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How the Sixth President Responded to the Fateful and Mournful Events on the Golden Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

As America approaches its sestercentennial in 2026, it might be worth reflecting, on this, its 248th birthday, on our nation’s first major jubilee—the remarkable fiftieth anniversary of July 4, 1826. Occurring in the only presidential term of John Quincy Adams, this was a day marked by celebration—and mortality, when the deaths of great patriots spoke less to some strange coincidence than to what may have been an emphatic, divine punctuation mark to the course of human events that had been set in motion a half century earlier.

Formal celebrations that day at the Capitol would involve President Adams, Vice President John Calhoun, the Marine Band, prayers and processions, an oration by Washington lawyer, Walter Jones, and a reading of the Declaration of Independence. Amongst the dignitaries invited but unable to attend the festivities were the founding document’s three still-living signers, John Adams, the then-current president’s father, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Carroll.

The Maryland Founding Father would survive the day (Carroll died in 1832). His two compatriots, one the author of the profound document, the other its greatest advocate, would not.

With no telephone, telegraph, or internet, news of the deaths of Adams and Jefferson on America’s Golden Anniversary would not be known for several days. That they were aged—Adams, 90, Jefferson, 83—and ill was well established. But how close to the last breath?

Jefferson, in what may have been his final missive, cited the “sufferings of sickness” in his eloquent regrets to the festivities’ organizers:

I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations, personally, with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make, for our country, between submission and the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all.) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains, tinder which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.

On his deathbed, Jefferson is said to have stirred on July Third and mistakenly called out, “This is the Fourth!”—as if a finish line had been reached, releasing him of some commitment. Told no, he clung on to his soul through night and the morning of the anniversary. The Declaration’s author passed away at his Monticello home in Virginia in the early afternoon.

On his own deathbed in Massachusetts, John Adams, knowing his end was at hand, with the Independence Day roar of celebratory cannon coming through his windows, famously took some solace when he uttered, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Early that evening, Adams died.

His son, John Quincy, was, at that hour, at the Executive residence celebrating not only Independence Day, but also the 23rd birthday of his own son—another July Fourth imprint on this remarkable family. It wasn’t until July Sixth that news arrived of Jefferson’s death two days prior, prompting the president to write in his diary that this was “a strange, and very striking coincidence.”

What to do? After discussing precedents with aides, Adams wrote:

We now concluded that general orders to the army and navy would be proper and indispensable, and would reflect till to-morrow on the expediency of issuing a proclamation to the People— Govr. Barbour will prepare the order to the army—and Mr Rush in the absence of Mr Southard that to the Navy—And I prepared this evening the draft of a Proclamation.

But POTUS 6 changed his mind as he further contemplated what action to take, and declared “that no such paper should issue.”

It was a short-lived decision.

On the Eighth, troubling mail arrived from the Bay State, consisting of various correspondences, sent before the demise of his father, all declaring that the end was imminent for America’s second president:

One dated the 3d. from my brother Charles’s daughter, Mrs Susan B. Clarke, informing me that my father’s end was approaching—that she wrote me, because my brother was absent in Boston— That Dr Holbrook who was attending as his Physician thought he would probably not survive two days, and certainly not more than a fortnight.

Making plans to head to Massachusetts immediately, the president admonished himself:

The suddenness of the notice of my father’s danger was quite unexpected. Some weeks since my brother had written to me that he was declining, though not so as to occasion immediate alarm, and my intention had been to visit him, about the beginning of the next Month. I had flattered myself that he would survive this Summer and even other years.

Leaving Washington early on the Ninth, Adams had not yet reached Baltimore when the grim news arrived that indeed, on the Fourth, his father—who “had served to great and useful purpose his Nation, his Age, and his God”—was, like Jefferson, gone. To the President, this was not some act of chance. God’s hand—the same one that endowed unalienable right, as heralded in the Declaration—was to be found in this nexus of death and jubilee:

The time, the manner, the coincidence with the decease of Jefferson, are visible and palpable marks of divine favour, for which I would humble myself in grateful and silent adoration before the Ruler of the Universe— For myself all that I dare to ask is that I may live the remnant of my days in a manner worthy of him from whom I came, and at the appointed hour of my maker die as my father has died; in peace with God and man, sped to the regions of futurity with the blessings of my fellow men

In our current times, America’s “Chief Executive” relentlessly proves that title by issuing numerous “executive orders.” Adams, in his four years in office, from March 1825 until early 1829, saw the issuance of only one order. It remains an important one, and worthy of attention generations hence.

Issued on July 11th, the Executive Order on the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, scuttled a few days earlier, was a formal proclamation by the presidential son. As with his initial thoughts, the document took the military bearing of “General Orders,” and was formally issued by Secretary of War James Barbour. The proclamation combined two separate recognitions. The first focused on “our illustrious and venerated fellow-citizen, Thomas Jefferson” and drew immediate attention to its mix of heaven and earth:

This dispensation of Divine Providence, afflicting to us, but the consummation of glory to him, occurred on the 4th of the present month--on the fiftieth anniversary of that Independence the Declaration of which, emanating from his mind, at once proclaimed the birth of a free nation and offered motives of hope and consolation to the whole family of man. Sharing in the grief which every heart must feel for so heavy and afflicting a public loss, and desirous to express his high sense of the vast debt of gratitude which is due to the virtues, talents, and ever-memorable services of the illustrious deceased, the President directs that funeral honors be paid to him at all the military stations, and that the officers of the Army wear crape on the left arm, by way of mourning, for six months.

The executive order then turned to “another distinguished and venerated citizen”:

John Adams departed this life on the 4th of this month. Like his compatriot Jefferson, he aided in drawing and ably supporting the Declaration of Independence. With a prophetic eye he looked through the impending difficulties of the Revolution and foretold with what demonstrations of joy the anniversary of the birth of American freedom would be hailed. He was permitted to behold the verification of his prophecy, and died, as did Jefferson, on the day of the jubilee.

What to discern from these shocking dual deaths, on this of all days? The order gushed:

Yes, soldiers, in one day, almost in the same hour, have two of the Founders of the Republic, the Patriarchs of Liberty, closed their services to social man, after beholding them crowned with the richest and most unlimited success. United in their end as they had been in their highest aim, their toils completed, their hopes surpassed, their honors full, and the dearest wish of their bosoms gratified in death, they closed their eyes in patriot ecstasy, amidst the gratulations and thanksgivings of a people on all, on every individual, of whom they had conferred the best of all earthly benefits.

Such men need no trophies; they ask no splendid mausolea. We are their monuments; their mausolea is their country, and her growing prosperity the amaranthine wreath that Time shall place over their dust. Well may the Genius of the Republic mourn. If she turns her eyes in one direction, she beholds the hall where Jefferson wrote the charter of her rights; if in another, she sees the city where Adams kindled the fires of the Revolution. To no period of our history, to no department of our affairs, can she direct her views and not meet the multiplied memorials of her loss and of their glory. . . .

Bereaved yet happy America! Mourning yet highly favored country! Too happy if every son whose loss shall demand thy tears can thus soothe thy sorrow by a legacy of fame.

Action was required to solemnize the day. The order concluded:

The National flag shall wave at half-mast.

At early dawn thirteen guns shall be fired, and at intervals of thirty minutes between the rising and setting sun a single cannon will be discharged, and at the close of the day twenty-four rounds.

Surely, John Quincy Adams’ father would have applauded that. In the aftermath of the Declaration’s 1776 adoption, the elder Adams urged it “ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.” After prayer, festivity: “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”

For those who believe in fate and fated events, Adams’ death, along with that of Thomas Jefferson, on America’s Golden Anniversary, had an unworldly and . . . self-evident? . . . motivation, if only to remind us that what happened that day in Philadelphia, 248 years ago, indeed requires “a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”

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