4th of July is about more than fireworks, parades

Terry Garlock's picture

“You are 10 times the writer I am!” John Adams declared to his friend from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, on June 11, 1776. Adams was persuading Jefferson to draft the 2nd Continental Congress’ statement of independence, and Jefferson tried to pass the job back to Adams before he reluctantly agreed.

Adams had represented Massachusetts in the 1st Continental Congress the prior year, 1775, an illegal body according to their British masters. Adams had vociferously argued that the colonies must object in the strongest terms to British oppressive acts while New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, the middle colonies, argued for appeasement if that was required to reconcile with the British.

Ultimately, that 1st Congress passed a boycott of British goods, published a list of rights and grievances and sent a petition to King George III for redress of those grievances, hoping he would intercede with Parliament. Finally, they planned the 2nd Congress in case the British Coercive Acts were not repealed.

The appeal to the Crown had no effect and by the time the 2nd Congress convened in May the following year, 1776, the battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts had already occurred. The Revolutionary War was under way, albeit in an ad hoc, uncoordinated way, but the colonists considered it a defensive war, not a war for independence.

When the discussion in Congress turned to independence, the arguments were bitter. Even some of those who favored independence had no authority from their state to cast such a vote. Meanwhile, in defiance of British authority, Congress conducted itself as a national government, appointing ambassadors, signing treaties, raising armies, appointing George Washington and others as generals, obtaining loans from Europe, issuing paper money, and disbursing funds. They had no taxation power and had to rely on the good will of the states to comply with funding requests, good will that was sometimes in short supply.

Adams argued for independence while Jefferson watched quietly, since he preferred the written word. While the debate raged, Jefferson received instructions from his state of Virginia “to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent States, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain.” Finally, delegates were instructed to take the two weeks necessary to confer with their home states on the subject of independence.

On June 11, after raging debate on independence with no consensus, Adams persuaded Congress to appoint a committee of five to draft an independence declaration while the debate continued. On the committee were Adams (Massachusetts), Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania), Jefferson (Virginia), Robert Livingston (New York), and Roger Sherman (Connecticut). Then Adams set out to have the committee appoint Jefferson to do the drafting.

In the sweltering heat of the Philadelphia summer, Jefferson labored to create a declaration he believed in, including passages critical of slavery because he knew, especially while the Congress struggled over the issue of liberty, that it was a foul stain on the birth of a new country. It is notable because Jefferson himself owned about 100 slaves at his plantation, and more so because Jefferson knew some Southern colonies would refuse to approve or sign any document critical of slavery, which was the cornerstone of their agrarian economy.

Jefferson revised his Declaration of Independence after review by the committee of five, then submitted it to the brutal review of Congress. Adams was the foremost advocate for its adoption. Jefferson did the writing, Adams did the talking and persuading. The debate and revision process cut out about one quarter of the document, including the criticism of slavery, while Jefferson sulked in resentment.

The final vote approving the declaration was taken on July 2. Adams wrote his wife, Abigail, the next day:

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

On July 4th the final text of the declaration was approved and sent to the printer for publication. The difference between Adams’ second day and the 4th we now celebrate is irrelevant considering the human struggle for liberty that should be central to our celebration.

Adams and Jefferson had become friends who talked and argued at length about politics and other matters. And then they became bitterly estranged, divided by politics during George Washington’s two terms as president, during which Adams was Vice President and Jefferson was Secretary of State.

Adams was a Federalist, advocating a fiscally sound and strong national government, taking strength from international alliances.

Jefferson, together with James Madison, formed the rival Democratic-Republican Party. They advocated states rights, skepticism of the federal government’s economic and foreign policies, opposition to a U.S. Navy and opposition to a national bank.

Jefferson equated the Federalists with Tories and monarchists, stating they were “... panting after ... and itching for crowns, coronets and mitres” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Jefferson).

Such public and printed statements of course infuriated Adams. He had been asked for his thoughts on government so many times he sought to avoid further repetition by publishing Thoughts on Government, in which he said “... there is no good government but what is republican ... because the very definition of a republic is ‘an empire of laws, and not of men.’” Publicly accusing him of favoring a monarchy was, to him, unforgivable.

When George Washington stepped aside at the end of his second term, Adams narrowly won a bitter contest for president between himself and Jefferson, then in 1800, after two terms Adams lost his re-election bid to Jefferson. On the day of Jefferson’s inauguration, Adams was in his carriage, on his way home.

The estranged Adams and Jefferson would reconcile late in their life by letters between Adams’ home in Massachusetts and Jefferson’s home in Virginia, but they never saw each other again. Even in friendship, they were rivals. Adams, seven years older than Jefferson, often declared he would outlive his friend.

One day in 1826, Adams declared on his death bed, “Thomas Jefferson survives,” then he died a while later, not knowing Jefferson had died a few hours earlier on the very same day. The date was July 4th, the 50th anniversary of the celebration of America’s birth.

Maybe it is fitting that we can celebrate the lives of Adams and Jefferson on the same day we celebrate America’s birthday. Those men, together with George Washington, proved something new and remarkable to the world – that we can fight like cats and dogs and yet hold a transition of power without firing a shot. And with luck, we can even become friends again.

[Terry Garlock, who lives in Peachtree City, says, “If you wish to see a first-rate portrayal of the birth of America, purchase the HBO miniseries “John Adams” on DVD. It will be the best $30 you ever spend.” His email is tgarlock@mindspring.com.]

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SPQR's picture
Submitted by SPQR on Thu, 07/02/2009 - 12:13pm.

I read that book too!

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