July 4, 1826: Oh, What a Day!

The following is a list from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader History's Lists.

July 4, 1826, started out with a bang, and as the day wore on, things started happening that seem more than a little coincidental.

1. THE BIG 5-0

Who: The United States of America

What: A bicker-free golden anniversary

In 1776, John Adams famously predicted that Americans would annually celebrate Independence Day with ”pomp and parades, with shows, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations.” He was wrong. Instead, for its first 40 years, America “celebrated” July 4th as a political holiday with divisive gatherings- the country’s two main political parties at the time (the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans) excluded each other from their Fourth of July speeches and meetings. Why? They had very different agendas. The Federalists (founded by the wealthy Alexander Hamilton) believed in a strong federal government, a national bank, and an alliance with England. On the other hand, the Democratic-Republicans (founded by the country’s favorite well-off everyman, Thomas Jefferson) favored state government, the interests of the common folk over those of the moneyed class, and an alliance with France.

The Federalists had held solid control of the government through the 1700s. In 1800, things started changing when the Democratic-Republicans took over Congress and got Thomas Jefferson elected as president. This did little to stop the partisan bickering or make July 4th a fun holiday, though. It wasn’t until 1816 and the election of James Monroe as president that the bickering dissipated… and it was only because Monroe defeated the last remaining Federalist candidate, making that party irrelevant in American politics.

Finally came the Era of Good Feelings (1816-1824), as James Madison united the country with a post-politics presidency. July 4th began turning into a non-partisan celebration of the nation’s founding instead of merely an opportunity for divisive politicking. Without all the partisanship, Americans were free to celebrate their golden anniversary with a unified nation.


Who: John Adams

What: Death

After serving as vice-president during George Washington’s administration, Federalist John Adams was elected the second president of the United States in 1797, beating Thomas Jefferson. Under the Constitution at the time, the second-place candidate became vice-president, so the Adams/Jefferson administration forged ahead. The two were trusted friends and allies, even though they were also members of warring parties.

That changed in 1801 when Jefferson ran against Adams for president and beat him. In the days before Jefferson’s inauguration, Adams made scores of last-minute appointments in an effort to thwart the new president.Jefferson perceived the behavior as pettiness, and it ended their friendship for the next ten years. A mutual friend finally reconnected them in 1811, and the two, separated by hundreds of miles, began sending each other long letters discussing science, philosophy, and politics.

When Adams received his invitation to the jubilee in 1826, he hoped to meet Jefferson in person again after 15 years of correspondence, but realized that, at 90 years of age, he wasn’t in good enough shape to travel to Washington, DC, from his home in Massachusetts. So Adams reluctantly declined the invitation.

On June 30, neighbors came to visit their former president. He was so frail he had to be lifted into his coach, but still felt that politeness required him to return the visit the next day. When he got home on the night of July 1, he went to bed feeling ill and never fully recovered. On July 4, visitors came to see Adams again and asked him about the 50th anniversary celebration. He responded, “It is a great day. It is a good day.” However, as the day wore on, he sunk into semiconsciousness- a doctor was called, and Adams said only a few recognizable words and phrases. (One of them was “Jefferson survives.”) By evening, John Adams was dead.

3. Death of a President II

Who: Thomas Jefferson

What: Death

Unfortunately, Adams was wrong: Thomas Jefferson did not survive. He had died a few hours earlier in his home outside Charlottesville, Virginia. Jefferson’s health had been deteriorating for years and had taken a turn for the worse in the spring of 1826, so when he received his invitation to the Washington, DC, celebration, Jefferson sent his regrets… in a note so eloquent that the jubilee’s organizers sold copies of it.

On July 2, 1826, Jefferson had awoken feeling ill and retired to his bed, drifting in and out of consciousness. On July 3, he was lucid enough to ask, “Is it the fourth?” Told it would be soon, he began refusing the mind-dulling opiates that he’d been taking to ease the pain. Then, Just after noon on July 4, 1826 -as brass bands played and cannons resounded across the nation- Jefferson passed away.


Who: Stephen Foster, “America’s first great songwriter”

What: Birth

On July 4, 1826, William and Eliza Foster couldn’t make it to the celebrations, either. They were too busy welcoming their ninth child, Stephen Collins Foster, at their home near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Foster published his first song at 18 and, three years later, found fame with his first hit “Oh, Susannah.” At the time, minstrel shows (variety shows that starred white actors in blackface) were the biggest market for songs, and Foster wrote several songs for these shows. However, many of his minstrel songs seemed to empathize with the slave’s perspective. (On the other hand, most minstrel songs depicted them as ignorant caricatures.) Of Foster’s ballad “Old Man Ned,” abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote that it would likely “awaken sympathies for the slave.”

Over the next 15 years, Foster wrote such classics as “Camptown races,” “Nelly was a Lady,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” “Hard times Come Again No More,” and “Way Down Upon the Swanee River (Old Folks at Home).” His music earned him the title of “Father of American Music,” but it never made him enough money to provide for his family. In January 1864, at the age of 37, Stephen Foster died in New York City. He had just 38 cents in his pocket.

(Image credit: Marcus Quigmire)


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader History's Lists. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

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Yep. I had quite a few years of American history, every year in the lower grades, a year in junior high, and two years in high school. (Plus ONE year of world history, and one year of state history.) But they covered the same exact subjects every time: Columbus, Revolution, Civil War, World War II. Sure, those are big ones, but after a few years, they're boring, especially with the emphasis on dates over and over again. That's why they say the best history is outside the textbooks. Too bad so many Americans are sick of history by the time they're out of high school.
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Funny thing is, I find a lot of non-Americans I've talked to question or are confused about why the US education concentrates on history as much as it already does. The concerns weren't that learning history is bad, but either along the lines of obsessing over names and dates instead of impact of events, or concentrating on history at the cost of current events and recent history. I can see the point, considering numerous history courses I took, especially the required US history ones, stopped at WW2 due to time spent on older history. The civics course lightly touched upon current events, but only half a year of that was required at high school level as opposed to two years of history.
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