Perhaps my favorite story about the celebration of Independence Day in America is an almost unbelievable tale involving John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Dr. Benjamin Rush.
Those three, of course, took part in many critical events during the birth and formative years of the nation. But I love this particular story because it captures their collective grit, the value of forgiveness and respect between rivals, and the transformative power of one individual’s influence.
We could use some of those things today, don’t you think?
You no doubt are familiar with presidents Adams and Jefferson. Both were instrumental in the revolutionary movement and the historic document we honor each July 4. Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, and Adams was its main advocate within the Continental Congress. As historian David McCullough put it, Jefferson was “the pen” and Adams “the voice.”
When it came to politics, however, Adams and Jefferson became bitter rivals. They were close friends early in their political careers and their families spent a great deal of time together while both were serving U.S. interests in Europe during and after the war. But they aligned with competing political parties. Jefferson was a Democratic-Republican and Adams a Federalist, and disagreements over public policies and/or attacks aimed at one by the other eventually led to a cold war of silence between the two great men.
Rush often is overshadowed by other Founding Fathers, but his impact on our nation was great. Perhaps his most lasting contribution was his ground-breaking study of mental disorders. But he also was an original signer of the Declaration of Independence, served as a battle-front physician during the war, and later advocated for reforms in areas like anti-slavery and women’s rights.
He also was a close friend of both Adams and Jefferson. Rush leaned toward Jefferson politically, but was more aligned with Adams when it came to views on religion and slavery. He maintained an active correspondence with both of them, and often pushed them to write to each other. So, in October 1809, Rush sent Adams a letter describing a dream in which he read a future historian’s account of how Adams and Jefferson had renewed their friendship. Adams, in his response, wrote, “I have no other objections to your dream, but that it is not history. It may be prophecy.”
Indeed, it was. But it was in 1812, three years later and after several more encouraging letters to both Adams and Jefferson, when Adams finally broke the silence with a letter to Jefferson. Rush died the following year, content, no doubt, in the part he had played in healing the relational wounds of his two good friends. Adams and Jefferson wrote dozens of letters to each other over the ensuing years, letters of insights, opinions, encouragement and forgiveness that became a treasure trove for later historians.
Fast-forward to 1826, the 50-year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Only three of the original signers were still alive – Adams, Jefferson, and Charles Carroll. Celebrations were planned all over the country, and Adams and Jefferson were in high demand to attend. Neither, however, were in good health. Adams, at 90, was confined to his home in Massachusetts, and Jefferson, at 83, couldn’t leave his estate in Virginia.
The two, however, had at least one common goal: To live to see another Fourth of July, and they encouraged each other to do so.
Both men achieved that goal. When he was awakened and told it was July 4, 1826, Adams said, “It is a great day. It is a good day.” And later, in what were to be among his final words, it’s claimed he said, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” A few hours later, he died. Jefferson, in fact, had died before Adams. He had awakened in the night and asked if it was the Fourth. Told “not yet,” he went back to sleep until he awoke again around four in the morning, delivered an unknown message to some of his servants, and then passed away.
Adams and Jefferson, two of the most influential men of their times, had, with the help of their mutual friend, overcome their differences, and, by shear will and divine providence, fought to see one final Independence Day. What a fitting earthly end to their enduring legacies.