When founding fathers and former presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died just hours apart on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of their signing of the Declaration of Independence, their final words were recorded for posterity.
The last words of Adams concerned the fact that Jefferson survived him. “Thomas — Jefferson — still surv —” is the way his deathbed observation is recorded in history books. Though accurate, the remark was only temporarily so, as things turned out.
For his part, Jefferson seemed to want to make sure he was checking out on the anniversary of an event destined to be programmed into the national consciousness for all time. The final words of the man who drafted the Declaration of Independence were, “This is the Fourth?”
Now that Independence Day is upon us, that would be my question as well. This is the Fourth of July weekend already? Seems like only last week we were appeasing the snow gods by rearranging the snow in our dooryards yet again while longing for opening day of the black fly and baseball seasons and the ageless “play ball” command of the home plate umpire.
Now you tell me the hours of daylight are beginning to wane and the fat lady is warming up in the wings in preparation for her Labor Day curtain closer? Surely you jest. I realize that time is said to be the thief we cannot banish. But seriously, my merry band of fellow travelers, whatever happened to the first six months of the year?
Not that it matters a whole lot. You play the hand that’s been dealt, and this weekend the cards come in shades of red, white and blue. What better time to contemplate the turbulent days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776?
Not everyone in the colonies was hot to sever ties with Mother England. The Tories, loyalists to the core, feared they had much to lose and little to gain in any divorce proceeding. The Whigs and their supporters, marching to the beat of a different drummer, were impatient to break free of any allegiance to the British Crown. The internal conflict simmered, the plot thickened.
It took a fair amount of talking and more than a few clandestine meetings before a sufficient number of patriots had signed on to have a go at this revolution thing. And there was no better talker in the cause of independence than all-America oratorical bomb thrower Patrick Henry of Virginia, who urged his peers to show some backbone if they wished to be free to enjoy the fruits of their nation-building labor. This was no time to be wimps or wusses, Henry cautioned delegates to the Virginia Convention in March of 1775.
It was fight, or “basely abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged,” he suggested, in beseeching his contemporaries to get with the program. Their brothers were already in the field, and the next gale sweeping down from the north would bring to their ears the crash of resounding arms, he warned. “Why stand we here idle?” he asked. And than came the great sound bite that forever will be associated with the name Patrick Henry: “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”
The rest is, quite literally, history — a significant slice of history which a great nation, a bit down in the dumps at the moment, but up to the challenge of getting back on its feet, celebrates this weekend by paying homage to the visionary founding fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence 235 years ago.
The late historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote of that enduring document, “The beauty and cogency of the preamble, reaching back to remotest antiquity and forward to an indefinite future, have lifted the hearts of millions of men and will continue to do so.”
The words of the declaration are “more explosive than the atom” and “more revolutionary than anything written by Robespierre, Marx or Lenin,” Morison suggested, mentioning three names not often cited when talk turns to the Declaration of Independence. His opinion was that the document stands as a “continual challenge to ourselves as well as an inspiration to the oppressed of all the world.” On this holiday weekend that assessment rings true.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.