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The Glorious Fourth

Benjamin Franklin (left), John Adams (center) and Thomas Jefferson (right), meet to review a draft of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris - Oil on canvas
Library of Congress
Benjamin Franklin (left), John Adams (center) and Thomas Jefferson (right), meet to review a draft of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.


Michigan was part of the nation’s outback during the War of Independence. And most of the inhabitants probably liked that just fine. Battlefields are nice places to study, but from what I have seen, no place you’d want to be close to at the time.

Today, there will be speeches urging us to remember that we are all Americans. Some will scold those who are making our government’s present policies, or those who attack them.

Others will say that Americans should be united, just as they were in the days of George Washington and Valley Forge.

But what most people don’t realize is that a substantial minority of Americans at the time – possibly as high as 40 percent -- didn’t want independence. They were called loyalists, or Tories, and a fair number left for Great Britain or Canada, after the other side won the war. Naturally, that left the patriots with no one to bicker with except themselves, which they soon began to do.

President Washington wanted to avoid having political parties. That lasted about five minutes.

Which brings me to my favorite Fourth of July story, one with a moral we can perhaps learn from. It began on the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, and ended exactly 185 years ago today. Two of the founding fathers were, of course, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They were good buddies on July 4, 1776, when they signed the declaration. Later, however, they each became leaders of the first two political parties.

They ran against each other for president. Adams beat Jefferson the first time. Jefferson beat Adams the second time. Adams was so mad, he became the only president ever to leave town before Inauguration Day. By then the men hated each other, and didn’t speak for years. But then a funny thing happened.
One day, Adams wrote to Jefferson. In elegant, 18th century language, he basically said, “I think you are still pig-headed, but at least you knew how to write well, unlike these whippersnappers today.”


Jefferson wrote back. Basically, he still thought Adams had been a disaster. But at least you knew what the Revolution was about, unlike these kids today. They couldn’t have gone through what we did could they, one man wrote. Heck no, the other said.
Almost all of the rest of the founders were dead. The two old lions forgot their differences, and letters flew back and forth about their families and the old days.

Then Adams got sick. He wanted to make it to July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of American Independence. That afternoon, he opened his eyes. “Is it the Fourth?” They told him, and he smiled. “Thomas Jefferson survives,” he said, and died happy.

What he didn’t know was that off in Virginia, Jefferson had died on the same day, two hours before. Americans at the time saw those twin deaths on the great anniversary as a sign from heaven.

What I think it means is that almost two centuries and innumerable wars and generations later, we should all take a moment to celebrate what we’ve accomplished.

Then, we should go back to think about how we can go on trying to make the American dream just a little bit better.