Two hundred and forty four 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.”
It is an aspirational statement and we still aspire to bring it to fruition today
I told the story that follows at the American Center in Albania during its Independence Day celebration in 1996. There had been a nasty election in Albania and the Embassy thought that this story would help put the Albanian election in perspective. Earlier I had told it to a delegate to the Albanian Constitutional Convention and word got back to the Embassy from that delegate that more people should hear it. I first heard it on a Norman Corwin CBS radio broadcast when I was a kid. Americans need to remember today, in this raucous election year.
The two leading men in the drama of writing the declaration of independence 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 curbed so that passion did not overrun the reason that Jefferson so prized.
Twenty-four years after the signing of the declaration Adams and Jefferson fought America’s first truly contested presidential election. The election of 1800 a nasty affair played out under the shadow of the Alien and Sedition acts. The issues were immigration and freedom of the press. 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 fiery bigot’s holy laws shall waste our fields and streams in blood.”
“Here strangers from a thousand shores, compelled by tyranny to roam, will find amid abundant stores, a nobler and a happier home.” (one of the issues was accepting immigrants, refugees who were Scottish or Irish dissidents.)
“Rejoice, Columbia’s sons rejoice, to tyrants never bend the knee, but join with heart and soul and voice for Jefferson and Liberty.”
The other side countered with scandalous stories of Thomas Jefferson’s sexual affair with his slave, Sally Hemmings.
The scandal aside, the clash of ideas made our nation stronger, at the cost of the ending Jefferson’s and Adams’ friendship.
After a few years a mutual friend, Benjamin Rush, 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 in Congress 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.”
In 1996, after telling this story at the Albanian July 4th celebration a delegate to their constitutional convention asked me who was right, Jefferson or Adams? I told him both were right because both were necessary for liberal democracy to work. “When Albania, or any country, learns this lesson this lesson will be ready for Democracy.” My fear is that we Americans have forgotten that both sides are valid, that both world views are necessary. This Independence Day let’s celebrate and respect that 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 244 years “Jefferson still Lives.”
These Pictures are from the 2020 July 3 fireworks in Sitka.
The clouds were low and some of the fireworks made the clouds glow and it looked like it was raining colors.