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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Deaths of Adams and Jefferson

By William Wirt (1772–1834)

[From the Oration on Adams and Jefferson, delivered in the H. of R., 19 October, 1826.]

THESE two great men, so eminently distinguished among the patriots of the Revolution, and so illustrious by their subsequent services, became still more so, by having so long survived all that were most highly conspicuous among their coevals. All the stars of first magnitude, in the equatorial and tropical regions, had long since gone down, and still they remained. Still they stood full in view, like those two resplendent constellations near the opposite poles, which never set to the inhabitants of the neighboring zones.

But they, too, were doomed at length to set; and such was their setting as no American bosom can ever forget!

In the midst of their fast decaying strength, and when it was seen that the approach of death was certain, their country and its glory still occupied their thoughts, and circulated with the last blood that was ebbing to their hearts. Those who surrounded the death-bed of Mr. Jefferson report that, in the few short intervals of delirium that occurred, his mind manifestly relapsed to the age of the Revolution. He talked, in broken sentences, of the committees of safety, and the rest of that great machinery, which he imagined to be still in action. One of his exclamations was, “Warn the committee to be on their guard;” and he instantly rose in his bed, with the help of his attendants, and went through the act of writing a hurried note. But these intervals were few and short. His reason was almost constantly upon her throne, and the only aspiration he was heard to breathe, was the prayer, that he might live to see the Fourth of July. When that day came, all that he was heard to whisper was the repeated ejaculation—“Nunc Domine dimittas”—Now, Lord, let thy servant depart in peace! And the prayer of the patriot was heard and answered.

The patriarch of Quincy, too, with the same certainty of death before him, prayed only for the protraction of his life to the same day. His prayer was also heard: and when a messenger from the neighboring festivities, unapprised of his danger, was deputed to ask him for the honor of a toast, he showed the object on which his dying eyes were fixed, and exclaimed with energy, “Independence for ever!” His country first, his country last, his country always!

  • “O save my country—Heaven! he said—and died!”
  • Hitherto, fellow-citizens, the Fourth of July had been celebrated among us, only as the anniversary of our independence, and its votaries had been merely human beings. But at its last recurrence—the great jubilee of the nation—the anniversary, it may well be termed, of the liberty of man—Heaven, itself, mingled visibly in the celebration, and hallowed the day anew by a double apotheosis. Is there one among us to whom this language seems too strong? Let him recall his own feelings, and the objection will vanish. When the report first reached us, of the death of the great man whose residence was nearest, who among us was not struck with the circumstance that he should have been removed on the day of his own highest glory? And who, after the first shock of the intelligence had passed, did not feel a thrill of mournful delight at the characteristic beauty of the close of such a life. But while our bosoms were yet swelling with admiration at this singularly beautiful coincidence, when the second report immediately followed, of the death of the great sage of Quincy, on the same day—I appeal to yourselves—is there a voice that was not hushed, is there a heart that did not quail, at this close manifestation of the hand of Heaven in our affairs? Philosophy, recovered of her surprise, may affect to treat the coincidence as fortuitous. But philosophy herself was mute, at the moment, under the pressure of the feeling that these illustrious men had rather been translated, than had died. It is in vain to tell us that men die by thousands every day in the year, all over the world. The wonder is, not that two men have died on the same day, but that two such men, after having performed so many and such splendid services in the cause of liberty—after the multitude of other coincidences which seem to have linked their destinies together—after having lived so long together, the objects of their country’s joint veneration—after having been spared to witness the great triumph of their toils at home—and looked together from Pisgah’s top, on the sublime effect of that grand impulse which they had given to the same glorious cause throughout the world, should, on this fiftieth anniversary of the day on which they had ushered that cause into light, be both caught up to Heaven, together, in the midst of their raptures! Is there a being of heart so obdurate and sceptical, as not to feel the hand and hear the voice of Heaven in this wonderful dispensation? And may we not, with reverence, interpret its language? Is it not this? “These are my beloved servants, in whom I am well pleased. They have finished the work for which I sent them into the world; and are now called to their reward. Go ye, and do likewise!”