Of the 56 delegates who had signed the Declaration of Independence, three lived to see July 4, 1826, our nation’s 50th birthday. They were John Adams, age 90, Charles Carroll, 88, and Thomas Jefferson at 83.
Naturally, all three of those surviving founding fathers were invited to attend a big July 4 party being thrown by Roger Chew Weightman, the mayor of Washington at the time. Unfortunately, although Jefferson would’ve liked to attend, his health was deteriorating, and he had to decline the invitation. Interestingly, his “RSVP letter” is really stirring and will hit home with any Second Amendment supporter as a sublime testament to individual liberty.
Declaring independence from Great Britain was, of course, a decision to overthrow the government by taking up arms against it. Jefferson describes it poetically as a “bold and doubtful election between submission or the sword.” Despite the tremendous cost of the Revolutionary War, it was the right decision. With pride and relief, Jefferson writes: “Our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made.”
He also expresses hope that the United States will serve as a beacon of liberty, leading the people of the world by example:
“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 & security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. … these are grounds of hope for others.”
The importance and relevance of the Second Amendment here is transparent: without an armed citizenry, none of it would have been possible. This is doubtlessly why Jefferson was one of the most adamant proponents of gun ownership in U.S. history.
Here is the full text of the letter, along with the photographs below (courtesy of the Library of Congress):
The kind invitation I receive from you on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the 50th. anniversary of American independance; as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day. but acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to controul. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. 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 & security of self-government. that form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. 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 favored 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.
I will ask permission here to express the pleasure with which I should have met my ancient neighbors of the City of Washington and of it’s vicinities, with whom I passed so many years of a pleasing social intercourse; an intercourse which so much relieved the anxieties of the public cares, and left impressions so deeply engraved in my affections, as never to be forgotten. with my regret that ill health forbids me the gratification of an acceptance, be pleased to receive for yourself, and those for whom you write, the assurance of my highest respect and friendly attachments.