On this 238th 4th of July celebration of independence it is good to remember a man important in bringing it about: John Adams.
He has been neglected by history: his better known friend, Thomas Jefferson, reaping most of the credit for the stirring words in our Declaration of Independence. But it was Adams in May and June of 1776 who seconded early resolutions of Richard Henry Lee alleging that the colonies should be free.
Adams' development of legal and political theory helped to pave the way for the final Declaration. He served on the committee to draw it up but was best remembered by his contemporaries as a giant in debate, a towering figure who stood courageously and argued for its adoption among the members of the Continental Congress - a risky position for all who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Jefferson, disliking confrontation and with a poor speaking voice, was content to let Adams do the hard job of "selling" the Declaration.
Adams knew how important the Declaration was: On July 2, 1776 he wrote to his wife, Abigail:
"The second day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."
It took two more days of discussion and changes to the draft of the Declaration before the Continental Congress approved and published it.
Adams then turned to heading up the War Ordnance Board, taking on the thankless task of persuading reluctant colonies to send money, arms, and supplies to the rag-tag Continental Army - ably commanded by Washington.
It was, in fact, Adams who had suggested and nominated Washington as Commander-in-chief of the Continental Armies.
Adams served during the war as a diplomat to France along with Franklin and Jefferson trying to get assistance from the French government. After great efforts he obtained a desperately-needed loan from the Dutch to procure arms and supplies for the struggling Continental Army. He made multiple trips across the Atlantic Ocean in bad weather in his war-time diplomatic service.
He was pursued by British warships on one crossing, participated in a fight with a warship, bore arms, himself, in the naval conflict. Once, frustrated by the delays of ship travel in a final leg of a journey to France he rode a pack animal over the Pyrenees mountains of Spain in order to speed his mission to Paris. Adams endured long absences from his wife and family who were in danger from British warships located just off-shore from the family homestead which lay but a mile from the coast.
And when the conflict was over and miraculously the Americans had won, Adams helped negotiate the peace with Great Britain, zealously protecting key American interests.
Adams' presidency, as our second president, was not viewed as a success. The discord of rising political parties, the Alien and Sedition Acts seemed to tarnish Adams' earlier reputation as a champion of liberty.
Jefferson, his earlier friend and mentor to his son, turned political enemy resorting to newspaper slander to besmirch Adams. Adams was successful, however, in laying the foundation for a strong navy and in avoiding America's involvement in a war between England and France. Through it all Adams stayed a faithful champion of America.
In later years Adams rekindled his friendship with Jefferson as they exchanged letters and reminisced about those heady times in the birth of America, forgetting their earlier bitter political differences. Adams lived long enough to see his son, John Quincy become President of the United States.
As the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence approached in 1826 officials from many cities in America were anxious to have the most famous last two living singers of the Declaration attend their festivities. Unfortunately, both Jefferson, at age 83, and Adams, 90, were no longer well enough to travel for those events.
On June 20, 1826 a small delegation visited Adams at his home in Quincy, Mass. The Quincy town fathers wanted Adams to give them a toast they could read at the Quincy celebration on the 4th of July.
Adams replied: "I will give you: "Independence forever." When asked if he would not like to add something more he said:
"Not a word."
On July 4th, 1826 at approximately 6:20 p.m. he passed away. He is purported to have said: "Thomas Jefferson survives." in one of his last utterances. He had no way of knowing that his fellow patriot had died at 1 p.m. that same afternoon.
So as John Adams urged us to do: it is a day to celebrate and his toast is eternal:
J. Merle Parsons