Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers and third president of the United States, lived a long and storied life before passing away on July 4, 1826 at the age of 83. As the author of the Declaration of Independence and champion of democracy, Jefferson left an indelible mark on history. In his final moments, what profound and poignant words did this great statesman utter as he drew his last breath? Jefferson’s last words provide insight into the mind of a revolutionary thinker in his final hours.
Jefferson’s Health in His Final Days
In the months leading up to his death in 1826, Thomas Jefferson’s health was declining. At age 82, he was frail and frequently confined to bed rest. Jefferson was struggling with a number of chronic conditions that sapped his vitality, including rheumatism, urinary disorders, and intestinal infections. He also suffered from dementia, memory loss, and tremors in his later years which made writing difficult. Though his body was failing, Jefferson’s mind remained sharp and he continued to take an active interest in national affairs and spend time with friends and family at Monticello. Those closest to him however knew the end was near.
Jefferson’s Last Days at Monticello
As the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence approached, Jefferson was determined to live to see the day. On June 24, 1826, Jefferson was too sick to take part in festivities in Charlottesville, Virginia but sent a toast to be read in his place: “May it [the Declaration of Independence] 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.”
Jefferson’s health took a turn for the worse on July 2nd. His doctor offered bleak news, telling Jefferson’s family that there was nothing more that could medically be done for the ailing Founding Father. Jefferson held on, clinging to life, and asked to be kept abreast of the approach of July 4th. As church bells rang in Independence Day on the 4th, Jefferson drew his last breath and uttered his memorable final words.
Jefferson’s Last Utterance
According to Jefferson’s daughter Martha, known as Patsy, Jefferson awoke at sunrise on July 4, 1826 and asked her “Is this the 4th?” She told him that it was, wishing him a happy Fourth of July. Jefferson breathed his last at approximately 1:00 pm, just hours after his close friend and fellow Founding Father John Adams passed away on the same day. Adams’ final words were allegedly “Thomas Jefferson survives,” though he was unaware that Jefferson had already died earlier that day.
There are varying accounts of Thomas Jefferson’s actual last words before he died on July 4, 1826. The most commonly accepted version comes from his daughter Martha, who was at his bedside. According to Patsy, Jefferson’s final utterance was:
“Is it the Fourth?”
Upon waking on the morning of July 4th, Jefferson asked Patsy if it was in fact Independence Day. Those four words-“Is it the Fourth?”-capture Jefferson’s dedication to the country he helped establish. With his last breath, he demonstrated his lasting devotion to the spirit of 1776.
Analysis of Jefferson’s Final Words
The significance of Jefferson’s final words is profound. By inquiring whether it was July 4th, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, he demonstrated just how deeply he valued America’s core ideals. Jefferson cared deeply about democracy, liberty, and the republic he helped create. His final thoughts were not of himself, his own legacy, or more petty concerns, but of Independence Day and the revolutionary values he held dear.
Jefferson wished to live long enough to see the semicentennial celebrations of the birth of his nation. That he had America on his mind in his last waking moments shows how intricately his legacy was tied to the future success of the fledgling country. Rather than embittered about his own decline, he held onto hope for the progress of republicanism.
In Jefferson’s final months, there were clashes over how to properly observe July 4th and bitter partisan divisions threatened national unity. But on his last day, Jefferson set those differences aside and focused on Independence Day itself. His last words reflect a lifetime of commitment to American ideals, carried with him to the grave.
Other Potential Last Words
There are some alternative accounts of Jefferson’s last utterances from others present at Monticello. Most historians view Patsy’s telling as the most reliable, but these other recollections provide insight as well.
Jefferson’s doctor Robley Dunglison said that Jefferson had asked him “Is this the Fourth?” late on the night of July 3rd. He then repeated the same phrase when he woke the next day. This matches Martha’s account fairly closely.
His grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph said that Jefferson’s final words on the Fourth were “This is the Fourth of July.” This is a subtle variation that essentially relays the same meaning.
Jefferson’s enslaved servant Edmund Bacon stated that the last thing Jefferson said to him was a request to return some silver spoons that had been sent out for cleaning. This more mundane final utterance seems unlikely, though Jefferson may have said it earlier on the Fourth.
Ultimately, the consensus is that Jefferson awoke on Independence Day and ensured it was the Fourth of July before expiring. Having July 4th on his mind and lips cemented his enlightened legacy.
Why There is Uncertainty Over Jefferson’s Final Words
There are several reasons why accounts of Jefferson’s last words vary slightly:
- Jefferson’s voice was very weak and low in his final hours, making it hard to discern his exact words.
- His doctor and family may have embellished the account slightly to portray a heroic, patriotic death.
- His grandsons and physician may have misremembered details in retelling the scene later.
- Some historians suggest Martha embellished the account herself or misinterpreted Jefferson’s last murmurings.
Given these factors, we cannot know with 100% certainty his last words. However, the overall evidence weighs heavily in favor of Jefferson asking if it was July 4th as Independence Day dawned. This poetic end captures his spirit and life’s work.
Shortly after his passing on the afternoon of July 4, 1826, Jefferson’s remains were carried to the graveyard at Monticello. The small burial ceremony observed Jefferson’s own instructions for an austere affair. His only marker was a granite obelisk with the three accomplishments inscribed that Jefferson wanted remembered:
- Author of the Declaration of American Independence
- Author of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
- Father of the University of Virginia
Jefferson composed this sparse epitaph years earlier, showing his focus on civil rights and education. True to his democratic values, he was buried not as a former president or statesman, but as a man of the people, with a humble grave site. The site, within view of his Monticello home, memorializes Jefferson’s wide-ranging impact on America.
Monticello After Jefferson’s Death
After Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, his estate fell into debt. Monticello and its furnishings were sold in 1831 to settle his remaining obligations. Jefferson’s reputation suffered damage for decades due to criticism of his personal finances and relationship with slavery. The ideological battles between federalists and democratic-republicans further clouded public perception.
In the late 1800s, Jefferson’s standing was revived as both major political parties claimed him as an ideological founder. Preservation efforts began at Monticello, culminating in 1923 when the Thomas Jefferson Foundation purchased the home and property. Monticello was opened as a museum and preserved as an embodiment of Jefferson’s vision.
Today, over half a million visitors a year tour Monticello to better understand Jefferson’s life and complex legacy. The home stands as a monument to his many contributions as statesman, inventor, architect, philosopher, educator and revolutionary thinker.
Thomas Jefferson’s last great act was to insist on surviving until the 50th Fourth of July to highlight the importance of the democratic republic. By asking “Is it the Fourth?” on Independence Day in 1826, he cemented his legacy as a Founding Father and champion of liberty. With his final breath, Jefferson demonstrated enduring hope in America’s ongoing political experiment. Despite his monumental contributions, Jefferson wished to be remembered not for his resume, but for advancing freedom and opportunity for all. His final words encapsulate his spirit and the essence of his remarkable life.