After 238 Years, Jefferson Still Lives

238 years ago in Philadelphia John Adams moved a resolution written by Thomas Jefferson.  It read, in part:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The 4th of July is a civic holiday, where people of all sorts gather to celebrate a common belief. I tell the same story every Fourth of July, usually at breakfast over a toast with orange juice.  I’m sure that at some points in their lives the kids tired of it, but I hope they still pass it on to their kids.  I got the chance to tell it at the American Center celebration of the 4th  in 1996 in Tirana, Albania.

I first heard the story in a Norman Corwin broadcast when I was a kid. The two principals in writing and moving the declaration were personal friends and political rivals. They held fundamentally different views on government.  Jefferson believed that people were ruled by reason and therefore democracy, based on the public’s reasonable reaction to events should be unrestrained.  Adams believed that people were driven by passion, therefore democracy had to be curbed so that passion did not overrun the reason Jefferson so prized. Adams and Jefferson were both collaborators and rivals — friends, then enemies, and finally friends again.  They fought the first truly contested presidential election in 1800, a nasty affair fought under the shadow of the Alien and Sedition acts.  For the first time in modern history a government peacefully changed hands because of a vote.  But the campaign introduced negative advertising in the form of songs.

“The gloomy night before us flies, its reign of terror now is over, its gags, inquisitors and spies, its heads of harpies are no more.”  

“Rejoice, Columbia’s sons rejoice, to tyrants never bend the knee, but join with heart and soul and voice for Jefferson and Liberty.”

The clash of ideas made our nation stronger.  But Jefferson’s and Adams’ friendship seemed over.  After a few years a mutual friend, Benjamin Rush, got them writing to each other telling each that the other wished reconciliation.  They never met again but exchanged letters.

Jefferson argued for reason and democracy.  “Reason is the helmsman who steers our barque.”  Adams, arguing for restraints on popular will replies “but passion is the wind that drives her forward.”

July 4th, 1826, Fifty years to the day after passing The Declaration both men died, Jefferson in Virginia and Adams in Massachusetts.  Jefferson’s last words were “Is it the 4th?”

Several hours later Adams suffered a seizure after attending the Independence Day celebrations in Quincy MA.  His last words were “Jefferson still lives.” As historian Joseph Ellis wrote “He was wrong at the moment but right for the ages.”

After I told this story at the July 4th celebration in Albania an Albanian (who was a delegate to their constitutional convention) asked me who was right, Jefferson or Adams?  I told him both were right.  Both were necessary for liberal democracy to work.  “When Albania (or any country) learns this it will be ready for Democracy.”  My fear is that we Americans may have forgotten it.   So let’s reaffirm that truth together today with an Independence Day toast, framed in the words of our second president John Adams; “Jefferson still Lives.” Happy 4th.

Pictures from July 3rd fireworks after the Twins – Yankee Game at Target Field in Minneapolis.

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