Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams

By Joseph J. Ellis | Go to book overview
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7
Legacies

"Is it the Fourth?"
—Last words of Thomas Jefferson, July 3, 1826

"Thomas Jefferson survives."
—Last words of John Adams, July 4, 1826

AS THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY of the Declaration of Independence approached, both Adams and Jefferson, along with Charles Carroll of Maryland, the only other surviving signer, were deluged with requests to attend official celebrations of the national birthday. Both men responded by pleading old age and ill-health, offering regrets, then providing self-consciously eloquent testimonials that they knew would be read out loud to the assembled guests. It was an ironic opportunity for Adams, who had spent much of his retirement criticizing the historical significance of the Declaration as anything more than an ornamental epilogue to the real story of the American Revolution. But the annual celebration on July 4 was now too well established to make his criticism sound like anything more than mindless carping. So for about a decade he had stopped complaining and accepted the fact that, misguided or not, this was the day when Americans remembered the great cause.

Although he received requests to participate in what was being called "the Jubilee of Independence" from as far away as Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, his most resonant reply went to the organizers of the Quincy celebration. After lamenting that his physical condition precluded attendance, Adams defied the customary sentiments and solemnities by declaring, in effect, that the ultimate meaning

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