Every American knows what this day commemorates: On July 4th 1776, 243 years ago today, the Continental Congress at Philadelphia signed the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. This document was written by Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, at the behest of John Adams of Massachusetts. These men of vision and genius would go on to be, respectively, the 3rd and 2nd presidents of the United States.
They would also both die on the fourth of July, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day after signing the Declaration of Independence.
The intervening half century saw these men work together for independence, serve together as ambassadors to the most important capitals of Europe—Adams to London, Jefferson to Paris—become bitter adversaries as leaders of America’s first two political parties—Adams of the Federalists, Jefferson of the Democratic-Republicans—be reconciled, and carry on a warm correspondence during the closing years of their lives.
As the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration approached, both men were sought out to officiate at celebrations, but both declined on the grounds of frailty and inability to travel. They both wanted to live until the fourth, and not die on a long journey in an uncomfortable coach.
On July 2nd, to conserve his strength, Jefferson took to his bed at his hilltop estate of Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia. With a great-granddaughter at his bedside, he quoted the Gospel of Luke: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” He told the attending physician that “a few hours more, Doctor, and it will be all over.”
On the evening of the third, at 7:00 p.m., he awoke from fitful slumber and asked, “Ah, Doctor, are you still there? Is it the Fourth?” “It soon will be,” the physician assured him. Three hours later, at 10:00 p.m., he awoke again and asked once more, “This is the Fourth?” His granddaughter’s husband, Nicholas Trist, who decided it was enough for the great man to believe he had survived until the 4th, nodded wordlessly, and Jefferson said, “ah, just as I wished.”
He went back to sleep and did not hear the clock strike midnight. He woke up for the final time at 4:00 a.m., said his goodbyes and refused further laudanum. He passed away at 10 minutes to 1:00 p.m. Tuesday, July fourth, 1826.
Five hundred miles to the north at his estate, Peacefield in Quincey, Massachusetts, about ten miles from Boston, John Adams lingered. Having lived 90 years, long enough to see his son, John Quincy Adams inaugurated president the previous year, it remained only for him to see the Jubilee of the Declaration.
As he heard the celebratory cannons firing in the distance, Adams asked to be placed in his favorite armchair in the second-floor study, looking out the window toward the town. Reverend George Whitney arrived to visit, sadly noting that “the old gentleman was drawing to his end.” Dr. Holbrook declared that he would at best live out the day; Adams’s youngest son, Thomas, sent word to Washington to alert his brother, the president, that their father was nearing the end of his race.
By midday, the weather darkened and threatened a storm, and they returned Adams to his bedchamber. As they shifted his position, the former president awoke. Reminded it was the Fourth of July, he lifted his head from the pillow and declared in a strong, clear voice: “It is a great day. It is a good day.” The ceremonial cannon in the village of Quincy were joined by the “the artillery of heaven,” thunder and lightning.
Toward evening, with a gentle rain falling, Adams said his last words: “Thomas Jefferson survives,” unaware that Jefferson had died just a few hours before. Adams’ breathing stopped shortly after six o’clock, with a resounding clap of thunder marking the moment. At the same instant, a ray of light from the late afternoon sun illuminated the bedroom.
As the days went by and the country slowly learned that these two great champions of independence had both died on the day of the Jubilee celebration, the feeling solidified that this could not have been coincidence and was, in fact, divine providence. The odds against even one of these men dying on the 50th anniversary of the signing are astronomical; that both did refutes any explanation but Providence. John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary that it bore the, “visible and palpable marks of Divine Favor, for which I would humble myself in grateful and silent adoration before the ruler of the universe.”
“Was not the hand of God most affectingly displayed in this event,” wrote an early Jefferson biographer, “as if to add another to the multiplied proofs of His special superintendence over this happy country?”
In Baltimore, Senator Samuel Smith attributed the timing of the deaths to an “all-seeing Providence, as a mark of approbation of their well-spent lives.” In Salem, Massachusetts, newspaperman Joseph Sprague concluded: “Could they have chosen the day of their death, it would have been the one decreed by Providence.”
To silence the skeptics, Providence arranged to have the fifth president, James Monroe, who had been wounded in Washington’s famous Christmas night attack on the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey, pass away exactly five years later, on July 4th, 1831. Thus, three of the first four presidents to die, passed away on July 4th.
Just after the Continental Congress voted for independence on July 2, and as Jefferson was at work on the Declaration, Adams wrote his beloved Abigail regarding what was about to happen:
“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to another, from this time forward forevermore. You will think me transported with enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure it will cost us to maintain this Declaration and to support and defend these states. Yet through all the gloom, I can see rays of ravishing light and glory.”
“And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee unto you” (Lev. 25:10).