Friends, then foes, then friends once again as their lives drew to a close, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day: July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
That these two Founding Fathers died on Independence Day and on the golden anniversary of such an important day in the country’s history was widely accepted at the time as proof of the “Divine favor” shown the young United States of America.
One-hundred seventy-nine years later, it’s still difficult to dismiss the role of a higher power in such a coincidence. But what’s notable, more so than when they died, is how they died: as friends.
Adams and Jefferson had disagreed on the proper role of government and on conflicts with foreign powers. They engaged in bitter disputes, were pitted against each other in the election of 1800, and lived lives that were vastly different. Jefferson was a slave-owning spendthrift known for his extravagance and carousing. Adams was a thrifty Puritan, devoted to his wife, Abigail, and classical studies.
As a result of the bitter campaign that led up to Jefferson’s defeating Adams for the presidency, the second and third presidents of the United States went 11 years without communicating. Yet the two were bound by their love of country and the principles on which it was founded. These were subjects they discussed in the hundreds of letters they exchanged in the last 14 years of their lives. Their common experience had won out over their differences.
That’s a comforting bit of history on July 4, 2005-a time when our country is bitterly divided over social issues, the role of the judicial branch of government, and separation of church and state.
Regardless of their religious faith, today’s political combatants should reaffirm their faith in our system of government, which has served us well over two centuries.
Jefferson and Adams shared that faith while struggling with issues-and rhetoric-that don’t sound far removed from 2005.
In the political season of 1800, Jefferson was vilified by his foes as an atheist whose election would result in Christian families having to hide their Bibles. Twenty years after Adams’ presidency, when Massachusetts’ constitution was being revised, the elder statesman offered an amendment that would have guaranteed complete religious freedom for those of all faiths. When the amendment failed, Adams lamented the intolerance of Christians. It’s enough to make the Indiana Civil Liberties Union vs. Brian Bosma seem downright 19th century.
Sometimes it seems today’s issues are different only because their outcome isn’t known. At any point in time in the history of our city, state and country, people with opposing views have gone after one another with a vengeance, slinging insults, making threats, predicting catastrophe if the other side gets its way.
But on this Independence Day, as on all that have preceded it, it’s appropriate to set aside our differences and appreciate what we have in common: that we live in a land where heartfelt debate is encouraged and where people at all levels of society are free to participate in the process-if only they would.
When the holiday ends and the messy process of democratic government resumes, we should remember the wisdom-part of which is gleaned from the Bible-that Adams passed on to a granddaughter shortly before his death:
“The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think, and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know … . Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.”
For along with strength and conviction, there are a couple of other qualities-civility and compromise-that have served our country well.
Harton is editor of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to email@example.com.