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Published: Friday, 7/4/2014


Fractious Fourth

On July 4, 1826, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died within hours of each other — 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was signed.

The American experiment was vindicated in 1801 when Mr. Adams, the nation’s second president, ceded power peacefully to Mr. Jefferson. That transfer offers lessons to current politicians who are willing to learn them.

After a vicious political campaign, Mr. Adams refused to attend Mr. Jefferson’s inauguration. But the orderly transition, without a constitutional crisis, proved that democracy was tenable. Mr. Jefferson called it “the second American revolution.”

“Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” he said. “We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.” That message is worth repeating during our own fractious times.

It was not until 1812 that the former presidents reconciled and began to correspond about politics, philosophy, and religion. Their letters remain timeless, and Americans continue to find inspiration in them.

Whether Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, today’s patriotic Americans should be able to say about their political foes what Mr. Jefferson wrote of his predecessor: “This however I will say for Mr. Adams, that he supported the Declaration with zeal and ability, fighting fearlessly for every word of it.”

In these times of factionalism and discord, patriotism should mean reconciliation — the recognition of good will among political rivals who, at the heart of it all, love their country and want to move it forward.

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