Earlier this year, a bill in the Louisiana Legislature that would have required school children to recite a portion of the Declaration of Independence each day failed to win approval. That seems a reasonable response to a legislative gimmick that attempted to micromanage how teachers and students spend their instructional day.
But that doesn’t mean the Declaration of Independence, a founding document of the republic we celebrate this Independence Day, isn’t worthy of study. In fact, the story of how that document came to be says much about the ideals of the men who signed it. We can learn a lot from them about character and compromise, two qualities sadly lacking in today’s political culture.
David McCullough lays out the tale of the Declaration’s origins in “John Adams,” his celebrated 2001 biography of the nation’s second president and prominent founding father.
Adams’ political rival, Thomas Jefferson, was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence. Years later, Adams recalled that Jefferson had proposed that he, Adams, write the document. As Adams tells it, he deferred to Jefferson, listing his reasons:
“Reason first: You are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write ten times better than I can.”
That’s not how Jefferson remembered the event. He simply recalled being asked by a committee of the founding fathers to take up his pen. “Possibly neither of their memories served, and possibly both were correct,” McCullough tells readers. “Jefferson may well have been the choice of the committee and out of deference or natural courtesy, he may well have offered Adams the honor.
Adams’ account of the Declaration’s beginnings is a reminder that America’s earliest leaders weren’t marble icons but rather human beings with their own egos and foibles. Adams’ story about the Declaration indulges a bit of self-congratulation — the noble Adams being asked to write the text, then magnanimously declining — but there’s authentic generosity toward Jefferson in his remarks, too.
Adams and Jefferson emerged as bitter political opponents, with Jefferson defeating Adams to become the nation’s third president. After years of estrangement, they became friends again in their final years, famously dying on the same day: July 4, 1826.
Jefferson died first that day, and an ailing Adams, not knowing of his passing, was heard to utter from his deathbed, “Thomas Jefferson survives.”
If two figures so different in outlook and disposition could reconcile, then maybe the political divides now frustrating our national life are not as wide and deep as we think they are. That’s the gift Adams and Jefferson have given us — the possibility of common ground, even when shared purpose seems hopelessly elusive.
Today, we celebrate the idea that Jefferson does indeed, survive, and Adams, too.