History of the 4th of July: Thomas Jefferson

presidential portrait of thomas jefferson (by rembrandt peale, 1800)fxdHISTORY OF THE 4th OF JULY: THOMAS JEFFERSON

Beginning our series on the History of the 4th of July featuring the Founding Fathers

Perhaps no one person is more associated with the 4th of July in American history than Thomas Jefferson, probably because it was his hand that penned the immortal Declaration of Independence.

As my friend Clay Jenkinson – who has been portraying Jefferson for over 40 years – says in his book Thomas Jefferson: The Man of Light:

“The Third President is the Muse of American life, the chief articulator of our national value system and our national self-identity. Jefferson was a man of almost unbelievable achievement: statesman, man of letters, architect, scientist, book collector, political strategist, and utopian visionary. But he is also a man of paradox: liberty-loving slaveholder, Indian-loving relocationist, publicly frugal and privately bankrupt, a constitutional conservative who bought the Louisiana Territory in 1803.”


Thomas Jefferson: Francophile

Even by 1782, as an admiring French visitor observed, Jefferson,

“without having quitted his own country,” had become “an American who… is a musician, draftsman, astronomer, natural philosopher, jurist, and a statesman.”

He knew about crop rotation and Renaissance architecture and could dance a jig, play the fiddle, or tie an artery.

Jefferson in ParisJefferson both loved and hated his time in France. He went to Paris in 1784 to succeed Benjamin Franklin as American Ambassador following the 1783 peace treaty negotiated with England. In Paris, Jefferson dealt with the repayment of French loans to the U.S. (obtained initially by Franklin) and attacks by North African pirates on American ships.

A statue of him (at right) currently appears along the River Seine in Paris in front of the Hôtel de Salm (next to the Musée d’Orsay), which served as the model of Monticello, the home he built in Virginia. During the construction of the Hotel, Jefferson would watch for hours and said he was

“violently smitten with the Hôtel de Salm.”

He loved the culture, civilization, wine, and classical architecture of France, bringing some of it home, saying:

“I do love this people with all my heart”

… but was uncomfortable with the French social milieu and was scandalized by the lack of domestic morality among French aristocrats.


Founding Fathers Friendship: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

Though friends in their youth, disagreements separated Thomas Jefferson and our second President, John Adams, in later years. The third presidential election between the two was very contentious, and Jefferson resented Adams “packing the Supreme Court” at the end of his presidential term, ahead of Jefferson taking office.

They were eventually reconciled toward their twilight years, and they never saw each other again after Adams left the White House to be replaced by Jefferson. However, in the last 14 years of their lives, they exchanged 158 letters, some of them quite warm. This correspondence is generally regarded as the intellectual capstone to the achievements of the revolutionary generation and the most impressive correspondence between prominent statesmen.

They both died on the same day, July 4th, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, two of the last three signers. At the age of 91, John Adams collapsed in his favorite reading chair and died that afternoon; his last words are often reported to have been,

“Thomas Jefferson still lives.”

However, though this story appears even in contemporaneous obituaries and biographies – even as recently as David McCullough‘s popular biography of John Adams – his spinster niece and adopted daughter Louisa Smith recalls only that Adams mentioned the name Jefferson. Adams died at about 6:20.

But Jefferson might have said, “Wrong, as usual,” if he had still been alive. However, in his last days, his health had failed, and he passed in and out of consciousness. Shortly before midnight on the 3rd of July 1826, Jefferson asked his doctor one last time

“Is it the 4th?”

with his doctor replying, “It soon will be.” Later, around 1 pm on the 4th, just a few hours before Adams died – in his home in Monticello, Virginia – surrounded by his daughter and some special slaves, at the age of 83, Thomas Jefferson died.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.


  1. Steven H. Hoskins on July 3, 2018 at 7:22 am

    Thanks Bill. It took me a while to finally get to your site. Now that I’m here I wish I had found it earlier. Thanks from a amateur history nerd.

    Steven H. Hoskins

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