The fourth of July of 1826 saw the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, fathers of the country, and the birth of Stephen Foster, the “father of American music.” In the essay below, excerpted from A New Literary History of America, the novelist, essayist, and critic Steve Erickson lets the confluence of those events stand in for the passage of the Republic’s first 50 years and the growing conflict that would characterize its next.
“Is it the Fourth?” asks an eighty-three-year-old delirious Thomas Jefferson in the dying hours of the third, his last words before lapsing into an unconsciousness from which he won’t recover. For all the ways the former president of the United States considers himself an eminently reasonable man—the Age of Enlightenment’s most conspicuous result, holding down whatever phantom corner might be teased out of the trinity of Locke, Bacon, and Newton—nothing betrays Jefferson’s romanticism more than this question at this moment. Urged on by his daughters gathered around his bedside, even in his coma he’s determined to see the fiftieth anniversary of the Republic’s birth, which has come to be signified by nothing so much as his authorship of that birth’s certificate. That he should die half a century to the day since the adoption of the Declaration of Independence speaks to that flair for drama Jefferson always has kept so private, and to a flair for symmetry he might insist on calling science but obviously is more cosmic. There is to be about this birthday—and this deathday—the exquisite happenstance of a song.
On the desk near his bed, somewhere amid the bills that have gone unpaid and driven the dying man to the verge of bankruptcy, is the most recent letter from the only other one left. Jefferson was thirty-three when he wrote the Declaration, a philosopher-prince but the quieter junior partner of a collective led by the colonies’ greatest legal mind, John Adams, Jefferson’s senior by seven years. With the encouragement of house genius and aging bad boy Benjamin Franklin—with whom Adams ultimately didn’t get along, but then ultimately he didn’t get along with anyone but his wife—Adams drove that Continental Congress of ’76 to the precipice of revolution and then over, with the decision of each state to draft its own constitution. Almost as an afterthought it occurred to the subversives to add a postscript of sorts, in case England’s dim throne missed the point—an explicit statement of independence. The volatile and occasionally charmless Adams suggested to the still-green Jefferson that since the older man was considered “obnoxious” (Adams’s own word) by many of the delegates, and since the younger man was ten times (Adams’s own math) the writer of anyone else in the building, this business of dotting insurrection’s i’s and crossing its t should fall to the Virginian, who was in a rush to get his treason over with and return home to his bride of a few years, in whom waited what would be a stillborn son. Jefferson would father with more success the American idea.
Perhaps that was the beginning of the problem between the two men. When the Declaration turned out to be more than a postscript, more than fine print, when it became a sacred covenant for the country and Jefferson loomed as its authorial deity, his name an invocation whispered in the streets of regicidal capitals throughout Europe, relegating the magisterial and proud Adams to runner-up in the race of history . . . well, worse rifts are born of less. Then, in President Washington’s first term, Adams suggested the chief executive should have a title along the lines of, say, “His Majesty,” and that the new republic was in need of a little “monarchial” mojo—this from the Revolution’s most incendiary firebrand short of Tom Paine. Former kindred spirit Jefferson publicly called it “the most superlatively ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” In revolution, in country-creating, in the vice presidency and presidency, in what was left of their countrymen’s hearts that wasn’t occupied by Washington, Jefferson kept following Adams and one-upping him. Defeating Adams’s bid for reelection, Jefferson won, after a dazzling first term, the reelection his predecessor had been denied. For years Adams stewed. As outgoing president he refused to attend his old friend’s inauguration. Couldn’t everyone see through that whole “man of the people” thing? Shuffling around Monticello in his bedroom slippers . . . sleeping with his slave girl, thirty years younger! Renaissance figure! Leviathan of letters and science! “He must know,” Adams fumed on Jefferson’s departure from the White House, “that he leaves the government infinitely worse than he found it, from his own error or ignorance. I wish his telescopes and mathematical instruments may secure his felicity.”
Now on the country’s fiftieth anniversary, Americans are of two minds about it. The first is that the republic has survived fifty years, by God! The second is that the bloom, nonetheless, may be off the American rose.
Now on the country’s fiftieth anniversary, Americans are of two minds about it. The first is that the republic has survived fifty years, by God! And who knew? But for bungling by the king of England in the revolt’s infancy, the men whose act Americans now celebrated would have ornamented gallows from Boston to Charleston. The second is that the bloom, nonetheless, may be off the American rose, and has been since almost three decades earlier when Washington left the presidency and died precipitously after, sealing the political fate of Adams and the Federalists in the process. Improbably, now Adams’s son is president. “We weren’t that crazy about the old man—now we have the son?” Thus the beginning of what will 176 years from now become a tradition of dubious sons rising to the seats of their fathers in dubious elections. Two years before, Quincy Adams won neither the popular nor electoral vote in the presidential contest against Andrew Jackson, the most imposing American military figure since Washington and inheritor of Jefferson’s populism, a surrogate for that stillborn son. But when Jackson came up short of a majority in the Electoral College, throwing the election to the House of Representatives, another would-be president, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, supported Quincy Adams and delivered to him the presidency, to the outrage of Jackson partisans. Although Clay genuinely believed Quincy Adams the lesser of the evils presented him, it didn’t look right to some when the newly anointed president made Clay secretary of state. So among other things, this year the country’s semicentennial has been marked by a duel between Secretary Clay and a senator accusing him of corruption. It’s the most high-profile such encounter since the one that marked the Jefferson administration in which Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, who—like Clay with Quincy Adams—made Jefferson president over Burr, if not altogether happily. Fifty years in, Americans can’t help wondering if their country is a rat in history’s wheel, reliving past dramas except in diminishing versions, each turn differentiated only by imperceptible shifts in axis, imperceptible ascents in velocity that lead nowhere faster.
Of course Americans don’t know from Nowhere, not on any physical map. Americans are too obsessed with Anywhere and Everywhere, the country leaping out of its skin; on this fiftieth anniversary there are now two dozen states, and the frontier is a dream of the future. The twelve months of 1826 see the publication of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and the election of Davy Crockett to Congress. And the country and its growing contradictions, its adventurous spirit and dark passions, and the promise and betrayal of the American idea are embodied by no one so well as the man who exalted the endowment of liberty by God even as slaves kept his house and worked his property, and who finally succumbs on this day just past noon. Fifty years after the Declaration of Independence, the tension between promise and betrayal remains unresolved, deferred in a series of soul-killing compromises that alternate free states with slave, that attempt to erode the enterprise of slavery while reinforcing the institution, compromises that began with the Declaration itself, from which was jettisoned an antislavery clause that slave-owner Jefferson himself wrote.
In the same exact hour that Jefferson dies, there is born in western Pennsylvania, beyond earshot of the Liberty Bell but within the peal of lesser bells, the last of ten children to Eliza Foster and her husband, William, a Federalist state legislator and an admirer of the Adamses. Whatever stars are in young Stephen’s future, apparently none concerns money. By the time of his arrival his father has drunk first the family’s modest fortune and then the mortgage, on which the bank recently has foreclosed. The first great American songwriter, whose early hit “Oh! Susanna” will drive his countrymen across a continent in pursuit of gold, Stephen will his entire life be robbed spectacularly by song publishers, to die at the age of thirty-seven with, to his name, thirty-eight cents. Sometimes the exquisite happenstance of songs perversely insists on getting things almost right but not exactly.
The exquisite perversity of Stephen Foster’s songs is that they’re steeped not in the American South but in a vision of it.
The exquisite perversity of Stephen Foster’s songs is that they’re steeped not in the American South but in a vision of it. No songwriter ever has written a more autobiographical title than does the composer of “Beautiful Dreamer.” Exactly once in his life Foster will visit the South, on a honeymoon voyage down and back up the Mississippi. Thus are love and perhaps even sex—one never can be sure about honeymoons—joined to an American revelation, in which case one can’t be sure about revelations either, except that this is the sort that creates “Swanee River,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.” On wafts of magnolia, the unresolved American contradiction rages in Foster’s music; though they might not withstand the scrutiny of more sophisticated sensibilities two centuries later, “Old Black Joe” and “Nelly Was a Lady” try in their own white way to come to grips with a growing understanding that the antebellum beast of burden is a human being. Born in that auspicious peal of bells, it doesn’t seem possible Foster could have no politics. Later it will be claimed that near the end of his life he harbored abolitionist sympathies. He will die, at the height of the war that finally addresses Jefferson’s paradox, in New York, not Richmond or Atlanta.
At the eastern edge of Massachusetts, within sight of the sea, as the light begins to fade on this most extraordinary Fourth of July since the first, John Adams dies. This morning he was stricken while reading, as though yanked toward the other side by a God who believes that today, of all days, America needs an epiphany. Adams has lost consciousness at virtually the instant his old rival passes on. Over the previous years they became friends again, the bond of revolution too strong; these were men who forty years ago, after all, stood side by side as American ambassadors in the court of King George, who literally turned his back on them. After the glacial first decade of the nineteenth century, the ice between the two men broke, characteristically, with an Adams outburst to a mutual acquaintance: “I’ve always loved Jefferson and still do!” This was followed by a letter to the former foe, in response to which Jefferson, with a victor’s magnanimity, acclaimed Adams “the Colossus of Independence.” Moved, mollified, and seizing the redemptive moment, for nearly a decade and a half Adams wrote over a hundred letters to Jefferson, who answered with less than half that number; no matter, the paternal patriot assured the protégé who eclipsed him, “your one is worth more than my four.” Not really. Jefferson always was a man to keep things close to his vest, whereas Adams barely buttoned his vest at all. Expressing a yearning to talk again personally after so long, secretly the two knew better; written correspondence allowed them to control the exchange, skirt minefields. Even when Adams wandered into what might have seemed harmless, lighthearted talk of women, Jefferson, whose slave had become his mistress of a quarter century, was circumspect. So the conversation was curious as much for what wasn’t said: the man who wrote the most immortal political phrase in history—“all men are created equal”—and who as a young idealist introduced antislavery measures in the Virginia legislature now could not bring himself to even write the word “slavery.” There were ways in which Adams was the prophet after all.
With the passage of these titans, who would be eulogized together in Boston four weeks later by Daniel Webster, their unyielding if tempered and affectionate argument is set to music amid American gunfire, in a volley of songs that catches the argument midair and continues it. The North and South Poles of the American Revolution, as they’re called, never know Stephen Foster, of course—never hum one of his tunes. By the time Foster will grow to know of them, they’re ancients consigned to history and all its specious pantheons. But Foster’s melody already waits in the American night when Jefferson calls out, “Is it the Fourth?” and rides the smoke of American clashes to come when, nearly twenty-four hours later, with his own dying words, Adams answers, “Jefferson lives.”