Yesterday was the Fourth of July, the day we in the United States have celebrated for the past 240 years as a day of independence and freedom. Yet as much as I cherish freedom (and I do), I have come to think of the Fourth as Forgiveness Day — because it always makes me think of Adams and Jefferson.
John Adams, the scrappy lawyer from Massachusetts, and Thomas Jefferson, the gentleman-farmer from Virginia, were two of the three prime architects of the Declaration of Independence (Ben Franklin being the third). During those heady years they became close colleagues and, despite being temperamental opposites (or perhaps in part because of it), exceptionally close friends.
That all changed with the election of 1800, when the sitting president (Adams) ran against his sitting vice president (Jefferson). In that distinctly human sort of reverse alchemy that can turn gold into lead and lemonade into lemons, the two now became bitter enemies, facing off in what still stands today (yes, even today!) as a down-and-dirty landmark in gutter politics.
One attack on Jefferson claimed that if he were elected, “we would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution” and the United States would become a nation where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.”
A counterattack on Adams held that the incumbent was a rageful, lying, warmongering fellow; a “repulsive pedant” and “gross hypocrite” who “behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character.”
The two did not speak for years.…
And then, decades later, seemingly out of the blue, the friendship miraculously healed itself. Long after both were gone from public life, Adams wrote Jefferson a letter, and they not only reconciled but proceeded to engage in one of the richest correspondences in the history of American letters.
At the end, the one in Quincy and the other in Monticello, the two were so connected that they both held onto their last breaths until the same day: July 4, 1826, exactly one half-century since that fateful signing that had first brought their friendship so closely together. They died just hours apart, friends to the last.
So for me, there are two July Fourths: it is a celebration of independence, and at the same time, a celebration of reconciliation.
I have never run for political office. But I know what it’s like for friendship to turn into bitter feud.
Thirty years ago I met an ambitious young man named Larry Liebermann. A student in a class I taught, Larry came to work in my health center as an assistant and apprentice. We got into business together. Our enterprise took off and soared. Our lives thrived. Our friendship, alas, did not.
Early on, something went wrong, and our relationship went off the rails. We both had our opinions of where (and why) it went sour. No doubt, each of was “right,” in his own way — but being right is vastly overrated. As the feud simmered and bubbled, a lot of things were said behind each other’s backs. At times it got ugly. Civil in public, we worked together as colleagues when necessary. And that was that.
Then, ten years later — out of the blue — I decided enough was enough. I called Larry on the phone and said I was sorry for all the years of rancor and grateful for all he’d done. I told him I was proud of him, and as far I was concerned, the hatchet was not only buried but disintegrated.
I would say that phone call initiated a slow healing process that gradually led to a deep and lasting friendship — except there was nothing slow or gradual about it. It was instantaneous: from that day on we became fast friends again. Far closer, in fact, than we’d ever been in first place.
A few years later, I was pulled out of sleep early one Tuesday morning by a phone call from a mutual friend with the terrible news. Larry was dead — killed in a freak accident. Not even forty years old.
I missed him then, badly; I miss him still today. But I’m thankful that we were both able to find our way out of that raging river of bitter antagonism and back onto the soft grassy banks of forgiveness. I can only imagine how much joy Adams and his old friend Jefferson must have felt to find their way back into each other’s good graces again. That’s how it felt with Larry. I treasure those last few years of friendship we had.
They say it’s difficult to forgive — but it’s simply not true. It is the holding on to being wronged, and to being right, that is so difficult and so full of effort. That’s the part that takes a white-knuckled grip of grim determination to sustain.
But the forgiving part? That’s as easy as letting go.
It can happen in the stroke of a pen — or the breath of a phone call.
Photo: As Ana and I prepared to watch our local fireworks display last night, the sky overhead whispered, “Here, let us show you how it’s done.”