Two hundred and forty-five 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.”
Two hundred and forty-five years ago that was our goal. We are still working toward it.
I told the story that follows at the American Center in Albania during its Independence Day celebration 25 years ago. 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 of our conversation got back to the Embassy. I first heard this story on a Norman Corwin CBS radio broadcast when I was a kid. Americans need to remember today.
The two leading men in the writing of 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 was nasty, 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 Jefferson’s sexual affair with his slave, Sally Hemmings.
The scandals aside, the clash of ideas made our nation stronger, at the cost of the ending Jefferson’s and Adams’ friendship.
A few years after 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 that speak to us today.
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.”
That delegate to the Albanian 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. That at different times in my own life I have sided with each of them. I said “When Albania learns this lesson this lesson will be ready for Democracy.” My fear is that we Americans have forgotten this lesson. Both sides are valid. Both world views are necessary. This Independence Day let’s celebrate that give and take that makes America possible.
I offer an Independence Day toast. In the words of our second President John Adams; After 245 years “Jefferson still Lives.”