248 Years Ago

(July 2, 2024, 248 years later.) On an unseasonably cool July 2, 1776,

Richard Henry Lee moved a resolution, before the second Continental Congress, declaring independence for the 13 American colonies.  To get unanimous agreement Congress made changes during the debate.  The resolution was referred to a committee of five, including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson to redraft the resolution, cutting out about a third of the verbiage and putting it into language that would allow for a unanimous vote. On July 4 Congress approved the redrafted resolution, largely written by Jefferson and sent it to the printers.  It said, 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-eight years ago that was our dream.  We are still working toward it.

I told a story at the Albanian American Center’s in Independence Day celebration in Tirana 28 years ago.  There had been a nasty election and the U.S. Embassy thought that this story would help put that election in perspective.  Earlier I had told that story over lunch to a delegate to
the Albanian Constitutional Convention. 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.

Jefferson’s side won, but it was messy, even after the election.  Jefferson’s running mate was Aaron Burr.  In the electoral college, at that time, electors cast two votes, the one with the most votes became president, the one with the second most votes was elected vice president.  Jefferson and Burr were on the same ticket, and when the vote came in, both had the same number of electors, throwing the vote into the House.  (The 12th Amendment soon fixed that glitch.)

In the House, Federalists, on the losing side, toyed with voting for Burr to stick it to Jefferson.  Hamilton, who loathed Jefferson, argued successfully that Burr was manifestly unqualified to
be President and, as fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda know, put aside his personal feelings, and his party and supported Jefferson.

Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government – Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself – thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement – and will be content with nothing short of permanent power in his own hand… How then should we be able to rely upon any agreement with him?   (Letter to Mass. Congressman Harrison Gray Otis)

Jefferson became the third President.

The scandals aside, the clash of ideas made our nation stronger, at the cost of ending Jefferson’s and Adams’ friendship.

A few years after Jefferson left office a mutual friend, Benjamin Rush, got them writing to each other.  He told each of them 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 engineered the passage of 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?  I told the delegate to the Albanian convention that both were right because both were necessary for liberal democracy to work. “When Albania
learns this, it will be ready for Democracy.”

My fear is that we Americans have forgotten this and in forgetting we risk losing our democracy.  Both world views are necessary.  It is not a zero-sum game.  It is not winner
take all.  To save our democracy, we need to remember this.

So, I offer an Independence Day toast.  In the words of our second President John Adams; After 248 years:

“Jefferson still Lives!”

Happy 4th.


7 thoughts on “248 Years Ago

  1. Hi Rich,
    Excellent post. Quick question confused by “(July 2, 2024, 128 years later.)”. What happened in 1904?

  2. Thank you. Facts, quotes and notations so well gathered to share a good American story. Everyone can learn from the past. With your permission I’d like to share this with my 10 grandkids.
    See you next year on the Pole 2 Pole, God willing.

  3. Rich, I needed this! In fact, I would like to send it to others and give you full credit, of course. Thank you for your words!

  4. For some reason this is listing me an anonymous. Please feel free to share any of my blog posts. Rich

  5. I just now read this post but found it so inspirational. I to would like to share it with my friends. History is a great teacher if we listen. You are an excellent writer who I always enjoy reading. Thank you for this post.

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