Jefferson’s last public letter puts Independence Day in perspective
As the nation’s 50th anniversary Fourth of July approached in 1826, Thomas Jefferson was at one of the lowest points of his life.
The author of the Declaration of Independence turned 83 on April 13. Just two months before, his eldest granddaughter died after childbirth, after suffering abuse from her alcoholic husband.
Jefferson was in so much debt from mismanaging Monticello that he petitioned the state for permission to raise cash through a lottery. Virginia subjected the proposal to a humiliating debate. People felt embarrassed for the third president and sent donations. Jefferson was going to lose Monticello.
Worse, Jefferson suffered terrible health problems.
Amid all these burdens, Jefferson was aware of the approaching anniversary. Nostalgia was in the air. The era of the founding fathers was almost over, and the United States had been mired in a period of partisan disunity. Reverence for the Revolution was one thing everyone could agree on.
Roger Chew Weightman, the mayor of Washington, had big plans for the Fourth of July. He sent invitations to the three surviving signers of the Declaration — Jefferson; John Adams, 90; and Charles Carroll of Maryland,
88 — along with former presidents James Madison and James Monroe.
Monroe, Adams, Madison and Carroll declined for reasons of age and health. Jefferson was last to respond, and his problems were overwhelming him. There was no way he could attend, of course, but this was a moment. As old, sick, distraught and broke as he was, Jefferson couldn’t let it pass. Somehow in the letter he wrote back to Weightman on June 24, 1826, Jefferson found the words that gave shape to the cause of independence. He was flattered by the invitation, he wrote, and having to decline made being sick even harder to bear. He longed to meet once more with the men who created the Declaration on the line “between submission or the sword.”
The phrases that follow — odd punctuation and all — ring with passion as Jefferson defined the impact of that long-ago document:
“may it be to the world what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which Monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self government. the form which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.
“all eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born, with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of god. these are grounds of hope for others. for ourselves let the annual return of this day, for ever refresh our recollections of these rights and an undiminished devotion to them.”
And that, Charlie Brown, is what Independence Day is all about.
It went down in history as the last letter Jefferson ever wrote. As most Americans know, Jefferson died shortly after noon that July 4. A few hours later, his lifelong friend and sometime rival John Adams also died, with
“... The mass of mankind has not been born, with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of god. these are grounds of hope for others.” Thomas Jefferson, 1826
Jefferson’s name on his lips.
The almost unbelievable timing of their deaths resounded as an exclamation mark on the Revolutionary period, hailed by Daniel Webster and others as evidence of divine providence at the root of the nation.
Jefferson’s words to the mayor of Washington were reprinted far and wide, even emblazoned on silk scarves, as a reminder of what unites us beyond the divisions of the moment.