Why July 4, 1826 is my favorite Fourth of July

There are few thing more astounding and wonderful than the fact that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the Fourth of July 1826. At one time, the two men had been friends, that friendship broke apart, and in their later years was put back together.

Their friendship was almost completely torched by the election of 1800. This was also the election that first introduced us to “dirty politics.”

Consider this:

Negative campaigning in the United States can be traced back to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Back in 1776, the dynamic duo combined powers to help claim America’s independence, and they had nothing but love and respect for one another. But by 1800, party politics had so distanced the pair that, for the first and last time in U.S. history, a president found himself running against his VP.

Things got ugly fast. Jefferson’s camp accused President Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” In return, Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward. Even Martha Washington succumbed to the propaganda, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was “one of the most detestable of mankind.”


Back then, presidential candidates didn’t actively campaign. In fact, Adams and Jefferson spent much of the election season at their respective homes in Massachusetts and Virginia. But the key difference between the two politicians was that Jefferson hired a hatchet man named James Callendar to do his smearing for him. Adams, on the other hand, considered himself above such tactics. To Jefferson’s credit, Callendar proved incredibly effective, convincing many Americans that Adams desperately wanted to attack France. Although the claim was completely untrue, voters bought it, and Jefferson won the election.


Jefferson paid a price for his dirty campaign tactics, though. Callendar served jail time for the slander he wrote about Adams, and when he emerged from prison in 1801, he felt Jefferson still owed him. After Jefferson did little to appease him, Callendar broke a story in 1802 that had only been a rumor until then—that the President was having an affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. In a series of articles, Callendar claimed that Jefferson had lived with Hemings in France and that she had given birth to five of his children. The story plagued Jefferson for the rest of his career. And although generations of historians shrugged off the story as part of Callendar’s propaganda, DNA testing in 1998 showed a link between Hemings’ descendents and the Jefferson family.

Kerwin Swint, Mental Floss, The Magazine (last accessed July 4, 2015).

Do view this video, it is wonderful:

But true friendship can survive raw bitterness. Thus it was so between Adams and Jefferson:

Just as truth persists, however, so does friendship. Twelve years after the vicious election of 1800, Adams and Jefferson began writing letters to each other and became friends again. They remained pen pals for the rest of their lives and passed away on the same day, July 4, 1826. It was the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.


And so it was as the heat boiled up during the summer of 1826, a remarkable event occurred:

On July 4, 1826, at the age of 90, Adams lay on his deathbed while the country celebrated Independence Day. His last words were Thomas Jefferson still survives.* He was mistaken: Jefferson had died five hours earlier at Monticello at the age of 82.

This Day In History (last accessed July 4, 2015).

Some things are more important than others and that includes true friendship.


* The words attributed to Adams find no evidence in the historical records. That means absolutely nothing to me. I want to believe John Adams celebrated his old friend as Mr. Adams passed from this world. 

13 responses

  1. Judge, I would like to point out that John Adams was a tyrant. His blatant suppression of free speech and the press, the Sedition Act, and the imprisonment of those who criticized him, to me negates any contributions he may have made to the formation of our nation. He turned out to be a disgusting, hypocritical, pompous, self-important imperious ass.

  2. And the NYT has an essay today that Lincoln hated Jefferson both personally and politically ex writing the Declaration.

  3. Anony.,

    In my view there are good reasons for disliking Jefferson. His treatment of blacks, even at his death, is one example. His rejection of a strong central government in favor of the landed gentry is another.

    Jefferson was a grand writer who didn’t believe what he wrote. He was a brilliant man thus proving that brilliant people can and often are wrong headed in most of their endeavors.

    I take my bottom line from the greatest of all Presidents, Lincoln. That is, as the NYT author today concluded, “Lincoln was capable of understanding both the greatness and the limits of Thomas Jefferson . . . .” True enough.

    All the best.


  4. Jefferson could also be insincere, a false friend, and a bit of a poseur.

    He took money from the estate of his erstwhile neighbor Philip Mazzei and converted it for his own personal use. Mazzei’s widow really needed this money, and had to hound him for years to get it back.

    He made moves on his neighbor’s wife, while the neighbor was on a military expedition in the Alleghenies.
    Apparently walking into her room undressed.

    He would dine with any number of politicos who would be taken in by his charm and wit, only to be talked about and mocked by him behind their backs.

    George Washington was done with him shortly before his death when he learned of a letter Jefferson had written about him. It was published in Europe, and ridiculed Washington’s leadership and intelligence.

    He made dubious claims attesting to his own genius. Once he claimed to have taught himself to become fluent in Spanish on a trans-Atlantic crossing. His architectural talents were taken from the previously published works of Polladio.

    He spent money (that he didn’t have) like water. But I’m just being hypercritical.

    Reminds me a lot of some of our own modern day politicians. Remember he’s William “Jefferson” Clinton.

  5. You mean, the Framers’ Antonin Scalia? Our most notable “originalist” is not an originalist in practice.

  6. Jefferson’s body of work is a compelling testament to his genius.

    Mazzei was in Poland at the time. Owing to the War of 1812, he had no practical way of remitting the sales proceeds. But of course, lending the money to himself was incompatible with his fiduciary duties.

    Jefferson only spoke five other languages. It is not inconceivable that he could teach himself Spanish in three months, as it is structurally similar to French.

    He admitted to hitting on Betsey Walker. As for his being naked at the time, that is most likely an apocryphal claim.

  7. According to a blurb from the Federal Judicial Center (www.fjc.gov/jhistory/home.nsf/page/tu_sedbio_callender.html), Jefferson did not hire Callendar, but provided “occasional financial support.” Jefferson did aid him earlier (and in particular, with the pamphlet alleging that Alexander Hamilton had an affair with a married woman), but he was not “hired” during the campaign of 1800. In those days, the candidates themselves did not campaign for office.

    Should we believe the Federal Judicial Center, Judge Kopf??? 🙂

    In all likelihood, Callender would not have done jail time, if not for the overt misconduct of partisan Federalist judge Samuel P. Chase (for which he was impeached, and should have been convicted). It is hard to see how anyone could square certain portions of the Alien and Sedition Acts with the First Amendment.

    Callender was pardoned by Jefferson, but he was denied a postmaster’s job in his administration. The Hemings scandal was Callender’s revenge.

  8. The big difference today is with the 24 hour news cycle and the talking heads on the networks, it is all partisan politics all the time. Add in the improvement in redistricting technology that allows an even finer slice of the voters with the resulting disappearance of swing district and politicians who need the support of both parties and their seems to be fewer and fewer attempts at the bipartisan centrist compromises that a significant portion of the voters want (and those voters are mostly left to figure which of the two parties to blame since in the voting both you have to pick one or the other.

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