Happy Independence Day!!
Back in 2008, we took this day to reflect on the lives of Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. It seems so completely appropriate that both these Founders, so intertwined with the founding of this great nation, died as the last surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence on this day in 1826…the country’s 50th anniversary.
John Adams’ words on that last day (and maybe the last words he spoke before his death) were, “It is a great day. It is a good day.”
But as we know, Adams and Jefferson weren’t the only Presidents to call this day their last. There is another. And in fact, he’s also a Founding Father. The last Founding Father. The last President to live and serve his not-yet-formed country during her first, and greatest, hour of need. I speak of President James Monroe.
The fifth President died on July 4, 1831. Like Jefferson before him, he died essentially broke. Early 19th-century politicians didn’t earn anything like their 21st-century counterparts, and Monroe’s long public service had left him with a lot of debt. Eventually, he would be forced to sell most of his property and belongings to clear his financial name.
And James Monroe died broken. Less than two years before, his wife (and lifelong partner) Elizabeth had died. In his grief, Monroe became irrational to the point of refusing to leave her burial vault, saying he would wait there to die and rejoin his wife. When he returned home, he burned all the correspondance he had with her. Letters, papers, diaries…everything. So unlike John Adams and his wife Abigail, an incredible treasure trove of early-American documentation went up in fireplace smoke.
But Monroe, like the four Presidents before him, laid the foundation for all who would follow. In his new biography of Monroe, Harlow Giles Unger closes his book writing, “Across the nation, Americans in every town and city mourned the man who had fought for liberty in the Revolution, opened the West, and expanded the nation’s boundaries ‘from sea to shining sea.’ He had led his people into an era of unprecendented prosperity and ‘good feelings’…”
John Quincy Adams, the former President turned Congressman, offered up the following: “…look at the map of United North America, as it was . . . in 1783. Compare it with the map of that same Empire as it is now. . . . The change, more than of any other man, living or dead, was the work of James Monroe.”
Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe. While it’s true that all three died on this day, we should celebrate their lives as foundational to all the good things this nation has become. They were not perfect men, nor do we necessarily agree with everything they wrote or said or did. But these men, and Monroe in particular, loved their country as much as the hundreds of thousands of men who have died on battlefields (both here and abroad) defending the freedoms these men brought to America.