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July 4th: The Fourth of July Paradox

The Fourth of July is a bittersweet anniversary at the University. It marks both great achievement and sorrow; it is the birthday of a nation, but the death day of Founding Fathers.

The signing of the Declaration of Independence is re-enacted in front of Fayerweather Hall in 1913 Rufus W. Holsinger, Courtesy of UVA Special Collections Library

If ever two men in history chose and controlled the moment of their dying, they were John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Each was determined to reach the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and neither knew that their gentle competition for this great milepost would end in victory and death for both. Shortly before midnight on the third of July, Jefferson asked Nicholas Trist—son of his old admirer Eliza and husband to his grand-daughter Virginia—“This is the Fourth?” The following morning, Trist wrote his brother, “He has been dying since yesterday morning, and till twelve o clock last night, we were in momentary fear that he would not live, as he desired, to see his own glorious Fourth.”

John Adams’ last words, uttered on the same day, were, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”

Fawn M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History

John Trumbull’s painting Declaration of Independence (1795) inspired the image on the reverse of the $2 bill.

It happened on the Fourth of July

1776: The United States Declaration of Independence, primarily authored by Thomas Jefferson, is adopted by the Continental Congress. The declaration is actually signed on Aug. 2, 1776, and not on July 4.

1778: George Washington orders a double ration of rum for his soldiers and an artillery salute to mark the occasion.

1801: Thomas Jefferson holds the first Fourth of July celebration at the Executive Mansion in Washington, D.C. Refreshments are served and the U.S. Marine Band plays.

1826: Jefferson and Adams die on the same day, exactly 50 years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

1831: James Monroe, fifth president of the U.S., dies in New York. He is the third president to die on the Fourth of July.

1963: A tradition of naturalization ceremonies held at Monticello each Independence Day begins. They are often attended by U.S. presidents.