I’ve started to think it’s the wigs. That has to be why American movies so rarely render the astonishing story of the nation’s founding effectively or memorably. In an irony-soaked age, how do you walk around in breeches and face powder, expounding on the rights of man, knowing that your efforts will be ridiculed within 12 hours of release by Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart?
In fact, most people probably couldn’t name many films devoted to the American Revolution—at least, not before this year’s acclaimed HBO miniseries, John Adams. Based on the best-selling book by David McCullough, the seven-part series is a tour de force of period detail and character acting. And it doesn’t indulge in either of the two sins most common to historical filmmaking: presentism, in which the filmmaker judges the characters by today’s standards; and ironic debunking, in which the intrepid filmmaker reveals the history we thought we knew as one big sham. The worst one can say about John Adams is that it fudges some relatively minor details for narrative effect. But it gets the big facts right, with perhaps one exception: just what was it that John Adams said on his deathbed?
In the HBO series and in recent books on the founders—from McCullough’s to Joseph Ellis’s—the story is the same. On July 4, 1826, the jubilee year of American independence, two of the three surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, died. They died on the 50th anniversary of the document and the event they did so much to shape—for while Jefferson was the Declaration’s author, it was Adams who, in Jefferson’s own words, was “the colossus of independence.” They were American demigods finally taking their leave of a nation already much changed. It was remarkable enough that the two men, who had been allies, close friends, political rivals, enemies, and finally friends again across half a century, had died on the same day. But to have died on that day of all days, and on that anniversary—if that doesn’t turn even the most devoted viewer of the Daily Show into a weepy American exceptionalist, probably nothing will.
The story doesn’t end there, though. While Jefferson’s precise last words are not well known, among them was some form of the question: “Is it the Fourth?” Adams’s final words were poetry itself: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Actually, Jefferson had died a few hours earlier, though of course Adams didn’t know that. The statement has echoed throughout the ages, carrying multiple levels of meaning that both men would no doubt have appreciated.
There’s only one problem: the evidence is that Adams didn’t quite get out all three words. According to historian Andrew Burstein, the “Thomas Jefferson survives” message was propagated by Adams memorialists in the weeks and months after the great man’s death, but they took some liberties. There was only one person known to have been with Adams when he died, Burstein tells us: Louisa Smith, the niece and adopted daughter of Adams’s late wife, Abigail. What she heard was “Thomas Jefferson” and then something unintelligible. Given the context, it’s quite possible that Adams was attempting to say “survives,” or something very like it, but we cannot know. Obviously his old comrade was on his mind, and that is remarkable enough. But “Thomas Jefferson survives” seems to be another of those tantalizing historical anecdotes based in truth and embellished by just a measure or two in the interest of creating a more perfect ending.
It seems difficult to avoid this tendency, then and now. We do it in our own lives, with our own stories. Some people so astonish us with their brilliance, courage, or goodness that paradoxically their deeds cannot be fully appreciated just as they are, but instead become absorbed into a broader canvas of composites and half-truths and flat-out tall tales. It’s almost as if we have to tell ourselves stories as a way of understanding the mere facts of their achievements.
Certainly, on top of all that they had already done, for Adams and Jefferson to have died in the way they did leaves mythology begging. As Ellis writes of their twin parting, “No serious novelist would ever dare to make this up. . . . Call it a miracle, an accident, or a case of two powerful personalities willing themselves to expire on schedule and according to script. But it happened.”
What’s continually remarkable about the American Revolution and the lives of the founders is how much is not made up, or even embellished. No great figures come without their cherry trees, and there’s no point in trying to chop them all down; they can serve their purposes. But we would do well to remember how much is documented fact, set down on paper for us to understand and to carry forward—starting with that message to the world announced in Philadelphia, 232 years ago. As Jefferson put it in a letter he wrote shortly before the jubilee celebration: “For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”