Save Cornwells Heights
Independence Day, July 4, 2006
Adams, Jefferson, Bunker Hill, and Powerball
It’s the Fourth of July now, and in keeping with this website’s tradition of writing of things other than trains on special days, important days, herewith is a July 4th story, connected this day from the dots of history, some certain tracings of which you will probably not find written of anywhere else.
You may well have heard of the story of the simultaneous deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But did you know that America’s first railroad, in mid-construction, was on hand for the event, too? Or why it was being built at all? What are the odds?
To review a bit of history, in 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee of five men to draw up the Declaration of Independence. Within that committee of five, two men were chosen to actually write the first draft: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. So why is it that Jefferson gets all the credit for writing it, and John Adams none? According to an 1822 letter from John Adams to a friend, the following conversation – following Jefferson’s having suggested to Adams that Adams write the Declaration – settled the matter:
JOHN ADAMS: “I will not.”
THOMAS JEFFERSON: “You should do it.”
JOHN ADAMS: “Oh! no.”
THOMAS JEFFERSON: “Why will you not? You ought to do it.”
JOHN ADAMS: “I will not.”
THOMAS JEFFERSON: “Why?”
JOHN ADAMS: “Reasons enough.”
THOMAS JEFFERSON: “What can be your reasons?”
JOHN ADAMS: “Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business.”
JOHN ADAMS: “Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise.”
JOHN ADAMS: “Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.”
THOMAS JEFFERSON: “Well, if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.”
JOHN ADAMS: “Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. John Adams went on to become the second President of the United States, and Thomas Jefferson the third, the only signers of the Declaration of Independence to subsequently be elected to the presidency. They ran against each other for that office in 1800 as Adams was seeking his second term, with horribly dirty politicking on both sides, not unlike the current election year attack ad mentality – and some of it was even dirtier. For years after Jefferson won that election, neither was on speaking terms with the other. But in old age, they became pen pals again and enjoyed their final years in friendly and frequent correspondence. And both knew they were dying as the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence approached in the summer of 1826.
At some point in the evening of July 3rd, Jefferson roused from a coma and asked if it was the Fourth of July. Just past noon the next day, the Fourth, as the sound of the celebrating church bells of nearby Charlottesville rang out in the distance, he died at his home, Monticello.
A few hours later, John Adams died at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts (sometimes referred to as Braintree; the boundary of jurisdiction between Quincy and Braintree having moved at some point). He is often quoted as having said on that last day, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” These were not his last words, and it is sometimes disputed whether the word after “Jefferson” was actually “survives.” (The final word may have been indistinct, with others later interpolating the word “survives.”) In any event, he was aware that it was the Fourth, and he thought to speak of Jefferson. He heard both the sounds of cannon fire in celebration and the thunder of a summer storm in his final hours.
So what were the odds that two men yolked together by history at the ages of 33 and 40 might die separately but together on the fiftieth anniversary day of their grandest creation? Roughly half-a-billion-to-one, if one believes death is a random stalker. I actually tried calculating it a couple of ways – just ballpark calculations – as follows:
Suppose you assume that a man at any given age has about an equal chance of dying on any given day between his current age and 100. (Some few did live past 100 in the 18th and 19th centuries, but negligibly few.) As of July 4th, 1776, Jefferson had 24,388 days left to go to age 100. Adams had “only” 21,666. The odds that both would die on the same specific day, 18261 days later (and yes, I’m accounting for 1800 not being a leap year), is…
1 in 24,388 x 21,666, which is…
1 in 528,390,408, which is…
about 1 in half-a-billion.
The likely distribution of death dates, though, is not a linear function of time, but rather starts out low, peaks between about ages 50 and 70 (for people of that era), and tails off toward zero at age 100. Given, though, that both men died past the peak zone, at 83 and 90, the linear approximation would not seem to be biasing the odds unduly high (towards specious rarity).
Then I tried another way of calculating the odds, using historical life expectancy tables for the 1700s and the 1800s, and trying to correct for median-age-at-death vs. average-lifespan-until-death (the usual form of life expectancy reporting, though median age at death is often 15% or so higher due to fast statistical drop-off affecting averaging on the high age end). Fiddling with the statistics in as unbiased a way as I could think of, I came up with another set of numbers…
1 in 18120 [Jefferson] * 22784 [Adams], which is…
1 in 412, 846, 080, which is…
also about 1 in half-a-billion.
The two calculational techniques were fundamentally distinct in their inputs and assumptions, but they largely agreed in the end, somewhere near 1 in half a billion. Put another way, if every American citizen who was ever born was paired with exactly one other American citizen at a random day when both were in early middle age, the number of such citizen pairs you would expect to have seen die on the same day fifty years later would, at this point in history, be just about 1. Funny, that 1 pair just happened to be Jefferson and Adams. No wonder people throughout the country in 1826 seemed to sense the hand of Divine Providence somewhere tucked back behind the odds.
Put in perspective another way, the odds of winning the Powerball lottery are 1 in 146,107,962, about three times better than the odds of two middle-aged men dying on the fiftieth anniversary of their bet.
So how does America’s first railroad fit into all of this arcane odds-making? Maybe it wasn’t just the 50th Fourth that John Adams was waiting around for. Bostonians had decided, the year before, to build a great granite monument to commemorate the Battle of Bunker Hill – the bloodiest battle of the Revolutionary War, which happened a full year before the Declaration of Independence on the town’s outskirts (part of the “shoot first; declare independence later” ethic of the time). The granite for the monument was to be mined in Quincy, not far from John Adams’ home. But how did they plan to get 6-ton carted loads of granite slabs from Quincy to Bunker Hill to build the monument? Answer: Build a railroad. Ground was broken to build the Granite Railway of Quincy on April 1st, 1826, three months and three days before John Adams died. He surely knew it was coming. Three months and three days after he died, the railroad was officially opened for business. It had wooden rails topped with iron plates, and its only “locomotives” were horses, as steam engines for railroad use were still a few years away in America at that time. But it was nonetheless a working railroad – America’s first – standing watch in Quincy for the death of Adams. What are the odds?
Five years to the day after Jefferson and Adams died, James Monroe, America’s fifth President, also died on July 4th, 1831. And in 1836, James Madison, America’s fourth President and the “Father of the Constitution” died on June 28th, a full six days before the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. After that, and perhaps somewhat happily for the nervous loved ones of American Presidents, the art of synchronized presidential dying seemingly just faded away. Calvin Coolidge (or perhaps his mother), in a bit of a trend-bucking coup, managed a synchronized birth for himself on July 4th, 1872.
So, for all this, is the world really random – like winning Powerball – or is there something else afoot? If dead Presidents, America’s half-finished first railroad, and the coming of Calvin Coolidge have anything to say about it… Well, you decide. What are the odds?
In closing, I have to note just one more very, very important July 4th birthday – that of my wife, Joyce. Today marks the twentieth time her birthday has come around since we met nearly two decades ago. It has been her support throughout this past year which has allowed me to work the Cornwells Heights problem and politics to the extent that I have. It is with her support that we continue. And year after year now, I’m grateful that America, on July 4th, always comes through with an appropriate show (fireworks!) to celebrate her role in my life – not to mention the birth of the once and future greatest country on earth.
What are the odds?
Have a wonderful Fourth of July!
– Rick Booth, firstname.lastname@example.org