By David Bruce Smith
This is the second part of a continuing series of blog posts with author David Bruce Smith about Abigail and John Adams. Historic Deerfield’s resident historians will pose questions to Smith, who is the author of Abigail & John, a nonfiction children’s book that offers readers the opportunity to view prominent scenes in American history through the remarkable lives of one of the country’s most beloved couples—the Adams’s. Exploring the historical significance of a partnership that spanned over five decades, the book details the love they shared for each other and the country. We hope this blog can be a helpful historical resource for learners of all ages.
1. What are the chances that the two leading architects of the American republic should both die on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence?
When a former president dies, it jolts the country—especially if he is well-liked, and highly-regarded.
In 1826, John Adams, 90, and Thomas Jefferson, 83, were known to be in declining health, but when they died on July Fourth, the news shocked the country; their deaths coincided with an event that they—and America—wanted to celebrate: the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Suddenly, the anticipated national mood of merriment turned mournful and morose.
The odds of their dying on the same day were low—1 in 365— according to historians, but because the double tragedy was wrapped into that date and occasion—194 years ago—certain circumstances created conspiracy conjecture; mystery; and mystique:
…A coincidence/freak occurrence?
…A last shared gasp of life from two Founding Fathers?
2. Is there any evidence that both clung to the idea of living to that milestone despite their maladies?
Afterwards, acclaim and accolades came from all directions.
Daniel Webster, the former congressman, and Secretary of State to Presidents William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and Millard Fillmore, spoke of the deaths as a phenomenon; a “striking and extraordinary” coincidence—with evidence of “divine design at work.” Webster wondered how two events of such gravity would be absorbed by the country, because he considered the lives of Adams and Jefferson gifts from Providence.
Jefferson allegedly stretched his mortality by foregoing his usual dose of laudanum on the night of July 3. Strategically, the decision might have compromised his pain, and likely, torqued his will, in exchange for a few extra hours of existence—enough to nudge him into the Fourth.
In his eulogy, Virginia Governor John Tyler, the future 10th president, divulged that Jefferson had spoken often about his desire to die on July Fourth, implying—perhaps—that the timing of his—or their—denouements had not been wholly accidental.
Adams’s granddaughter reported that their doctor was administering an experimental medicine to her grandfather that would extend his life up to two weeks, or—extinguish it—within twenty-four hours:
“Even those quite unconnected to the deaths wondered if something more sinister, or planned, had been afoot.” (History.com news)
But, John Randolph, a Virginia planter, former congressman, and senator; friend and second cousin to Jefferson, balked—especially at the euthanasia scenario attributed to Adams:
“Euthanasia, indeed…They have killed Mr. Jefferson, too, on the same day, but I don’t believe it.”
After eighteen decades, supporters of the sinister scenario still dismissed the vanilla veracity on record. Then, in a 2005 piece for the Bulletin of the Historic Society, Margaret P. Battin mentioned a possible “silent conspiracy among physicians, family members and other caregivers to help their patient ‘make it’ to the 4th, where the effort came to an end once the day had been reached.”
Five years later, President James Monroe passed on July 4th; about that, the perplexed press could only postulate, “Again our national anniversary has been marked by one of those events, which it may be scarcely permitted to ascribe the chance.”
3. What is the nature of their last extant letters to one another?
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had a relationship that was complicated—and sometimes thwarted by—oversized personalities, tempestuous temperaments, and potent political convictions.
Early on, Adams and his wife, Abigail, had a cordial relationship with Jefferson, but after his wife, Martha, died in 1782, they formed a friendship, and hosted him in their home, frequently.
Adams later confided to him, “intimate Correspondence with you…is one of the most agreeable Events in my Life.” [sic].
But, within a few years, the friends would become fierce foes.
When Adams succeeded George Washington as president (1797-1801), Jefferson became his vice president; [the first and only time in which a presidential/vice presidential ticket was comprised of two different parties].
Adams was a Federalist, who favored a strong central government, while Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, preferred the governing powers to remain with the states.
It was a divergence neither could ditch.
As the 1800 election neared, Jefferson and his constituency revved up their rhetoric, activated the Adams animosity, and accused him of a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman;” meanwhile, the president and his allies predicted that a Jefferson victory would cause “chaos [to] envelop the country, complete with ‘dwellings in flames, female chastity violated, and children writhing on the pike.”
Jefferson carried most of the votes, but, just barely; despite their animosity, Adams and Jefferson continued to correspond until 1804; then, all communication stopped.
After his loss, Abigail and John left for Massachusetts without attending Jefferson’s inauguration; they did not intend to associate with him, ever again, but when Jefferson’s daughter, Polly, died in 1804, Abigail gave in to the “powerful feelings” of her heart, and sent him a note.
Jefferson responded affectionately, but not without reminding Abigail about her husband’s “personally unkind appointment” of the “midnight judges” at the end of his term; Abigail, always the loyal wife and partner, retorted with her own charge: he had condoned James Callender’s [newspaper editor, political writer] “lowest and vilest Slander” against John Adams.
Four more letters passed between them–without any deactivation of their differences.
Finally, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Founding Father, and a friend to Adams and Jefferson, orchestrated a reconciliation in 1812. The following year, with mutual trust restored, Adams wrote to Jefferson, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”
In their final 14 years, they exchanged 158 letters about politics, history, philosophy, family life, and the North-South fissures which foreshadowed the Civil War.