Famous Last Words
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams
Charlottesville, Virginia; Quincy, Massachusetts
July 4, 1826
“Is it the fourth?” and “Thomas Jefferson…”
On the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, two of those who signed their names to it and who later became presidents of the United States, died within hours of each other.
Jefferson and Adams had a bitter rivalry throughout their lives, including a rather ugly presidential campaign. Jefferson’s campaign called Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Adams’ campaign retaliated by calling Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginian mulatto father.” The Federalist (the political party in which Adams belonged) press also used Jefferson’s liberal views to paint him as “an immoral atheist who supported the destruction of society and the rise of anarchy” and would try to bring the country under tyrannical power similar to Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign in France the year before. The Federalist press even went so far as to print a false report that Jefferson had died, hoping voters would refrain from electing him.
The two rivals continued to write to each other in their later years, corresponding several times a year with affection (though some claim this affection was satirical and more insulting than complimentary). They died within hours of each other, both glad to have seen the 50th anniversary of July 4, 1776. Adams final words are sometimes quoted as “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” not knowing Jefferson had died five hours before. The inconsistency in his last words are due to Adams whispering his final statement, and whatever was spoken after “Thomas Jefferson” was largely inaudible and subject to speculation.