Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Suicides of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

I'm far from the cutting edge of bioethics, so I'm not familiar with the work of bioethicist Margaret Pabst Battinbut. However, according to Bradford William Short, perhaps historians should get interested in her work pretty quickly. According to Short, Battinbut makes the following assertion in her new book, Ending Life: Ethics and the Way We Die:
[T]he fact that the death dates for both Adams and Jefferson fell on a historic anniversary — the fiftieth anniversary, not the forty-ninth or fifty-first [of the Fourth of July]— may seem to stretch beyond the point of sheer plausibility the claim that this was mere coincidence. But when appeals to coincidence are insufficient, we must look for explanations in common circumstance or common cause, or for causation from one case to the other. . .
Furthermore, the issue of synchrony — whatever the individual explanations for their deaths — also leaves us with the further question of coordination. Did Adams and Jefferson think alike but act independently? Could they have had some joint understanding, reached perhaps in 1813 — when each had been corresponding with a physician, Adams with Benjamin Rush about a horse's deliberate stumble and Jefferson with Samuel Brown about lethal drugs — that they then recalled later on? Did their physicians or families think alike but act independently, or perhaps in concert? Could their families and caregivers have lied about the precise dates of their deaths, seeking to lend their demises a greater grandeur? Or was there a more orchestrated plan here, known only to these two men, or to their physicians and families, that accounts for the extraordinary "coincidence" or "grand design" of their deaths? Could it have been the mode, so to speak, to die on the Fourth if at all possible, by whatever means? After all, not just Adams and Jefferson, but three of the first five presidents of the young United States died on the 4th of July. In 1831, just five years after the deaths of Adams and Jefferson, James Monroe, the fifth president, did so as well (emphasis in original).

The idea that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams committed suicide--either coincidentally or as part of a conspiracy--is new to me. Given that it is being used to support an argument for legal suicide, etc., I suspect that Battinbut is doing some serious Clio Spinning. Perhaps we have a nominee for the next Carnival of Bad History?

7 comments:

Kate said...

I think Batinbutt need to read Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences by John Allan Paulos before she ends up on the Grassy knoll with all the other conspiracy theorists.

"Sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence"

Rob MacD said...

3 of the first 5 presidents died on the 4th of July?

Occam's razor suggests, not a suicide pact, but a deranged serial killer of founding fathers.

Just kidding.

Good luck on the home stretch to the thesis!

Marc said...

Hmmm...."The Independence Day Killer"

Thanks for good wishes!

Ahistoricality said...

Definitely a Bad History candidate, thanks.

David Hardy said...

Yes, a deranged serial killer of our founding fathers! Question: does anyone have proof that George III *really* died in 1820 after going mad? Wouldn't madness and supposed death be a convenient alibi? He's got the Prince Regent to handle business at home, while he travels the world to exact vengence!

James Madison conveniently survives July 4, 1836 -- perhaps because George III, codenamed "Elvis," has passed on during the intervening decade.

josh narins said...

I remember hearing a regular historian discuss the idea that the actual death date of one of them might well have been shifted by a day or two to match the historic date.

I think I've heard that the famous line by one, that the other had outlasted him, was also made up, afterwords.

Lying about deaths isn't even rare in context. There are numerous lies about the death of George Washington, put out there by those around after the death, to establish _their_ point (in this case, about Washington and prayer (never happened)).

Nothing in the paragraph _asserts_ that there was a suicide pact.

Marc said...

"Could it have been the mode, so to speak, to die on the Fourth if at all possible, by whatever means? "

While couched rhetorically, this certainly seems to be intended to buttress the polemical argument for a right to die. And that's the larger point: using questionable (or definitely not mainstream) history to support a contemporary argument.