Friday, December 26, 2008

We All Have To Go Sometime

A bit of a downer during the Christmas season? Maybe. Today is one of three dates on the calendar that is the anniversary of the death of more than one president.

Harry Truman died on December 26, 1972. At the age of 88, he had fallen short of the record up to that time for presidential longevity. The record was then held by John Adams, who lived to the age of 90.

34 years to the day after Truman's death, Gerald Ford, who had just recently broken the presidential longevity record, died at the age of 93. The record had briefly been held by Ronald Reagan, who passed Adams in 2001, and then died at 93, in 2004.

Ford lived only 45 days longer than Reagan. Is it too far-fetched to think that Ford, who had been Reagan's political rival, having fought a bitter battle against him for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, forced himself to hang on, until he had barely passed Reagan's mark?

One of the other dates is March 8. Millard Fillmore's 1874 death, and that of William Howard Taft, in 1930, were both on that date.

And what is the only date that is the anniversary of three presidential deaths? The Fourth of July, of course.

The latest of those three July 4 deaths was that of James Monroe, in 1831. But the other two form one of the great coincidences of American history.

Two members of the committee that was formed by the Continental Congress to draft the Declaration of Independence, in 1776, both died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration. The aforementioned John Adams died in Massachusetts on July 4, 1826, supposedly declaring that "Thomas Jefferson survives." But, unbeknownst to Adams, Jefferson had died earlier that day, in Virginia.

Seeing them pictured next to each other in the painting shown above, drives home the historical significance of the coincidence. That painting of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress, hangs in the U.S. Capitol building.

As with Reagan and Ford, Jefferson and Adams became bitter rivals. In their case, the rivalry came to a head in the 1800 general election for president, in which Jefferson prevailed. That nasty campaign has been cited by historians to counter suggestions that modern campaigns, including the one recently concluded, are fought at a lower level of civility than those of a supposed golden age of American politics, that only ever existed in some people's imaginations.
Jefferson and Adams later reconciled. During their last few years, they carried on a correspondence that has since been published.
Image: Architect of the Capitol

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