Jef­fer­son’s last pub­lic letter puts In­de­pen­dence Day in per­spec­tive

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Gre­gory S. Sch­nei­der

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.

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