Jefferson Still Survives

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Burstein is the author of America's Jubilee.

This article was first published on HNN in March 2002.

Too good to be true? On July 4, 1826, the very day on which America celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Independence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died. While this fact - dramatic enough - is beyond dispute, the ninety-year-old Adams's last words as they have come down to us,"Jefferson survives," seem a bit too perfectly constructed. Yet no historian ever questioned them.

11I framed my book America's Jubilee (Knopf, 2001) around this mystery. While I tell the stories of a range of Americans with strong connections to 1776, examining myths we have inherited that the nostalgic sons and daughters of the Revolutionaries produced, the Adams-Jefferson legend demanded particular attention. Who was at the dying patriarch's bedside, I wondered? Who publicized his reputed last words?

11The answers make sense, but still they surprised me. First-term Massachusetts Congressman Edward Everett was the first eulogist, less than a month after the jubilee celebration, to declare of Adams:"... when, toward the hour of noon, he felt his noble heart growing cold within him, the last emotion which warmed it was, that 'Jefferson still survives.' But he survives not; he is gone. Ye are gone together!" Nine days later, Salem, Massachusetts postmaster Joseph Sprague was the second to publicly proclaim:"…his last words show that when he was sensible that the scene was closing, his thoughts still lingered on this subject [Independence] - 'JEFFERSON SURVIVES.' This is unquestionably the translation of this sentence: 'I am going - but Jefferson, he who acted with me on the great day of our country's deliverance, outlives me.' Heaven, however, had otherwise ordered it." The first posthumous biography of Adams, published in 1827 by Washington, D.C. Judge William Cranch, repeated the"last words." So have numerous chroniclers across generations - all the way up to David McCullough. Adams's ironic"last words" are irresistible.

Now for some sleuthing. John Quincy Adams, president at the time of his father's death, left Washington shortly after he learned of the old man's failing health, but arrived home only on July 17. He wrote in his diary on July 21 what he had learned about the events of July 4:"About one afternoon [1 pm] he said 'Thomas Jefferson survives,' but the last word was indistinctly and imperfectly uttered. He spoke no more." So, Adams did mention Jefferson on his deathbed, but the word"survives" may have been supplied.

Further investigation turned up the one and only person known to have been present when Adams last spoke: Louisa Smith, the never-married, fifty-three-year-old niece and adopted daughter of Abigail Adams. Smith at some point told the wife of Boston's mayor"that the last words he distinctly spoke was the name 'Thomas Jefferson.' The rest of the sentence he uttered was so inarticulate, that she could not catch the meaning. This occurred at one o'clock - a few moments after Mr. Jefferson had died." This quotation is drawn from a footnote in the unheralded 1861 memoir of Eliza Quincy, the mayor's wife. And that, apparently, is all there is.

"She could not catch the meaning." But patriots who were not embittered partisans could not leave the coincidence of Adams's and Jefferson's perfectly timed deaths alone. Edward Everett was politically in the Adams camp, but he was also a correspondent of Jefferson; they wrote respectfully to one another about shared scholarship. Postmaster Sprague, the other eulogist, was a New Englander who stood in the minority insofar as he lived in Adams territory but campaigned for Jefferson, whom most of his neighbors despised. William Cranch, though a nephew of Abigail Adams, was appointed to the bench by President Jefferson at a time when Adams and Jefferson were politically at odds. Other New England eulogists said little of Jefferson when they mourned the loss of Adams. These three men - Everett, Sprague, and Cranch - were uniquely able to appreciate the Virginian's virtues. That they would all willfully link the spirits of the two dying founders, so that their hearers or readers could marvel at providential possibilities, makes sense in the context of the time: Romantic truths, for their generation, often supplanted historical facts.

But today, standards are different. So we must be careful before accepting at face value the parables passed down by early American storytellers - even if they were distinguished public men. It does not appear that Louisa Smith, or even John Quincy Adams, embellished the truth of John Adams's last words. Still, the Adams clan was very likely complicit in the dissemination of"Jefferson survives." Everett spoke with dramatic purpose. Sprague's convoluted explanation -"This is unquestionably the translation of this sentence…" - suggests that he knew he was playing fast and loose with the facts. So when the jurist Cranch wrote his biography, he had precedent on which to draw.

On the morning of July 4, 1826, John Adams was fully conscious that he had awakened to the day of America's national jubilee. He received a local clergyman, who was preparing a celebratory address, and gave him a festive sentiment for the crowd:"Independence forever!" At one point a few hours later, drifting in and out of consciousness, alert or delirious, Adams gave voice to the name of Jefferson, his onetime political enemy but the favorite correspondent of his later years. What he was thinking, what he was trying to say, cannot be known for certain. And we should leave it at that, though we would prefer to fill in the blank.

There are always lessons to be learned. Popular biographers constantly rewrite history, infusing their stories of the past with both conscious and unconscious invention. Storytellers who fancifully recast memory sell more copies of their books than diligent historians. History is best loved when it is most thrilling. Emotional extravagance continues to define our taste for history: it is impossible to turn on the television these days without someone spinning a tale about"heroes." We are demanding that there be more - indeed, we are asking for guidance - each time we fill in the blank.

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John H. Lederer - 6/29/2004

So within 10 days of his death a contemporary says that Adams said "Jefferson survives". One person, known in writing to have been at his dying says he said "Thomas Jeffeson -----" but did not hear the last word clearly.

Was there anyone else there who might have caught the last word? Maybe someone better of hearing or on the other side of Adams? Apparently we do not know, and on that basis the writer concluded that this is a myth?"


Kathleen Sheldon - 3/21/2002

Jefferson himself has been widely misquoted - see Spurious Jefferson Quotes, where they say that Jefferson is often credited with saying things that he did not:
Most widely quoted, even appearing on the envelope of the American Civil Liberties Union, is "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance," or some variation of that. The closest quote from Jefferson is probably from a letter he wrote to William T. Barry in 1822: "Very many and very meritorious were the worthy patriots who assisted in bringing back our government to its republican tack. To preserve it in that will require unremitting vigilance." And to connect this to the plagiarism issue, this in turn was probably drawn from a speech given by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, John Philpot Curran, in a speech he gave on the Right of Election in 1790:
"The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal
vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the
consequence of his crime, and the punishment of his guilt."