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July 3rd, 2017 under West Texas Talk » West Texas Talk Highlight

A lesson on friendship and discourse from Jefferson, Adams


Next Tuesday is the Fourth of July so it is time for a short history lesson. Tuesday will be not only the 241st anniversary of the declaration of the independence of the United States from Great Britain but also the 191st anniversary of one of the strangest coincidences in American history, the death of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both signers of the Declaration of Independence, on the same day, exactly 50 years after they signed that document. Jefferson was its author; Adams was its most vocal advocate in the Continental Congress. Both men had been presidents of the United States.

Jefferson and Adams had once been good friends, having served together in the Continental Congress in the 1770s and as diplomats in Paris in the 1780s. In the 1790s, however, they drew apart, and in 1796 Jefferson ran against Adams for President. Adams won, receiving 71 electoral votes to Jefferson’s 68. Under the system then in force, the runner-up in the electoral college became vice-president, and so Jefferson became Adam’s vice president. However, Jefferson was so appalled by actions of the Adams administration, and especially by Adams’s signing the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it a crime to publish criticisms of the president, that he spent as little time in the capital as possible and decided to run against Adams again in 1800. The 1800 election was extremely bitter. Neither candidate campaigned personally, but Jefferson’s supporters, who called themselves Republicans, accused Adams of being insane, a monarchist, and wanting to establish a government by aristocracy in America and Adams’s supporters, the Federalists, accused Jefferson of being a sensualist, an atheist (“No family Bible in New England will be safe if he is elected,” one Federalist newspaper claimed) and an enthusiast for the excesses of the French Revolution.

When the electoral ballots were counted, Jefferson received 73 votes and Adams 65. There were actually four names on the ballot because each party had named a vice-presidential candidate. Aaron Burr ran with Jefferson and Charles Pinckney with Adams. Both parties had instructed one of their electors to withhold their vote from their vice-presidential candidate, so that he would receive one vote less than the winner, but whoever the Jefferson elector was who was supposed to do this forgot, so that the final total was Jefferson, 73; Burr, 73; Adams, 65; and Pinckney, 63. This tie threw the election into the House of Representatives, where 35 ballots were taken before Jefferson emerged as president by one vote and Burr became his vice-president. The last time Jefferson and Adams spoke face to face was during the balloting in the House of Representatives. Jefferson went to the White House to ask Adams to intervene, as the Federalists were voting for Burr. Adams refused, saying, “Things must take their course.” Jefferson later wrote that when he took his leave from Adams, “it was the first time in our lives that we had ever parted with anything like dissatisfaction.”

On inauguration day, March 4, 1801, Adams left Washington for his home, Stoneyfield Farm near Quincy, Massachusetts, by public stagecoach at 4am. He stayed there the rest of his life. When Jefferson left Washington at the end of his second term in 1809, he returned to his home, Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia, and never again strayed far from there. The two men did not correspond for 12 years. Then, on New Year’s Day, 1812, at the urging of their common friend Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, Adams wrote Jefferson a short note wishing him “many happy new years” and sent him a copy of his son John Quincy Adams’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory. Jefferson replied with a warm letter, beginning, “A letter from you calls up recollections very dear to my mind.” What followed was one of the most remarkable correspondences in American history. By the time the two men died in 1826 they had exchanged 158 letters They covered a wide range of topics, including old friends, common memories, books, politics, education, philosophy, religion, the French, the British, American Indians, and the writers’ own families.

Jefferson wrote his last letter to Adams in March 1826. Jefferson was about to turn 83; Adams was 90. Jefferson wrote to say that his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, was on his way to visit Adams. Adams wrote back in April to say how much he had enjoyed young Randolph’s visit, and how tall he was. Both men were being importuned to make public appearances at celebrations on July 4, Jefferson at Washington, D.C. and Adams in Boston, but they were unable to travel any distance and both declined. Adams received a delegation of visitors in his library on June 30, but the next day he was unable to get out of bed and could barely speak. His family sat up with him through the next three days. On the morning of the Fourth he heard the cannons booming and asked what the noise was. Someone told him it was the Fourth of July, and he said quite clearly, “It is a great day. It is a good day.” He silently struggled for breath all day. Late in the afternoon, according to some of the people in the room, he said, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He died at 6:20pm that evening.

Unknown to Adams, Jefferson had been unconscious since July 2, and had died at 1pm on the afternoon of the Fourth. He had awakened briefly on the afternoon of the 3rd and asked if it was the Fourth. Told that it would be soon, he went back to sleep and did not wake again. Both men were determined to survive until the Fourth.

Here’s a thought for this year’s Fourth. Jefferson was known not only for his intellectual brilliance but also for his civility and good manners. He once wrote his grandson, “A determination never to do what is wrong, prudence, and good humor will go far in securing you the estimation of the world. …In stating prudential rules for our government in society I must not omit the important one of never entering into a dispute or argument with another. …It was one of the rules which above all others made Dr. Franklin the most amiable of men in society, ‘never to contradict anybody.’” The present occupant of the White House might be a happier man if he took Thomas Jefferson’s advice and followed Benjamin Franklin’s example.


Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at

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