Saturday, July 3, 2010

Is it the Fourth?

Tomorrow, millions of Americans will gather in communities from Alaska to Maine to celebrate Independence Day.  This will mark the 234th birthday of the United States of America, the most stable democracy the world has ever known.  But it will also mark the 184th anniversary of the passing of two of our founders, including the author of the Declaration of Independence itself.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were two of the founders of this great nation.  Over the years, a long line of historians have observed that Adams and Jefferson shared many similarities -- both received elite educations, both were law school graduates and had early careers as attorneys, and both were young members of their colonial legislatures. In the early days of what would become the American Revolution, both were delegates to the Continental Congress and served on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence.  Of course, both served as foreign diplomats and eventually as presidents of the United States.

Despite the fact that they were political rivals during their presidential years, they became reconciled in old age as they reflected on their mutual accomplishments and cultivated a well-documented relationship by correspondence -- the two American giants exchanged dozens of letters in the latter years of their lives.

But in one of the more extraordinary coincidences in modern history -- or, if you're so inclined to believe, a result of Divine Orchestration -- Jefferson and Adams died on the same day.  And not just any day.  The Fourth of July, 1826, on the 50th birthday of the nation they had helped to create.  To be more precise, they died within five hours of each other -- Jefferson in Virginia, Adams in Massachusetts.

I love the words of Joesph Ellis, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation: "Call it a miracle, an accident, or a case of two powerful personalities willing themselves to expire on schedule and according to a script.  But it happened."

(An interesting historical sidenote . . . Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and mutual friend of both Jefferson and Adams, had predicted at the height of the political feud between the two that they would eventually reconcile, then go to their graves "at nearly the same time.")

WIth all due deference to Adams (the subject of a brilliant HBO miniseries in 2008), Thomas Jefferson is properly understood as the philosophical architect of the founding of the United States of America.  It was Jefferson who wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, then revised the document in order to satisfy the edits and concerns of his colonial brethren in Philadelphia.  The ratification of this document served as the official birth of our nation and as it circulated throughout the known world, the Declaration set off an earthquake.  Building on its specific line of reasoning that individuals were endowed with certain natural rights and they ought to be free from colonial rule that reserved those rights for the privileged elite, the Declaration essentially threw a stake in the ground that set forth a very basic idea: We The People get to decide how we want to govern ourselves.

The epitaph that Thomas Jefferson chose for his tombstone reads: "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia."  He wanted no mention of his time as President of the United States, no reference to his service as Vice President or Secretary of State, not even a passing mention of his extended stay as Ambassador to France.  Rather, he beemed with pride over the creation of a university that would educate young people about everything from world history to architecture and he was extremely proud of his crafting of a statute that would ensure Virginians would be free to practice whatever form of religious faith reflected their deeply personal convictions about "the God who gave us life and gave us liberty at the same time."

To his credit, Jefferson was also aware that the Declaration of Independence would go down in history as one of the most important documents ever composed by a mortal.  They were mere words -- and even lacked the legal force of subsequent documents, such as the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights (first 10 amendments to the Constitution), decisions rendered by the Supreme Court, and countless important pieces of legislation passed by the Congress over the past 234 years -- but they laid out a founding vision that has remained in front of our nation ever since that first Fourth.

There are multiple reports of what the final words were from both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson when they died back on July 4, 1826, but most biographers agree that we can be fairly confident of the general thoughts.

From Jefferson, who was determined to stave off death until he could see the 50th birthday of the founding document that launched the great American experiment, his personal physician insisted his final words were "Is it the Fourth?"  It was actually the evening of July 3rd, but Jefferson remained alive until approximately Noon on the 4th of July.

From Adams, who was a courageous lawyer and an intellectual giant in his own right, but always in awe of Jefferson's masterpiece in Philadelphia, a family friend claimed that his final words were "Thomas Jefferson still lives."  Adams was incorrect, of course, as Jefferson had passed several hours earlier that day.  But in a much larger sense, his final words were astonishingly accurate and prohetic; Jefferson is still very much alive through his work in the founding of our nation and his immortal Declaration of Independence.

Yes, Mr. Jefferson, it is the Fourth.  So tomorrow, as we celebrate our shared belief that we have all been endowed by our Creator with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, let us remember not just the anniversary of our founding, but also the anniversary of the passing of the man who articulated the vision for what would become the greatest country in the history of the world.

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