July 4, 2010


John Adams Survives: His famous last words may be a myth, but the nation he helped found is a triumphant reality. (Paul Beston, 3 July 2008, City Journal)

While Jefferson’s precise last words are not well known, among them was some form of the question: “Is it the Fourth?” Adams’s final words were poetry itself: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Actually, Jefferson had died a few hours earlier, though of course Adams didn’t know that. The statement has echoed throughout the ages, carrying multiple levels of meaning that both men would no doubt have appreciated.

There’s only one problem: the evidence is that Adams didn’t quite get out all three words. According to historian Andrew Burstein, the “Thomas Jefferson survives” message was propagated by Adams memorialists in the weeks and months after the great man’s death, but they took some liberties. There was only one person known to have been with Adams when he died, Burstein tells us: Louisa Smith, the niece and adopted daughter of Adams’s late wife, Abigail. What she heard was “Thomas Jefferson” and then something unintelligible. Given the context, it’s quite possible that Adams was attempting to say “survives,” or something very like it, but we cannot know. Obviously his old comrade was on his mind, and that is remarkable enough. But “Thomas Jefferson survives” seems to be another of those tantalizing historical anecdotes based in truth and embellished by just a measure or two in the interest of creating a more perfect ending.

It seems difficult to avoid this tendency, then and now. We do it in our own lives, with our own stories. Some people so astonish us with their brilliance, courage, or goodness that paradoxically their deeds cannot be fully appreciated just as they are, but instead become absorbed into a broader canvas of composites and half-truths and flat-out tall tales. It’s almost as if we have to tell ourselves stories as a way of understanding the mere facts of their achievements.

Certainly, on top of all that they had already done, for Adams and Jefferson to have died in the way they did leaves mythology begging. As Ellis writes of their twin parting, “No serious novelist would ever dare to make this up. . . . Call it a miracle, an accident, or a case of two powerful personalities willing themselves to expire on schedule and according to script. But it happened.”

What’s continually remarkable about the American Revolution and the lives of the founders is how much is not made up, or even embellished.

[originally posted: 7/05/08]

Posted by at July 4, 2010 12:21 AM
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