Today, on the Fourth of July, we celebrate the birthday of America. It is easy to gaze upon the vast successes of our nation – our long-standing Constitution, a successful constitutional republic, our global hegemony, the world’s largest economy, our model of freedom – and believe that it was always so.
And yet during that sweltering summer of 1776 in Philadelphia misgivings loomed. By the first of July Thomas Jefferson had put the finishing touches on the Declaration of Independence, but its passage through Congress was still in doubt. Congress was divided. Some wished to remain colonies of Britain, some desired independence, and some were undecided, but feared what revolution would wrought.
David McCullough in his definitive biography of John Adams writes of the impassioned debate between Adams from Massachusetts and John Dickinson from Pennsylvania. To move forward with the Declaration, Dickinson believed, would be “to brave a storm in a skiff made of paper.” But Adams, according to McCullough, speaking with a thunderstorm swirling outside, was “logical, positive, sensitive to the historic importance of the moment, and looking into the future, saw a new nation, a new time . . .”
The debate lasted nine hours and yet when it came time to vote a sufficient majority could not be mustered. Finally, on July 2, with a crucial delegate arriving from New York, key opponents abstaining from the vote, and South Carolina swinging to the majority, independence was declared.
It was a moment that Adams and Jefferson had worked most of their lives for. To be free of tyranny, to revel in the prize of liberty, to enjoy the right to set our own course as a nation, these were the gifts of July 1776. For all the brotherly affection and common purpose these men shared, their relationship grew strained under the weight of governance.
Time brought disagreement. Disagreement brought parties. And parties brought fractious politics. During the campaign of 1800, with Adams running under the Federalist banner and Jefferson as a Republican, the two Founding Fathers fell into discord.
Jefferson, through publications he patronized, called Adams “His Rotundity.” They called Adams a “repulsive pedant” and “gross hypocrite” who in his “private life [was] one of the most egregious fools on the continent.” They even went so far as to label him a “strange compound of ignorance, ferocity, of deceit and weakness,” a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Over time, with each man having served as president to the young union. And with each having experienced the ups and downs, joys and struggles, trials and tribulations, adoration and scorn, and successes and failures, that come with the presidency, they once again became friends in retirement. As President Ronald Reagan recalls during his Fourth of July Speech in 1986:
For years their estrangement lasted. But then when both had retired, Jefferson at 68 to Monticello and Adams at 76 to Quincy, they began through their letters to speak again to each other. Letters that discussed almost every conceivable subject: gardening, horseback riding, even sneezing as a cure for hiccups; but other subjects as well: the loss of loved ones, the mystery of grief and sorrow, the importance of religion, and of course the last thoughts, the final hopes of two old men, two great patriarchs, for the country that they had helped to found and loved so deeply. “It carries me back,” Jefferson wrote about correspondence with his cosigner of the Declaration of Independence, “to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right to self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us and yet passing harmless . . . we rowed through the storm with heart and hand . . . .”
Adams and Jefferson would later die just hours apart, on the same day – the Fourth of July, exactly fifty years from the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Their relationship serves as a metaphor for today’s politics. Although we heartily (and often vehemently) disagree with one another, and such disagreements may manifest themselves in dislike for each other’s ideas, leaders and tactics, we are ultimately united by a common purpose.
For as Reagan concluded in that same speech, “[T]he things that unite us – America’s past of which we’re so proud, our hopes and aspirations for the future of the world and this much-loved country – these things far outweigh what little divides us.”
Let’s each do our best on this celebration of America’s birth to remember those ties that bind.