The Best 4th Of July Story

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had a rivalry that lasted right up until the day they died - on July 4th, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

There would have been no Declaration of Independence without John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. These two men, from very different parts of the country and with very different beliefs, were the guiding forces and architects of the document that came out of the Second Continental Congress. Their collaboration changed the face of world history, and they shared a friendship… but also a rivalry.

The two men stood by now-defunct parties, with Adams a Federalist and Jefferson a Democratic-Republican, and in the early years of the nascent Republic they found themselves at odds. Adams was George Washington’s vice president and he often argued with Secretary of State Jefferson. Then the two men faced off in an election when Washington stepped down (setting a precedent which wouldn’t be made law until after FDR), and Adams won. The original electoral college system saw the second-highest vote getter candidate serving as vice president, so Jefferson served under his rival - until they went at it again in the 1800 election, with Jefferson this time the victor. Adams left the capitol rather than appear at Jefferson’s inauguration.

After Jefferson retired from office after two terms the men began a correspondance and became friendlier rivals, but Adams still promised to outlive Jefferson (who was seven years younger). And he did - but he never knew it.

Both men died on July 4th, 1826, the 50th Independence Day*. Jefferson lived out his last moments in Monticello, Virginia, while Adams passed in Quincy Massachusetts. And it turns out that Adams DID outlive Jefferson, by at least a few hours. But he died before a messenger could arrive with the news of Jefferson’s passing, and Adams died disappointed, thinking his rival had defeated him again. His last words, supposedly, were “Jefferson still survives.”

You have to admire a guy who takes that kind of bitterness right to the end.

* historical sidenote: the Second Continental Congress actually voted to ratify independence on July 2, but it took until the 4th for the broadsides to be posted. And nobody signed the document until August. John Adams told his wife that July 2 would be the day we celebrated the anniversary of the nation for generations to come; like so many other things in his life, Adams was very right but also very wrong.