After 247 Years, Jefferson Still Lives!

Back in 1993 member of the committee drafting the Albanian Constitution asked me who was right in their view of government, Jefferson or Adams.  I thought about an answer and told him this story.  Later I was asked to tell it at the US Embassy July 4th commemoration.  I first heard it on a Norman Corwin CBS radio broadcast when I was a kid.  Americans need to remember it today. 

Two hundred and forty three years ago a resolution written by Thomas Jefferson and moved by John Adams passed the Continental Congress.  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 two leading men in the July, 1776 drama were personal friends and political rivals. They held fundamentally different views on government.  Thomas Jefferson believed that people were ruled by reason and therefore democracy, based on the public’s reasonable reaction to events, should be unrestrained.  John Adams believed that people were driven by passion, therefore democracy had to be tempered so passion did not overrun reason — or minority opinion. 

Twenty four years after the declaration Adams and Jefferson fought America’s first truly contested U.S. presidential election.  The election of 1800 was a nasty affair played out 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 herds of harpies are no more.”

“No  lordling here with gorging jaws shall ring from industry the food.  No firy bigot’s holy laws shall waste our feelds and stream with blood.”

“Here strangers from a thousand shores, compelled by tyranny to roam, will find among abundant stores, a nobler and a happier home.”

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

It was nasty, and it sounds familiar.  The issues in 1800 were the same as today, immigration, accepting refugees, and freedom of the press.

But we came through it.  The clash of ideas in 1800 made our nation stronger, but at the cost of the ending Jefferson’s and Adams’ friendship. 

A few years after Jefferson left office a mutual friend, Benjamin Rush, also a signer of the Declaration, got them writing to each other.  He told each that the other wanted reconciliation.  They never met again but exchanged letters restating their arguments for all of us to consider.

Jefferson wrote:  “Reason is the helmsman who steers our barque.”  Adams replied: “but passion is the wind that drives her forward.”

July 4th, 1826, Fifty years to the day after Jefferson wrote and Adams moved the Declaration of Independence 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.”

Historian Joseph Ellis wrote “He was wrong at the moment but right for the ages.”

So who was right, Jefferson or Adams?  They both were right because both were necessary for liberal democracy to work.  I told the member of the Constitutional Committee  “When Albania, or any country, learns this lesson it will be ready for Democracy.” 

My fear is that we Americans have forgotten, Our politics is becoming a zero sum game.  One side has to win and one to lose instead of us all winning.  The truth is that both world views are valid and both are necessary, it is not a zero sum game.  We can all win, if we will. 

This Independence Day let’s celebrate the historic give and take that makes America possible, and seal it with an Independence Day toast.  In the words of our second president John Adams; After 243 years “Jefferson still Lives.”

Photo collage at the top are fireworks from Sitka’s 2019 display on July, 3rd, fading into the 4th.

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