Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the 4th of July, 1826. Though both men were on their deathbeds, each made an effort through the night of the third to survive until the 50th anniversary of the Declaration. Adams had bulletins sent to him on Jefferson’s condition and Jefferson woke in the small hours of the third to ask, “is it the Fourth?” The attending physician replied “it soon will be.” There was nothing funereal about the scene. It was as if both old men were on a last race; as if beneath the withered exteriors were two strong runners were striving for the tape. That would have surprised no one in a culture where natural death, whose face had not yet been hidden behind high hospital walls, impelled men to be more generous with their lives and less fearful of risk than the prospect of failure.
In a time where infectious disease and accidents were both common and unavoidable, the ultimate privilege was the ability to order one’s life and — more rarely — one’s death according to choice. So the chance to “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” for such stakes would have seemed an opportunity that did not come very often in the generations of men. The Founders seized the chance and paid the price. Some were captured by the British as traitors; others lost life and property during the revolutionary war. And in return they received not a jot of additional existence; their group lifespan was 67; average for men of their position in that era. But they did achieve what seemed worthwhile then; something worth remembering so that fifty years later the last of their fellows would ask after it. Nicholas Trist, who was at Jefferson’s deathbed on the Third pretended not to hear Jefferson’s question “so he wouldn’t have to inform Jefferson that it was still July 3 … ‘This is the Fourth?’ he asked again. This time Trist nodded in assent, though he says he found the deception ‘repugnant.’”
Daniel Webster, who came on the scene after the Founding Fathers had already passed into legend lamented that “we can win no laurels … earlier and worthier hands have gathered them all.” But he was wrong; history comes back offering each new generation a new set of heights to climb. In that sense the Declaration of Independence will forever remain unfinished business; an enterprise well begun which has not quite been completed. So perhaps the scrupulous Trist should not have worried about deceiving Jefferson; the honest answer to the question “is it the Fourth?” both in 1826 and 2010 may remain “it soon will be”.
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