On July 4, 1826, 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died within hours of each other. It’s said that George Washington’s retirement after two terms in office ensured democratic order, but the American experiment was truly vindicated in 1801 when Adams, the nation’s second president, ceded power peaceably to Jefferson, America’s third.
To a world familiar with the failures of monarchism and the convulsions of the French Revolution, the orderly transition between bitter political rivals proved that democracy was tenable.
“Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” Jefferson said about the chief parties of his day. It is a message worth repeating during our own fractious times.
It was not until 1812 that the former presidents reconciled and began a correspondence on politics, philosophy and religion that remains timeless. These and other founding documents are enshrined and remembered, and Americans, then and now, have found inspiration in them.
Consider George Washington. Just five months after the new nation’s triumphal July 4 declaration, the general found himself facing desertion, desperation and defeat. Before boldly crossing the Delaware, he read these words to his soldiers from “The American Crisis” by Thomas Paine:
“These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Washington knew that patriotism is a struggle — and one that’s not always measured by whether we fight, but what we fight for. In a 21st century of factionalism and discord, patriotism should also mean reconciliation, the recognition of good will among rivals who love their country and want to move it forward.
Whether Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, today’s patriots should be able to say about their political foes what Jefferson wrote of his predecessor: “This however I will say for Mr. Adams, that he supported the Declaration with zeal and ability, fighting fearlessly for every word of it.”