July 4th is, of course, a day of celebration. But on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence it was a time of mourning, not just patriotic festivities. On July 4, 1826 signers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both passed away. Those two titans of America's founding had fought in word and deed for the freedom of the nation and they died with their last thoughts still devoted to their country.
John Adams was the first to die, although he did not know it. The second president of the United States woke that day and was asked to give a memorial toast. As Daniel Webster put it in his eulogy, "His mind seemed to glance back to the hour in which, fifty years before, he had voted for the Declaration of Independence, and with the spirit with which he then raised his hand, he now exclaimed, 'Independence forever.'"
Hours later, Adams fell into a stupor and was taken to bed. There, as his breathing became more difficult, he whispered to his nation the reminder that "Jefferson survives." Sadly, his onetime rival, fellow booklover, and friend of more than five decades had already passed away at his beloved home of Monticello.
Jefferson's passing was longer and more painful, however.
Popular legend has it that Jefferson's final words were, "Is it the Fourth?" He fought for two days to see once again that special day of remembrance of former acts of valor. But these were not his last words, although he did speak them.
His true last words were far more interesting.
The men who signed the Declaration called themselves Whigs in their war against Parliament. And one of the distinguishing characteristics of that band was a fundamental distrust of government and those in power. So it was with Jefferson—all the way to the end.
According to the best sources in his home, Jefferson did something curious in his final hours.
As he lay dying, he moved his hands as if he were writing furiously. He mumbled in delirium the ominous sentiments of an old and unrelenting freedom fighter: "Warn the committee to be on the alert."
It meant: "Be prepared and signal the other defenders of liberty." Always one step ahead, the Revolutionaries had proven too learned, too brave, and too cunning for the world's superpower Great Britain.
Jefferson proved on his deathbed what so many of those patriots had proven on the battlefield: Only death could stop them in their continuing struggle for liberty and shut the eyes that watched those in government.
Jefferson's final thoughts are a reminder to his posterity that vigilance must be eternal because elites and government never rest in their expansion of power.
As news of Jefferson and Adams' deaths swept across the nation in the time before the telephone and telegraph, Americans once again saw their country as singularly blessed among the nations. For 50 years they proved that a nation based on representation and the rule of law could offer unparalleled liberty and prosperity.
The death of Jefferson and Adams on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration amazed Americans. It was as if Providence were giving one final salute to the extraordinary men and spirit of 1776, by adding the sobering reality of the sacrifice needed to make and keep a nation free.