Commentary: Independence Day and the lives of American presidents

America’s Independence Day correctly conjures up the fight against monarchy and unchecked executive power. Following the American Revolution, patriots realized the mistake of creating an initial national government without an executive. In establishing the presidency as a component of the Constitution, the framers forever linked the chief executive with our annual celebration of freedom on July 4.

Amazingly, of the 45 U.S. presidents, three have passed on Independence Day and one was born on that date.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were not only two of the nation’s founding fathers as signers of the Declaration of Independence, but likewise served as the second and third president, respectively.

Though friends before serving in George Washington’s administration, that period and their ensuing election battles led to a serious falling out between Adams and Jefferson. Only after their respective presidencies did a renewal occur, mainly through letters written to each other on issues of the day.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

By the time the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence was to be celebrated, both Adams and Jefferson were in ill-health. Although invited to attend the festivities associated with the jubilee, neither could.

John Adams spent his last days in an upstairs bedroom at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. On July 4, 1826, he lapsed in and out of a coma before passing at 90 years old. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson suffered from a variety of ailments during his last days at his Monticello estate in Virginia. On July 4, 1826, amid intervals of consciousness and unconsciousness, Jefferson passed at 83 years old. Though he outlived his friend and rival by several hours, Adams’s last words were “Thomas Jefferson lives.”

Another American president who passed on July 4 was James Monroe. The two-term chief executive stepped down following the inauguration of his successor in 1825. But unlike his two presidential predecessors who also passed on July 4th, Monroe did not have much time to enjoy retirement. After his wife passed in 1830, he moved from Virginia to New York to live with his daughter. Only a year later, he developed signs of tuberculosis and died of heart failure on Independence Day at 73 years old.

Conversely, the 30th president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, was born on the Fourth of July at the family home in Plymouth, Vermont. Though he grew up in Vermont, he built his political career in Massachusetts, serving as a mayor, state senator, lieutenant governor, governor, and vice president.

Vacationing at the Vermont family home in August 1923, Coolidge was sworn in there as president by his father following the sudden death of Warren Harding. Coolidge successfully ran for president on his own as the Republican nominee in 1924, serving one term as chief executive before stepping down due to health issues. He died of coronary thrombosis in January 1933 at 60 years old.

While we commemorate the courage of the nation’s founders for the Declaration of Independence and its condemnation of arbitrary executive actions, we likewise thank most of the same crew for their subsequent support of a president in the formation of the Constitution.

That July 4 and the lives of so many presidents intersect may be coincidence, but the odds — and the legacy of the linkage — argue against it.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science at Delaware State University. He has taught and published extensively on America’s founding period and on the presidency. He is an honorary member of the Delaware State Society of the Cincinnati.

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