Two hundred and forty two years ago a resolution written by Thomas Jefferson and moved by John Adams passed the Continental Congress. It read, in part:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
I told this story at the Albania American Center in Tirana on Independence Day 22 years ago, in 1996. I first heard it on a Norman Corwin CBS radio broadcast when I was a kid. Americans need to remember it today.
The two leading men in the July, 1776 drama were personal friends and political rivals. They held fundamentally different views on government. Thomas Jefferson believed that people were ruled by reason and therefore democracy, based on the public’s reasonable reaction to events, should be unrestrained. John Adams believed that people were driven by passion, therefore democracy had to be tempered so passion did not overrun reason — or minority opinion.
Twenty four years after the declaration Adams and Jefferson fought America’s first truly contested U.S. presidential election. The election of 1800 was a nasty affair played out under the shadow of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Acts that restricted immigration and muzzled the press. In spite of those acts, for the first time in modern history a government peacefully changed hands because of a vote. But the campaign introduced negative advertising in the form of songs.
“The gloomy night before us flies, its reign of terror now is over, its gags, inquisitors and spies, its herds of harpies are no more.”…
No lordling here with gorging jaws shall ring from industry the food. No firy bigot’s holy laws shall waste our feelds and stream with blood.
Here strangers from a thousand shores, compelled by tyranny to roam, will find among abundant stores, a nobler and a happier home.
“Rejoice, Columbia’s sons rejoice, to tyrants never bend the knee, but join with heart and soul and voice for Jefferson and Liberty.”
It was familiarly nasty, and the issues were the same as today, immigration, accepting asylum seekers and freedom of the press.
But we came through it. The clash of ideas made our nation stronger at the cost of the ending Jefferson’s and Adams’ friendship.
After a few years a mutual friend, Benjamin Rush, got them writing to each other. He told each that the other wanted reconciliation. They never met again but exchanged letters restating their arguments for all of us to consider.
Jefferson wrote: “Reason is the helmsman who steers our barque.” Adams replied: “but passion is the wind that drives her forward.”
July 4th, 1826, Fifty years to the day after Jefferson wrote and Adams moved the Declaration of Independence both men died, Jefferson in Virginia and Adams in Massachusetts. Jefferson’s last words were “Is it the 4th?” Several hours later Adams suffered a seizure after attending the Independence Day celebrations in Quincy MA. His last words were “Jefferson still lives.”
Historian Joseph Ellis wrote “He was wrong at the moment but right for the ages.”
In 1996, after telling this story at the Albanian July 4th celebration, a delegate to their constitutional convention asked me who was right, Jefferson or Adams? I told him both were right because both were necessary for liberal democracy to work. “When Albania, or any country, learns this lesson it will be ready for Democracy.”
My fear is, especially listening to the news these last few monhts, that we Americans have forgotten this, both world views are valid and both world views are necessary.
This Independence Day let’s celebrate the give and take that makes America possible, and seal it with an Independence Day toast. In the words of our second president John Adams; After 242 years “Jefferson still Lives.”