James Monroe, the fifth American president, died on July 4, 1831, at the age of 83, the last of the Founding Fathers to be president.
But the bigger coincidence is what happened five years earlier, on July 4, 1826, exactly five decades after the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, approved the Declaration of Independence.
John Adams, the second president, and Thomas Jefferson, the third, died within hours of each other and, the story goes, the last words uttered by Adams were “Thomas Jefferson survives.”
But did that really happen?
Jefferson and Adams came from different worlds — the former an aristocrat from Virginia, the latter a New Englander — and had different philosophies about the size and power of the federal government as well as the shape of the economy. Still, according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, they became close friends in 1775 at the Continental Congress and worked together to draft the Declaration of Independence. They spent time together in France and England when they both served as U.S. diplomats.
The friends became rivals during the presidential election of 1796. Jefferson wound up serving as vice president when Adams was president, though not because they were on the same political ticket. At the time the man who got the most votes was president and the man who got the second-most votes was vice president.
Their friendship suffered over politics, and the two men stopped writing to each other, though that practice resumed in 1812 when both were retired from politics. According to a website devoted to John Adams, they wrote 380 letters to each other over five decades that reveal an extraordinary intellectual conversation that delved into government, religion, philosophy and other issues, including those affecting their personal lives. They have been collected in a single volume.
On July 4, 1826, both men were at the end of their lives. Adams, who was 90 years old, woke up at his Boston home and was visited by a clergyman. According to the History News Network, Adams gave him a message for a celebratory crowd the clergyman would address later that day, “Independence forever!” He died several hours later, and his eulogizers said that his last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives” or “Jefferson survives.” Actually, Jefferson had passed away about five hours earlier at the age of 83, but Adams didn’t know that.
According to this piece by historian Andrew Burstein, there was one person known to have been present when Adams said his last words. She was Louisa Smith, the 53-year-old niece and adopted daughter of Adams’s wife, Abigail. The Burstein story says:
Smith at some point told the wife of Boston’s mayor “that the last words he distinctly spoke was the name ‘Thomas Jefferson.’ The rest of the sentence he uttered was so inarticulate, that she could not catch the meaning. This occurred at one o’clock — a few moments after Mr. Jefferson had died.” This quotation is drawn from a footnote in the unheralded 1861 memoir of Eliza Quincy, the mayor’s wife. And that, apparently, is all there is.
But Adams eulogists told a different version.
First-term Massachusetts Congressman Edward Everett was the first eulogist, less than a month after the jubilee celebration, to declare of Adams:”… when, toward the hour of noon, he felt his noble heart growing cold within him, the last emotion which warmed it was, that ‘Jefferson still survives.’ But he survives not; he is gone. Ye are gone together!” Nine days later, Salem, Massachusetts postmaster Joseph Sprague was the second to publicly proclaim: “… his last words show that when he was sensible that the scene was closing, his thoughts still lingered on this subject [Independence] — ‘JEFFERSON SURVIVES.’ This is unquestionably the translation of this sentence: ‘I am going — but Jefferson, he who acted with me on the great day of our country’s deliverance, outlives me.’ Heaven, however, had otherwise ordered it.” The first posthumous biography of Adams, published in 1827 by Washington, D.C. Judge William Cranch, repeated the “last words.” So have numerous chroniclers across generations — all the way up to David McCullough. Adams’s ironic “last words” are irresistible….… John Quincy Adams, president at the time of his father’s death, left Washington shortly after he learned of the old man’s failing health, but arrived home only on July 17. He wrote in his diary on July 21 what he had learned about the events of July 4: “About one afternoon [1 pm] he said ‘Thomas Jefferson survives,’ but the last word was indistinctly and imperfectly uttered. He spoke no more.” So, Adams did mention Jefferson on his deathbed, but the word”survives” may have been supplied.
Or may not have been supplied.
As for Jefferson’s last words, that it not entirely clear either.
According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s Monticello website, three men wrote accounts of Jefferson’s final days: Robley Dunglison, the attending physician; Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s grandson; and Nicholas Trist, the husband of Jefferson’s granddaughter, Virginia Randolph.
They said that on July 3, Jefferson slept during the day at his Virginia estate, Monticello, and then woke up in the evening, apparently thinking it was the next day. Dunglison said that Jefferson asked him, “Is it the Fourth?” He responded: “It soon will be.”‘
Trist recorded Jefferson as saying, “This is the Fourth?” Trist nodded, pretending that it was.
Randolph recorded that Jefferson woke and simply stated, “This is the Fourth of July.” At about 9 p.m., Jefferson refused to take medicine, and Randolph wrote that the former president said, “No doctor, nothing more.” Jefferson fell back asleep and at about 4 a.m., according to Randolph, he called out to his servants and talked to them. No one recorded what those words were. A story on the Monticello website says:
In summary, Jefferson’s last words are lost; one supposes they were farewells to the household staff. His last recorded words are “No, doctor, nothing more.” But these are perhaps too prosaic to be memorable. “Is it the Fourth?” or “This is the Fourth of July” have come to be accepted as Jefferson’s last words because they contain what everyone wants to find in such deathbed scenes: deeper meaning.
(Correction: Fixing date of presidential election in which Adams became president and Jefferson vice president.)