60 is Not the New 40

Happy Holiday Weekend – Independence Day 2015

American Independence Day is a great, dramatic story. Here are its bare bones.

Thomas Jefferson, just 33 years old in the year of 1776, resisted writing the Declaration of Independence. He was John Adams' choice and Adams prevailed.

Quoting Adams' later recollection, John Meacham, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2013 biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, includes this exchange between the two men:

“You should do it,” Jefferson said.

“Oh! no.”

“”Why will you not? You ought to do it.”

“I will not.”


“Reasons enough.”

“What can be your reason?”

“Reason first,” [said Adams] 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.”

“Well, if you are decided. I will do as well as I can.”

“Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.”

Not that it was Jefferson's document alone. Among his influences were Locke, Montesquieu, philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adams, of course, and Benjamin Franklin took on some editing, contributing the phrase, “self-evident.”

According to Adams, says Meacham, delegates to that Continental Congress in Philadelphia, cut large passages including those condemning the people of England and a denunciation of the slave trade – all in all about one-sixth of Jefferson's document was removed.

The Declaration was ratified by the Congress on 2 July and when, six days later it was read aloud in front of the statehouse in Philadelphia, the crowds cheered, “God bless the free states of North America.”

Meacham tells us that the men in that muggy statehouse room with horse flies “bedeviling...the silk-stockinged legs of honorable members” knew, of course, that with their signatures, they had committed themselves to a treasonous course of action and what its consequences might be:

”Jefferson loved the story of an exchange between the fat Benjamin Harrison of Virginia and the wispy Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. 'Gerry, when the hanging comes, I shall have the advantage; you'll kick in the air half an hour after it is all over with me.'”

As we know, after a bloody awful war, things turned out differently and here we are celebrating this great, important document again, this beacon of personal freedom (even if we do not quite live up to it these days), on its 239th birthday. Meacham again:

”...the author of the document saw his words as sacred. Describing the desk on which he wrote the declaration, Jefferson later said: 'Politics as well as religion has its superstitions.

“'These gaining strength with time may one day give imaginary value to this relic for its association with the birth of the Great Charter of our Independence.'”

Here is that desk which lives nowadays in the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution:


Most American schoolchildren in my day were required to memorize the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

You can read the rest of it here.

It is fitting that on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1826, Thomas Jefferson died at his home in Virginia at 12:50PM. For me, it is an astounding and pitch-perfect coincidence that John Adams died on the very same day in Massachusetts at 6:20PM.

Adams's last words were recorded at his bedside as “Jefferson survives.” He died not knowing his old friend and rival had preceded him by just a few hours.

* * *

Now. Because backyard barbecues on the Fourth of July are as traditional as parades and fireworks, here, for some fun and silliness, are those Tiny Hamsters again, this time having a Tiny BBQ for Independence Day.

Enjoy the holiday weekend, everyone.


Thank-you for writing about Thomas Jefferson. My husband, Mr. Bruce, is a Jefferson fan... Or whatever is the proper word. In fact, I am looking at a picture of Jefferson.

My 4th celebrate includes watching the 1776 movie several times. I know it's a movie, not a documentary, but I love the spirit and songs in it.

Happy Independence Day to everyone here.


Happy Independance Day! Great column!

With all the bi-partisanship, and dare I say out and out hatred, can you imagine what would happen if such documents as the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution had to be written today. We would all still be speaking English.

Thank you Bruce Cooper for hitting the proverbial nail on the head! :) We are so blessed to be Americans even along with most of the clowns in D.C. Have a wonderful holiday, everyone. Dee

Forgive me for splashing some cold water on the celebration. Years ago, when the NY Times started printing a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence in their paper on the 4th [maybe they still do?], I, being a devotee of the 18th century, decided I would decipher the whole thing for once [having never been taught to memorize any portion of it--]. And discovered, to my horror, a mention of the "Indian savages." Yes, I am aware that that was then, this is now. Yes, I know the pending dangers facing the young colonies. Yes, I know that there was danger from within the country as well as outside it. I know all that.

But the thought that everyone NOW seems just to skim over that bit distressed me then and continues to do so. When the NPR commentators, very early this morning while I was waiting for my Y to open, intoned the entire thing, I kept waiting -- and there the line came, and that was that.

At the time I read the Times facsimile so carefully, I was younger and a good deal more of an activist, so I wrote a letter to the Times editor and complained - particularly about the lack of awareness that just has us overlook such slurs without even a comment. The Times did not publish the letter. But the facsimile did not appear the following year. I remember checking.

Ah well. Somehow our lack of awareness, our way to find excuses--to overlook bigotry of whatever sort -- distresses me. Particularly when I think of Ferguson, New York, Charleston ---- and on and on.

Ruth-Ellen, I will add a little more cold water to be thrown on our patriotic celebration.

Mark Shields has a column today illustrating the bigotry that has always been a dark theme in this country.

He wrote about Donald Trumps hateful words about immigrants and then told of the vicious attitude when the Catholics first immigrated to this predominately Protestant country early in our history, followed by other ethnic groups and the hatred that welcomed them was unconscionable.

Sometimes it's good to face our sins as well as our triumphs when we pat ourselves on the back, but maybe the Fourth is not that time. So enjoy your picnics and wave Old Glory high.

I would very much recommend a newish book by Professor Danielle Allen (Princeton) an which she conveys an understanding of the Declaration derived from teaching, at the same time, U of Chicago students and poor working mothers how to give the document a close reading. It's deep, accessible and wise.

I wrote about it here. Here's a link to the publisher.

And I love seeing Adams portrayed as the cunning, effective politician he was. These were amazing men.

In eighth grade American History, I had to memorize a number of sentences of the next section of the Declaration starting with, "We hold these truths to be self-evident..."

Years later when I was teaching American Literature, we worked through the entire document, analyzing each part, especially words like "usurpations" and "consanguinity." I had fun teaching that unit--not so sure about my students.

I wonder about the transcription of that conversation between Jefferson and Adams. Was there someone else in the room recording it?
When I read these type of accounts (not recollections) it's like reading James A. Michener rewriting history!

Meacham did not invent that conversation. It was written down by Adams himself who was, after all, in the room.

Meacham repeats it from The Works of John Adams published in 1856, page 513.

For those who would demean The Declaration of Independence for being a text commensurate with the cultural times in which it was written, it is a basic tenet of the study of history to not judge the past by present day standards of virtue and morality.

And certainly, from what I have witnessed during my 74 years, we are hardly any more enlightened than our 18th century founding fathers.

Even if you disagree, no one can say that the Declaration of Independence is not one of the greatest aspirational documents written in the history of humankind.

Though there will always be the dark side of our country's history to hold in our memory and remind us that the United States was not something perfect and divinely ordained, we do need times to celebrate, reasons to have parades and concerts in park gazebos, picnics and family gatherings, so as Darlene advises, "enjoy your picnics and wave Old Glory high". But we should never forget that many suffered and lost their lives, families and cultures in the making of this country, and that many, for whom the American dream has remained elusive, suffer still.

I hope we and our neighbors all have a happy and safe holiday. There's a great deal of concern in Washington state and many states about the combination of extremely dry conditions and fireworks.

Hear hear, Madeleine! The yards, including mine, are tinder boxes, and the animals, including mine, are driven frantic by the fireworks, which, I understand, are illegal except in designated public displays.

That reference to "Indian savages," which my mind must have been editing out every time I had occasion to read (or skim) the Declaration, brings home the reason why people like Scalia are so wrong for insisting on applying our founding documents exactly as written whenever the Court ponders modern issues.

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