Last words are for people who haven't said anything in life.
- Karl Marx
For whatever reason, the founding fathers of the United States of America tended to die at a grand old age. They lived to see their country progress and grow to the potential they saw for it. Perhaps because of their longevity, they had plenty of time to think about what to leave their countrymen to remember them by.
Some shored up their legacy by helping to build great halls of learning or places of beauty. Others planted the seeds of historical redemption. The men who were called the Founders of the American Republic, the Framers of the US Constitution, were incredibly interested in how future generations would think of them, and how history would judge them. They left enormous stacks of their rose-tinted correspondence letters, and burned the rest.
Historians also remember great men by their last words. But people do not usually get to choose the time and manner of their death. Many of the founding fathers could have probably thought of more intelligent and inspiring things to say if they had had time to plan this (especially Madison). For better or worse, the last pieces of wisdom and glimmers of humanity are recorded by history.
I always talk better lying down.
James Madison was a sickly, frail man throughout his life. His small size belied a huge intellectual strength that made such a mark on the fledgling nation. Had he been born a decade or two earlier, he would have doubtless been an imposing figure in the story of the US government's creation. As it happened, he was one of the youngest of the founding fathers. As Madison's perpetually frail body finally began to give out at the age of 85, he was the last living signatory of the US constitution.
It was late June 1836, just a few days before the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the nation on 4 July. For the sake of posterity, some of Madison's companions at his plantation in Virginia insisted on giving him stimulants to artificially prolong his life until 4 July. He refused.
When Madison was dying, his niece asked him: 'What is the matter, uncle James?' He replied: 'Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear. I always talk better lying down.' These are reputedly his last words, and he passed away in his sleep. What exactly this 'change of mind' was remains unanswered, because of the finality of the statement.
It is not surprising that Madison changed his mind about something, though. He spent years as a leader of the Federalist political faction - a group characterised by its support for a strong national government, among other things. Madison did more than anyone to write the US constitution, a document that Federalists revered. He also co-wrote the now indispensable Federalist Papers, alongside arch-federalists Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. Yet Madison was a Virginian.
A major shift occurred when his friend and fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson returned to the US from France and began to voice his opposition to Federalist ideas. Madison became the chief tactician and number-two figure in the Democratic-Republican faction, which favoured a limited central government and stronger state governments. As floor leader in the House of Representatives, he fought against many of the Federalist policies espoused by the Washington and Adams administrations and his former ally Hamilton.
The last sentence of a man who spoke and wrote so much - 'I always talk better lying down' - is almost charmingly simple. He was not the only one who spoke memorably on his deathbed.
Thomas Jefferson still lives.
In one of the great coincidences of US history, two titans of the early political scene died on the same summer day, which happened to be the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the US Declaration of Independence: 4 July, 1826. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been rivals for influence and recognition for decades. Each seemed determined to outlive the other.
Adams, who was a notoriously mean old grouch, would have especially wanted to outlive Jefferson, just to better his rival at one last thing. By 1826 Adams had reached the ripe old age of 90 - almost three times the average life expectancy. Jefferson and Adams had resumed a cordial exchange of letters in their latter years, and Adams was consumed with the correspondence. When Jefferson was slow to respond or ignored a letter, Adams would simply send another. He wrote about two-thirds of the correspondence in this way.
Adams was born eight years before Jefferson, but managed to hang on in. He lived to see his son John Quincy Adams elected president, succeeding James Monroe, a protégé of Jefferson. When Adams collapsed on 4 July 1826 in his favourite reading chair, he had seen many things. At about the same time that Jefferson passed away hundreds of miles away, Adams was falling in and out consciousness. When his family and doctor attempted to adjust his body to make him more comfortable, he awoke. They told him it was 4 July, and Adams replied: 'It is a great day. It is a good day.'
He lay peacefully in bed for hours, then awoke briefly and laboriously whispered his immortal last words: 'Thomas Jefferson still lives.' According to family legend, a storm that had been raging ended with a tremendous clap of thunder just after his death, as if in punctuation. Then the sky cleared and the sun came out.
There are many variations on his actual last words, each claiming to be authoritative. It is probably now impossible for historians to decide which version is true, but the others include 'Jefferson lives', 'Thomas Jefferson survives', 'Thomas Jefferson still survives' and, most dramatically of all, 'Thomas Jefferson still surv...'.
Adams was factually wrong, of course, but he had no way of knowing this. Some historians prefer to believe he was speaking from a wider perspective. Jefferson is still one of the most beloved and well known of the founding fathers, while Adams is often forgotten and his memory sometimes abused. In that sense, Adams was correct: Jefferson does live on.
Is it the Fourth?
Jefferson was a man who was often too concerned with beauty and image. The sheer poetry of him dying on the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence (which he drafted) would have been very satisfying to him. Unfortunately, he never knew it.
Jefferson was on his deathbed on the night of 3 July, 1826. Just before he fell into a coma, he asked the physician 'Is it the fourth?' He was told: not yet. Jefferson probably sensed that the end was near and must have been hoping to expire on 4 July. He lost consciousness before midnight and slept through the nation's celebrations of a half century of independence. He died just after midday.
While his last words were vainly poetic, his last letter before he falling ill was distinctly Jeffersonian. It was written to a committee in charge of Independence Day celebrations in Washington DC. Unable to attend any ceremonies, he explained what the date 4 July meant to him:
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 themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government... 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 favoured 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.
George Washington, undisputed leader of the founding fathers, was famously as silent as he could be. Some people attribute this to a desire to hide his fake teeth. The truth is that he was a man of few words. But the words he did choose were deliberate and full of meaning. In fact, he had the rare quality of being able to dominate a room without saying anything. He gave the shortest inaugural address in history, at only 141 words.
Washington made history by choosing to not to seek a third term as president, and retired to his home at Mount Vernon. This was an important choice, because he died about two and-a-half years later.
For years, he followed a regular schedule of inspecting his Virginia plantation each morning. Even at his advanced age, he continued to ride his horse for hours, keeping a constant watch over his land.
On the morning of 12 December, 1799, a snowstorm was raging. Nevertheless, Washington rode out, and came back in wet clothes. He arrived as dinner was beginning and, being a Virginia gentleman, chose not to change his clothes because his dinner guests were waiting. Not long after, his local physician had to be sent for, as his symptoms developed. They made use of the best medical techniques of the day, which inevitably made everything worse.
As Washington lay on his deathbed on the evening of 14 December, he told his companions with true Washingtonian brevity: ''Tis well.' He then felt for his own pulse and died. Having led the Revolutionary Generation of America through the Revolutionary War, having presided over the Constitutional Convention, and having served for eight years as president, Washington was well to say 'Twas well.
A dying man can do nothing easy.
Benjamin Franklin was the wise old man of the American Revolution. During the Constitutional Convention, he would tell a joke or funny anecdote when things became tense. He was just about universally respected throughout the US, and probably second only to Washington in revolutionary stature.
At the age of 84, he lay on his deathbed on 17 April, 1790. His daughter Sarah was attending to him and thought he was lying in an awkward position. Aware of his coming demise, he replied in typical fashion: 'A dying man can do nothing easy.'
His funeral was attended by 20,000 people, and his epitaph bore a simple inscription with his name and date of death. Earlier in his life, when Franklin was best-known as the publisher of The Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard's Almanack, he had written a witty epitaph which at one time he planned to have over his grave:
The body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be Lost;
For it will (as he Believ'd) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.
Alexander Hamilton was the first victim of a sex scandal in US political history. He was at one point one of the most powerful and influential people in the US government, but his fortunes started to turn as the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican faction gained prominence. Hamilton's Federalist party went into serious decline. On a personal level, he was mauled in the media following a story about a sex scandal involving a woman named Maria Reynolds.
Aaron Burr, a New York Jeffersonian who was vice-president at the time, believed Hamilton had publicly insulted him, and demanded an opportunity to avenge this wrong. After a bit of back and forth, the pair settled on a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. When they could not settle their dispute, they exchanged shots. Hamilton shot into a tree, not intending to hurt Burr. Burr's shot was true and hit Hamilton's abdomen.
Hamilton's friend Nathaniel Pendleton sat him against a boulder and a doctor named David Hosack examined him. Hamilton struggled to say: 'This is a mortal wound, doctor.'1 Hosack and Pendleton carried their unconscious friend into a rowing boat, hoping to make it across New York harbour in time for him to get medical attention. They sprawled Hamilton across the bottom of the boat and one account has him regaining consciousness for a moment to say: 'My vision is indistinct... Take care of that pistol. It is undischarged and still cocked. It may go off and do harm. Pendleton knows that I did not intend to fire at him.'
When the boat reached Manhattan, Hamilton supposedly told a doctor: 'Let Mrs Hamilton be immediately sent for. Let the event be gradually broken to her, but given her hopes.' He continued speaking, and told a priest: 'I have no ill will against colonel Burr. I met him with a fixed resolution to do him no harm. I forgive all that happened.'
Apparently, he continued to speak with great difficulty for several hours. It is fitting that a man who drowned his political opponents in an enormous quantity of pro-federalist argument should have spoken for a long time and with great composure. Accounts of Hamilton's last words differ. Significantly, though, this man with much to say refused to go quietly.