SALT LAKE CITY -- In 1824, President James Monroe extended an invitation to the Marquis de Lafayette, a Revolutionary War hero, inviting him to come to America for an extended tour of the nation he helped liberate. Monroe’s hope was that this visit would launch Jubilee festivities and help instill the spirit of 1776 in a rising generation.
From the moment he arrived at Staten Island, America rolled out the red carpet to the French “adopted son” of her beloved George Washington. As he toured all 24 states, he discovered the extent of America’s gratitude. Children, colleges and cities had been named for him, and monuments to him were found across the nation’s expanse.
Most poignant was the attention Lafayette paid to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, and to the family of his deceased but adored friend. He spent time at Monticello as well, visiting Thomas Jefferson in his home, and for a few days, two lions of liberty were again assembled.
The mayor of Washington established a Jubilee Committee to plan a 50th celebration for the nation's capital. Similar celebrations were planned for cities throughout the 24 states, but the mayor of the nation’s capital had the clout and distinction to request the attendance of a special set of guests. The three surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence — Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Charles Carroll — were invited, as were the surviving past presidents of the United States, which included Jefferson and Adams as well as James Madison and James Monroe. None were able to attend that day, but the request for their attendance reminds us that they remained larger than life, a nation’s last physical connection to its past.
Each wrote letters of regret that ran in Washington’s newspaper, The National Intelligencer, on the day of the Jubilee, July 4, 1826. It is in reading Thomas Jefferson’s letter that we capture the final mindset of the author of the Declaration of Independence and his charge to a nation he would soon leave behind.
Ill and bed-bound, his words did not flow easily, as his heavily edited first draft reveals, but he persevered until the passion and spirit that consumed him in 1776 again revitalized his mind. The final version, written and sent on June 24, 1826, is below.
Respected Sir: The kind invitation I received from you, on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of American Independence, as one of the surviving signers of an instru-ment, pregnant with our own and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day; but acquiescence is a duty under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations, personally, with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make, for our country, between sub-mission and the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind them-selves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. The form which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others; for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
Nine days later, this brilliant, questioning mind took its final rest, leaving behind counsel that remains timeless and timely. May we all reflect and remember.