Each year as Americans celebrate their country’s independence on July 4, few realize it is the anniversary of perhaps one of the most remarkable coincidences in history: the death of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who died a few hours apart on July 4, 1826.
These two towering giants of American history were initially political enemies. As president, Adams believed in a strong central government and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 — something that Jefferson bitterly opposed. During a very difficult and bitter campaign, with Adams and Jefferson fiercely attacking one another, Jefferson won the presidential election. Jefferson served two terms as president from 1801 to 1809.
Despite their political differences, these two men had a great deal in common. Both were natives (Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia, Adams was born in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts), both were well educated and avid readers (Jefferson at the College of William and Mary, Adams at Harvard); both were lawyers; both were illustrious statesmen, including serving as delegates, vice-presidents and presidents; both were passionate and very vocal supporters of the Revolution, both were venerated Founding Fathers and members of the Committee of Five, charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence; and they were both friends.
During their retirement the two established a very long, respected and warm friendship. They reached out to one another through a third party and began a friendship through thoughtful and eloquent correspondence that lasted more than 14 years. Jefferson sent out the first letter on January 1, 1812. Their letters, thankfully preserved for future generations, provided a glimpse into their personal philosophies, intellectual pursuits, their deep love for their country, and their sincere admiration of one another.
Both of their health deteriorated at about the same time, as the 50th anniversary of the 4th of July approached. Jefferson, now 82, was confined to his bed battling several illnesses (toxemia, pneumonia, uremia) and spent much of his final days sleeping. On July 4, 1826 he awoke at about 1:00 pm and spoke his final words: “Is it the fourth yet?” Meanwhile Adams, now 92, was nearing the end of his life, weakened by arteriosclerosis. His last words, spoken around 6:00 pm, were “Thomas Jefferson survives” not knowing that Jefferson had died five hours earlier.
An obituary from the Argus & City Gazette on the morning of July 10, 1826 eloquently recognizes both the men and the moment: “Two of the great and gifted of our countrymen, the venerated fathers of our Republic are no more!… They were glorious in their lives, and in their deaths they were not divided. They have enjoyed in their life-time equal and the highest honours within the gift of a grateful country. In their deaths, the measure of their fame is full. Their memories are hallowed. [Their death] on the Jubilee Anniversary of that Independence… is one of the most remarkable coincidences in the history of man.”
One month after their death, statesmen Daniel Webster delivered one of the most touching and eloquent eulogies at Boston’s Fanueil Hall, praising these two great men and the hand of Providence: “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 for ever their own fame with their country’s glory, the heavens should open to receive them both at once. As their lives themselves were the gifts of Providence, who is not willing to recognize in their happy termination, as well as in their long continuance, proofs that our country and its benefactors are objects of His care?”
In another turn of coincidence, James Monroe, the 5th president, died five years later on July 4, 1831.
For further reading: John Adams by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster (2001)