A Reason to Celebrate, to Mourn, and to Praise God
I just finished David McCullough’s John Adams, and I will admit I got a little choked up at the end, as I tend to do when reading the stories of very real people and reaching the inevitable conclusion that is the same for everyone. But this one was like no other.
John and Abigail Adams left the world an abundance of personal correspondence–enough for us to really get to know them–and McCullough wrapped it up nicely in a 700-page tome. The gift the Adamses left was a window into their very beings.
As I had learned before reading this book, Adams shared his day of departure from this world, in 1826, with two events of incredible significance to the United States: The fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the day his longtime friend turned adversary turned friend again, Thomas Jefferson, also passed away. While the young nation celebrated the Fourth of July, most of its people would be unknowing until several days later that they had lost not one, but two of its “founding fathers.” Perhaps the two most important ones.
Adams’ remarkable life ended after a remarkable amount of time: He was 90 years old, a man born in an eighteenth century that was short on medical truths and long on disease, the only president to reach that age until Herbert Hoover in 1964. Today, four more presidents have become nonagenarians: Ford, Reagan, Carter and George HW Bush. That Carter and Bush are still alive and have a reasonable chance of passing on the same day is a thought that has crossed my mind more than once. How would we react today if that were to happen?
- The news would explode on Facebook and televisions almost as soon as it was announced. Public statements from politicians would overlap each other, while staff at the White House would be working in a frenzy to be the first to release condolences.
- Flags would be ordered to half-staff, but for two weeks or more, a period of remembrance long after the second of two funerals.
- Magazine stands would be overcome by special editions remembering each man, and others paying tribute to them both, noting how and when their lives may have overlapped.
- Were such a thing to happen on Independence Day, we might have government buildings closed again on the fifth of July. Across the country, grief would blend with joy on the anniversary of the very day America was born.
Of course, both Carter and Bush left office quite a bit less popular than Adams and Jefferson. Neither was nearly as instrumental in making America what it is today. So it may just be impossible to imagine the feelings of 1826.
I do not mean to dwell on the age and mortality of our two most senior former presidents–I wish them continued longevity, and in the twenty-first century they are likely to have it. But it is said that the only certainties are death and taxes, and I will add that I am only preparing myself for still more inevitable conclusions to life stories.
According to legend, one of the last things that John Adams uttered as he lay dying, was:
Thomas Jefferson survives!
In fact, as the day July 4, 1826 began, he and Jefferson, with Charles Carroll, were the only men still alive who had signed the Declaration fifty years earlier. But at the time Adams proclaimed “Thomas Jefferson survives,” Jefferson had passed away a few hours prior. Personally, I believe he had just seen his old friend one last time, and may have thought it to be reality–or more accurately, the same kind of reality that those around him could see as well.
As McCullough says,
That John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had died on the same day, and that it was, of all days, the Fourth of July, could not be seen as a mere coincidence: it was a “visible and palpable” manifestation of “Divine favor,” wrote John Quincy [Adams] in his diary that night, expressing what was felt and would be said again and again everywhere as the news spread.
This John Adams biography is hailed as one of the very best on America’s statesmen. While I have not read very many yet to which to compare it, I am going to go ahead and agree. Of course it is not all about their final days, as this writing is, but about the incredible lives they lived. John Adams is really a biography of three former presidents, as it details much about Jefferson as well, and reveals the bond between John and his son, John Quincy, whom the father lived to see become the sixth President of the United States. Having outlived the wife he loved faithfully and most of his friends and family, John Adams had little else left to see. The fiftieth anniversary of 7/4/76, and the God that signed its product invisibly, called him home.