Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

This week (July 4) marks the anniversary not only of the birth of a new nation, but also of the death of two of that nation's founders, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

I knew I had to write about John Adams when I researched the Boston Massacre for my Paul Revere biography. Adams was well-known as one of Boston's leading patriots. He wrote fiery articles and spoke out eloquently against the British crown and especially against the presence of the hated "lobsterbacks" in Boston. Yet, after the massacre when the British soldiers and captain were tried for murder, it was Adams who defended them because he felt everyone--even the redcoats--deserved a fair trial. You have to admire a man with such a high regard for the law.

Adams' clear ideas and spirited writing brought him to the attention of the Continental Congress when it was time to write the Declaration of Independence. It must have been tempting to him, to write the words that would announce to the world the colonies' independence. Yet he argued that Thomas Jefferson should write it instead. His argument to his friend was simple: "You can write ten times better than I can." You have to admire a man who recognizes his limits as a writer.

I'd like to say that Adams and Jefferson remained lifelong friends. They didn't. They became bitter political rivals. Only as old men did they grudgingly set aside their feud.

On July 4th, 1826, John Adams died. His last words were, "Thomas Jefferson survives." But he was wrong. Jefferson had died a few hours earlier. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the country for which they both had fought so hard and of the document they both signed, the Declaration of Independence.

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