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Two founders died on nation's 50th birthday

Guest Commentary by Christopher Young

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Americans celebrated July 4, 1826, with parades, prayers, oratory, singing and a reading of the Declaration of Independence. During the course of the day, they would have engaged in an early American ritual: the raising of a glass to people and events, both past and present.

Like his fellow citizens, Major Larkin of Portsmouth, N.H., participated in the various toasts made during the day. On this day, in this New England town, a total of 29 toasts were made.

After the 23rd toast, Major Larkin stood up to make his own. Looking upon friends and neighbors, with glass in the air, he said: "Adams, Jefferson and Carroll, the three surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence."

Little did Major Larkin know, or anyone else enjoying the festivities that day throughout the republic, that by the time the nation's jubilee would come to a close that evening, only one signer of the Declaration of Independence would remain alive -- Charles Carroll of Maryland. For Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the 50th anniversary of American Independence was their last day among the living.

As the momentous day approached, 83-year-old Jefferson lay dying in his bed at Monticello. Moving in and out of consciousness, he would occasionally ask if the Fourth had arrived.

At one point during the night the author of the Declaration of Independence experienced a hallucination associated with his revolutionary past. In a state of delirium, he had called out, "Warn the Committee [of Safety] to be on alert." Jefferson's physical misery came to an end at 12:50 p.m., almost the exact time that the Declaration of Independence had been presented to Congress 50 years earlier.

Earlier that same day, 90-year-old Adams woke up for the last time. During the course of the morning, a member of the community visited the former revolutionary and president, and asked if he would like to propose a toast for the Fourth of July. Adams declared, "Independence forever!"

Later that day, he too lay dying. Remarkably, at nearly the same time that Jefferson died, more than 500 miles to the north, in Quincy, Mass., Adams clearly pronounced the name of his friend, "Thomas Jefferson." By evening, John Adams, the old patriot, was dead.

"Adams and Jefferson are no more," cried Daniel Webster a month later. While their names "were on all tongues, they took their flight together to the world of spirits."

Years earlier, Benjamin Rush, a friend to both Adams and Jefferson, had dreamed that the "North and south poles of the American Revolution" would be reunited in friendship and would together sink "into the grave nearly at the same time."

And so it was.

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