In countless letters to his wife and partner, Abigail, John Adams poured out his heart and his mind. Abigail was not just a sounding board for his political conscience; she was his moral compass in every way.
Adams, 90, and Thomas Jefferson 83, while gravely ill, wanted very much to live to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Both had risked death in the face of Britain’s King George III. But with the signing of Jefferson’s great document, they and the fifty-four other delegates to the Continental Congress ratified and signed the document that would declare themselves thirteen, independent states.
At the end of his letter to Abigail dated July 3, 1776, Adams addresses what would become a sacred day in the history of the United States. While many point to July 2nd as the actual day, the document became official when passed by Congress on July 4, 1776.
“The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epoch, in the History of America.
“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated,” Adams writes, “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.
“You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom, I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will triumph in that Days Transaction, even although we should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.”
John Adams son John Quincy, who served as the 6th U.S. President wrote of the national holiday:
“From the day of this Declaration, the people of North America were no longer the fragment of a distant empire… They were a nation asserting as of right, and maintaining by war, its own existence. A Nation was born in a day.”
Even though they were political opposites constantly at odds with one another, they developed a deep and lasting friendship after they left Washington.
My favorite quote by Adams comes in his defense of British soldiers falsely charged with the Boston Massacre.
“Facts are stubborn things,” Adams told the jury, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
“In matters of style,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
On July 4, 1876, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, as John Adams lay in bed, dying, his last words were reported to have been, “Thomas Jefferson lives!”
While Jefferson died a few hours later, their hearts and minds live on.