July 4th, 1826. As his beloved nation celebrates 50 years of independence, a 90 year-old man lies dying. 50 years ago, he was instrumental in winning that nation its independence, but today, as he draws his final breaths, his final thoughts aren't of his nation, its independence, or of his own illustrious place in both; they're of his friend.
50 years ago, they stood together against the world's most powerful empire, declaring with one voice that they were endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
July 4th, 1776. A 40 year-old man stands in the Pennsylvania State House and nods approvingly. He has been instrumental in convincing his fellow members of the Second Continental Congress to declare independence from Great Britain, and now John Adams is watching his dream--the United States of America--come true.
"When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another." The words could not be more eloquent, the arguments could not be more persuasive, this Declaration of Independence could not be more perfect.
Adams smiles proudly at his friend, a 33 year-old firebrand named Thomas Jefferson. The words were Jefferson's, but the arguments were theirs together, and in one voice they had just started a revolution. Together, they had just won approval for one of the most significant documents in human history.
Though history would remember Jefferson as the author, it was Adams who persuaded their colleagues to allow him to write the original draft. Any misgivings over one of the youngest delegates assuming such a monumental task were assuaged by Adams' faith in him.
After America won its independence, the two grew even closer while serving as diplomats for the young nation in France. Yet theirs was a friendship as unusual as it was dear since their political philosophies were as different as could be imagined. Adams advocated for a strong federal government, while Jefferson supported more authority delegated to the states.
While Jefferson noted that they were often "separated by different conclusions we had drawn from our political reading," they remained the closest of friends. As Adams wrote to Jefferson, "correspondence with you...is one of the most agreeable events in my life."
July 4th, 1791. As his beloved nation celebrates 15 years of independence, a 55 year-old man stands in his office. Adams is that nation's first Vice President, and his good friend Jefferson is its first Secretary of State. They are as close as ever, and even their growing political differences in President George Washington's Cabinet can't shake their friendship.
Five years later, even running for President against each other can't shake their friendship. In America's first contested presidential election, Adams defeated Jefferson in what what was to be America's last presidential election that featured no mudslinging. As was the custom at the time, neither Adams nor Jefferson actively campaigned for the office and, as was the custom at the time, because Jefferson finished second in the race, he became Adams' Vice President.
But for the first time in their long friendship, their political differences would come between them.
When Adams signed the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts into law in 1798, Jefferson was appalled. He believed that the President, a Federalist, was abusing the office and trying to criminalize his Democratic-Republican Party and he all but abandoned the Adams Administration for his estate at Monticello, where he plotted to take his nation back from this new threat to liberty.
July 4th, 1800. A 64 year-old man paces nervously in his office. President Adams has just read the latest smear from his former friend: "Adams is a hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."
Jefferson's allies were merciless. For the first time in American history, a presidential election was turning bitter, nasty, and personal. Adams' allies called Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." What were once "different conclusions drawn from...political reading" were now outright slanders.
Adams was a tyrant. Jefferson was a coward. Adams was a criminal, Jefferson a weakling. Adams was a fool, Jefferson an atheist. When Jefferson finally won the Election of 1800 in a landslide, Adams retaliated by making last-minute appointments of men who Jefferson wrote "were from among my most ardent political enemies."
Politics had finally ended their friendship.
July 4th, 1811. As his beloved nation celebrates 35 years of independence, a 75 year-old man sits in his living room, thinking about a guest he has just had in his home--a neighbor of his old friend-turned-sworn enemy Thomas Jefferson. It's been two years since Jefferson followed Washington's example and retired from the Presidency after his second term, but Adams still can't forget about the ugliness of the 1800 Election.
Still, something is gnawing at him. Even after all of the ugliness, even after all of the political differences that somehow mutated into bitterly personal insults, he still misses his friend. And he had told Jefferson's neighbor "I always loved Jefferson, and still love him."
When Jefferson heard his neighbor say this, he wrote to one of his and Adams' old friends, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, to say "this is enough for me. I only needed this knowledge to revive towards [Adams] all of the affections of the most cordial moments of our lives."
When Dr. Rush relayed this to Adams with the message that Jefferson wanted to write him again, Adams was overjoyed and sent Jefferson a letter immediately. Jefferson sent one back, and the two resumed their friendship through hundreds of letters--discussing everything from their Revolutionary days to their time in France to politics to their families to their thoughts on aging and mortality.
Though politics had made them bitter enemies, their love and respect for each other made them friends again.
July 4th, 1826. As his beloved nation celebrates 50 years of independence, a 90 year-old man lies dying. 50 years ago, he pushed that nation toward its independence and persuaded a Congress to let his friend write the declaration. 35 years ago, he was that nation's leader and his friend was his Vice President. 15 years ago, that friend was his sworn enemy, but today, as he draws his final breaths, his final words are of his friend: "Thomas Jefferson survives."
Adams could not have known that Jefferson had died five hours earlier.
July 4th, 2017. Our beloved nation is once again divided over bitter, personal politics that have ended friendships by the thousands. Loyal opposition has become hostile resistance, while reasoned discourse has devolved into hateful tweeting.
Our beloved nation has unfriended itself.
Our President is a tyrant, his opponents are cowards. He is a criminal, his opponents weaklings. His supporters are fools, his detractors are anarchists, but all of us bear responsibility for giving into the temptation to see disagreement as dislike and opponents as enemies, even those we once considered friends.
We can pretend that this is unprecedented, that our President has never before abused his authority so dangerously or that his opponents have never before smeared him so viciously, but we can't escape the fact that hostility has been a hallmark of American politics almost since the dawn of American politics.
They have always been bitter, they have always been nasty, and yes, they have always been personal. There have always been those who seek to capitalize on this, to demonize instead of criticize, and to stoke the flames of hatred for political gain.
And there have always been friends who have fallen for it, there have always been friendships that have ended over it, and even our beloved nation's most beloved leaders have not been immune.
Yet the friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson survives--through the most bitter, nastiest, most personal of politics, it stands on July 4th, 2017 as it did on July 4th, 1826 as a poignant reminder that no friendship is immune, but all friendships are repairable.
On July 4th, 2017, we no longer send letters to mend our broken ties, but we can send a friend request. We can, like Adams and Jefferson, declare our independence from our own bruised egos and recognize that our politics don't have to be personal; that when we lie dying, as we breathe our last, our final thoughts won't be of our politics, they will be of our friends, because ultimately our relationships with one another are all that really matter.
On July 4th, 1826, as our beloved nation celebrated 50 years of independence, its last two surviving Founding Fathers, its last two surviving links to July 4th, 1776 breathed their last--not as bitter rivals, but as friends.
Friendship, not politics, was all that mattered. Friendship, not politics, was all that was remembered, because on both July 4th, 1826 and July 4th 2017, friendship--like Thomas Jefferson, survives.