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Providence: Jefferson and Adams Died on 50th Anniversary of Declaration of Independence

There are several occurrences in American history that some would call coincidences, but those who believe in a God who ultimately governs over the affairs of this world would call providence. The deaths of Founders Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, is perhaps the top among them. Both men served on the committee charged with drafting the document along with Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston. The great orator and statesman Daniel Webster said in a eulogy for Jefferson and Adams at the time, “Poetry itself has hardly terminated illustrious lives, and finished the career of earthly renown, by such a consummation. If we had the power, we could not wish to reverse this dispensation of the Divine Providence.” “[T]he concurrence of their death on the anniversary of Independence has naturally awakened stronger emotions,” he added. “It cannot but seem striking and extraordinary that these two should live to see the fiftieth year from the date of that act; that they should complete that year; and that then, on the day which had fast linked forever their own fame with their country’s glory, the heavens should open to receive them both at once.” To Webster, it was a sign that God had taken Jefferson and Adams, whose lives had been “gifts of Providence,” that Americans were still in God’s care. By July 4, 1826, only Jefferson, Adams and Charles Carroll remained of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. Fifty years earlier, after the Continental Congress had voted to break free from England, Adams had written his wife Abigail that the occasion would “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 Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” So he pretty much nailed how Independence Day is celebrated. As Jefferson and Adams grew older slowly, but perceptibly, many of the actors in the great opening scenes of America’s founding began to bow off the stage of this life: Franklin in 1790, Sherman in 1793, George Washington and Patrick Henry in 1799, Samuel Adams in 1803, Alexander Hamilton in 1804, and Livingston in 1813. Then, most painfully for Adams, Abigail passed in 1818. Jefferson and Adams had a political falling out in the late 1790s and into the early 1800s, but reconciled and reconnected by letters for the last decade or more of their lives. The two sages wrote each other several times a year. Sometimes in their correspondence, they speculated about the future of America. In May 1821, Adams wrote Jefferson wondering if they must depart this life surrendering “all pleasing hopes of the progress of society.” “The Art of Lawgiving is not so easy as that of Architecture or Painting,” he noted. “I may refine too much. I may be an Enthusiast. But I think a free Government is necessarily a complicated Piece of Machinery, the nice and exact Adjustment of whose Spring Wheels and Weights are not well comprehended by the Artists of the Age and still less by the People.” Jefferson responded in September with confidence regarding freedom’s ultimate victory over tyranny thanks to what was unleashed with the signing of the Declaration. “I will not believe our labors are lost. I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on a steady advance … And even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to restore light and liberty to them,” he wrote. “In short, the flames kindled on the 4th of July, 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume these engines and all who work them.” As providence would have it, Adams’ son John Quincy Adams was president in July 1826 as the nation celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence. Not just in Washington, D.C., but throughout the country, people were gathering in public places to mark the special occasion. No one could have known in the cities, towns and hamlets throughout the U.S. that both Jefferson and Adams were soon to leave this earth. Jefferson was falling in and out of consciousness at his home Monticello outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. In lucid moments he would ask “Is this the fourth?” To which those caring for him would respond, “No, Mr. Jefferson.” Finally he awoke and knew in his heart it was the day; “Today is the fourth.” “Yes, it is the fourth,” he was told. In the early afternoon of the fourth, Jefferson, 83, died the same afternoon that the Continental Congress had adopted the Declaration of Independence years before. Who knows? Maybe down to the minute. Meanwhile about this time to the north, John Adams, 90, uttered his last words, “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” and died later that evening. He could not have known what he said was no longer true. However, as has often been observed since, Adams was correct: Jefferson’s and the other Founders’ vision expressed in the Declaration of Independence still lives. Portions of this article first appeared in the book “We Hold These Truths” by Randall DeSoto about the influence of the Declaration of Independence and instances of divine providence throughout American history. This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.

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