While July 4th is a day of celebration marking the day that the United States declared its independence from Great Britain, it is also a solemn day. In one of the most fascinating coincidences in U.S. history, three Presidents, who were Founding Fathers, died on July 4th: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe.
Jefferson, who served as the third President, died of illness on July 4, 1826 — the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence — at the age of 83 in Monticello, Virginia. He had been suffering from rheumatism and intestinal and urinary disorders. He was also enormously troubled that he was deeply in debt. His last words were “No, doctor, nothing more” as he refused medicine (laudanum) from his doctor.
Just five hours later, Adams, who served as the second President, died of illness at the age of 90 in Quincy, Massachusetts. At 90 years old, he was old, frail, and ill and suddenly collapsed in his reading chair. For the next few hours in was in and out of consciousness until he finally passed away. Unaware that Jefferson had died hours earlier, Adams’ last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” President John Quincy Adams (John’s son), observed that the timing of the death of these two former presidents, who had become close friends over the years, was “visible and palpable remarks of divine favor.” American statesman and lawyer Daniel Webster’s eulogy for these two revered men underscored the role of divine intervention: “The concurrence of their death on the anniversary of Independence has naturally awakened stronger emotions. It cannot but seem striking and extraordinary, that these two should live to see the fiftieth year from the date of that act, that they should complete that year, and that then, on the day which had fast linked forever their own fame with their country’s glory, the heavens should open to receive them both at once. As their lives themselves were the gifts of Providence, who is not willing to recognize in their happy termination, as well as in their long continuance, proofs that our country and its benefactors are objects of His care?” (Incidentally, it was Webster’s son, Noah, who published the first American dictionary in 1806 and the comprehensive American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828.) The editors of the New-York American (1895-1937) write an equally eloquent eulogy of this coincidence: “By a coincidence marvellous and enviable, Thomas Jefferson, in like manner with his great compeer, John Adams, breathed his last on the 4th of July. Emphatically may we say, with a Boston paper, had the horses and the chariot of fire descended to take up the patriarchs, it might have been more wonderful, but not more glorious. We remember nothing in the annals of man so striking, so beautiful, as the death of these two ‘time-honoured’ patriots, on the jubilee of that freedom, which they devoted themselves and all that was dear to them, to proclaim and establish. It cannot all be chance.”
Monroe, who served as the fifth President, died of tuberculosis, five years later on July 4, 1831 at the age of 73 in New York City. The following day, this remarkable coincidence was called a “coincidence that has no parallel” by a reporter from the New York Evening Post, the newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton; he wrote: “Three of the four presidents who have left the scene of their usefulness and glory expired on the anniversary of the national birthday, a day which of all others, had it been permitted them to choose [they] would probably had selected for the termination of their careers.”
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For further reading: John Adams by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster (2001)
Marilyn Johnson: The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries (2006)