is just impossible these days. Did you hear the latest? Well he came right out and said last evening, ‘Mr. Adams is against the liberty of this country and we still heap honors on his head.’ ” “Oh, well, that’s no worse than Mr. Adams said at my party–came right out and said Mr. Jefferson was a tool of the French and their thinking!”
When John Adams was President of the U.S. from 1797 -1801 and Jefferson was Vice President these two great men who had once been such good friends no longer made any effort to civil to each other. They were publicly at loggerheads and this went on for a decade. Thankfully, a decade of growing up for both men. Adams began looking at the politics of his country more objectively and Jefferson began to think of his old friend and to wish that he could once again brush minds with him.
On New Years Day, 1812, John Adams spent the day writing to his former friend, Thomas Jefferson. He mused as he wrote, “Maybe I can get our friendship back on track.” He thought, “What if I were to send him John Quincey’s lectures at Harvard?” He smiled as he dipped his quill in the ink. “I’m sending you under separate cover two pieces of Massachusetts homespun.” When he received Jefferson’s reply he chuckled at these words, “The sample of homespun has not arrived yet but I am looking forward to its arrival. I admit Massachusetts can provide better goods of this kind than Virginia.”
“Oh, how I would love to see Tom’s face when he finds my ‘homespun’ is two books and not two pieces of New England cloth!”
The letters flowed between Braintree and Monticello and were now open and warm as the two men clasped hands across the miles and the great friendship was rekindled.
The 4th of July, 1776 is a day to be celebrated and remembered throughout American history
July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary, arrived and celebrations were set in every town and village. This never to be forgotten day of Jubilee dawned, a day we refer to as a day of wonder. Loved ones watched at the bedside of
Thomas Jefferson, now 83 years of age. He was sinking rapidly.]
Likewise the family of John Adams now 91 years old realized that the end of his life was near.
As Thomas Jefferson lapsed into sleep he suddenly stirred. His hand made the motion of writing, “Is this the Fourth?” Upon hearing that it was he settled back in contentment. Sometime between 12 noon and 1 o’clock he died.
Meanwhile, in the early morning of that same day a servant asked John Adams, ‘Do you know what day this is, sir?” With a very faint touch of the old fire Adams replied, “Oh yes! It’s the glorious Fourth of July. God bless it! God bless you all.” He smiled and slept a while and about one o’clock , near the moment Jefferson died, he spoke these words, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Although it could not be true, thinking of Jefferson at the last speaks of the beauty and richness of old friendships.
Not long before sunset, John Adams too, was gone.
As this 50th anniversary celebration passed into history, Americans learned of the unbelievable events of that day.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two fighting friends who had joined together to forge freedom for us and who fifty years to the day later both made their exit from this life.
Even their hours of departure were timed right, for the Declaration of Independence was adopted between noon and one o’clock . The same hour, 50 years later, Thomas Jefferson died.
The declaration was proclaimed around the state house at sunset, the same hour 50 years later, John Adams made his departure.
While America celebrated that year of Jubilee, July 4, 1826,
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams joined hands to create another history making event: one that we observe with wonder. There’s hardly a chance that we, our children or any generation to come will be confronted with such a wonder as that of the setting of these two blazing “sons” on July 4, 1826. Looking back on the glorious day of Jubilee, all eyes turn to the horizon, where the afterglow remains and sheds its rays upon the world in fadeless glory, and we still bask in the splendor of its light.
Note about reference:
The title and authors of the two books that Virginia used as reference, she showed in the Story Art Magazine when the story was published and I do not have those because I gave them all to the library when I left Richmond, VA. I have contacted the website of Story Art and asked for this information. As soon as I receive it I will post it on this website.