Thursday, July 1, 2010

July 4, 1826

Randall Stephens

It was fifty years to the day after the 13 colonies declared independence from Great Britain.

President John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary about the festivities in Washington. "The volunteer companies assembled on the square," he observed, "fronting the house and paid the passing salute by marching through the yard."

Arriving at the door of the Capitol, I was there met by Mr. Anderson, the Comptroller, with whom we entered the hall of the House of Representatives. The Reverend Mr. Ryland made an introductory prayer.

Joseph Anderson, the Comptroller, read the Declaration of Independence; Walter Jones delivered an oration commemorative of the fiftieth anniversary; the Reverend Mr. Post, Chaplain of H. R. U. S., made a concluding prayer.

After which, Governor Barbour delivered an address to the citizens assembled, soliciting subscriptions for the relief of Mr. Jefferson. . .

News traveled slowly over bad roads. Members of congress knew of Jefferson's troubles, but the severity of his situation was unclear. Few could have guessed that Jefferson's one-time rival and on-again/off-again friend John Adams was also in his last throes. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on that hot July day.

Four days later John Quincy received a batch of letters. One brought bad news. A missive "from my brother, written on the morning of the 4th, announcing that, in the opinion of those who surrounded my father's couch, he was rapidly sinking; that they were sending an express for my son in Boston, who might perhaps arrive in time to receive his last breath. The third was from my brother's wife to her daughter Elizabeth to the same purport, and written in much distress." On his way north to Boston, while in Waterloo, MD, he heard that his father had died. It was July 9th. He was stricken with grief. "My father had nearly closed the ninety-first year of his life," he confided to his diary, "a life illustrious in the annals of his country and of the world."

He had served to great and useful purpose his nation, his age, and his God. He is gone, and may the blessing of Almighty Grace have attended him to his account! I say not, May my last end be like his!—it were presumptuous. The time, the manner, the coincidence with the decease of Jefferson, are visible and palpable marks of Divine favor, for which I would humble myself in grateful and silent adoration before the Ruler of the Universe. For myself, all that I dare to ask is, that I may live the remnant of my days in a manner worthy of him from whom I came, and, at the appointed hour of my Maker, die as my father has died, in peace with God and man, sped to the regions of futurity with the blessings of my fellow-men.

Plenty of Americans in 1826 had something to say about the death of two lions of the Revolution. Prone to view the world through the eyes of faith, and to read signs in the sky and on the ground, newspaper editors, clergy, and laypeople were astounded. On July 11 the Massachusetts Salem Gazette lamented "We know not in what language to express ourselves in announcing . . . another event which has transpired to render the late glorious anniversary, the national jubilee, in some respects the most memorable day in the history of our country." That was no hollow encomium. It rang true across the young nation. The New York Commercial Advertiser rhapsodized: "it seems as though Divine Providence had determined that the spirits of these great men, which were kindled at the same altar, and glowed with the same patriotic fervor . . . should be united in death, and travel into the unknown regions of eternity together!"

Some years back Margaret P. Battin wrote in Historically Speaking about the strange coincidence of Jefferson's and Adam's deaths on the same day. "Although the fact that Adams and Jefferson died the same day is taught to practically every schoolchild, asking why is not," Battin noted. "What could explain this? There are at least six principal avenues to explore, but all of them raise further issues." She then offered some of the explanations given over the ages for their demise on that same anniversary.

It makes me wonder about the comparison and contrast between our age and the beginning of the Jacksonian era. Do Americans now have similar ideas linking nation, patriotism, and providence? Do Americans esteem their leaders and the political giants of our day in any way like they did 184 years ago? How have citizens understood God and country from one era to the next?

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