Delegates to the 2nd Continental Congress originally pushed for Richard Henry Lee to write the Declaration of Independence. It was he who delivered the all-important resolution on June 1, 1776: “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States...”
Lee was appointed to the Committee of Confederation, assigned to write the Articles by which the fledgling nation would govern itself. Lee believed that two such committees were too much and, soon, he would be called home to care for a critically ill wife.
So it is that a committee of five were appointed to write the Declaration of Independence, including Massachusetts attorney John Adams, and a young Virginia delegate named Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson had no interest in writing the Declaration of Independence and suggested that Adams pen the first draft. Adams declined, and described the following conversation, in a letter to Massachusetts politician Timothy Pickering:
“Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, ‘I will not,’ ‘You should do it.’ ‘Oh! no.’ ‘Why will you not? You ought to do it.’ ‘I will not.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Reasons enough.’ ‘What can be your reasons?’ ‘Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.’ ‘Well,’ said Jefferson, ‘if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.’ ‘Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.”
Thomas Jefferson would spend the following seventeen days, writing the first draft. He and Adams had only just met during the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The two would develop a close personal friendship which would last for most of their lives.
The friendship between the two men came to an ugly ending during the Presidential election of 1800, in which the mudslinging from both sides rose to levels never before witnessed in a national election.
Jefferson defeated one-term incumbent Adams and went on to serve two terms as President of the United States. Upon Jefferson’s retirement in 1809, one of the Declaration’s signers, Dr. Benjamin Rush, took it upon himself to patch up the broken friendship between the two founding fathers.
Dr. Rush worked on this personal diplomatic mission for two years. In 1811, he finally succeeded.
There followed a series of letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, which together constitute one of the most comprehensive historical and philosophical assessments ever written about the American founding.
The correspondence between the pair touched on a variety of topics, from the birth of a self-governing Constitutional Republic, to then-current political issues, to matters of philosophy and religion and issues related to their advancing years.
Both men understood that they were writing not only to one another, but also to generations yet unborn. Each went to great lengths to explain the philosophical underpinnings of his views, Adams the firm believer in strong, centralized government, Jefferson advocating a smaller federal government which was more deferential to the states.
By 1826, Jefferson and Adams were among the very last survivors among the founding generation. James Monroe alone, would survive these two.
In an ending no fiction writer would dare put to paper, both men died on the same day, July 4, 1826. Fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic, they had helped to create. Adams was 90 as he lay on his deathbed, suffering from congestive heart failure. His last words were “Thomas Jefferson still survives”. There was no way of knowing. The author of the Declaration of Independence had died of a fever, five hours earlier at his Monticello home near Charlottesville, Virginia. Jefferson was 82.
John Adams son John Quincy was himself President at the time of the two men’s passing, and remarked that the coincidence was among the “visible and palpable remarks of Divine Favor”.
A month after the two men passed, Daniel Webster spoke of the pair at Faneuil Hall, in Boston.
“No two men now live, (or) any two men have ever lived, in one age, who (have) given a more lasting direction to the current of human thought. No age will come, in which the American Revolution will appear less than it is, one of the greatest events in human history. No age will come, in which it will cease to be seen and felt, on either continent, that a mighty step, a great advance, not only in American affairs, but in human affairs, was made on the 4th of July 1776″.