Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died within hours of one another on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. On the evening of that day, the ninety-year-old Adams uttered his final words, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” He was wrong. Jefferson, gravely ill for several weeks, had expired a few hours earlier at his hilltop home outside Charlottesville, Virginia. The deaths on that day of those two heroes of the Revolution were an uncanny coincidence, and it reinforced the belief among Americans that there was something providential about the origins of their republic.

Though the two men were thus joined in the public’s memory, they could not have been more different in their personalities, in their private lives, in their political outlooks, and in their contributions to the new order—a theme artfully developed by...


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