Around lunchtime on July 4th, 1826, Thomas Jefferson died in his bed at Monticello. America’s third president was 83 years old, had battled declining health for nearly 10 years, and didn’t go alone; five hours later, former president John Adams died of heart failure in his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. Among Adams’ last words: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” For better or worse, news never reached Adams that this was no longer the case.
The astounding coincidence that America’s second and third presidents both died on the exact 50-year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence they both labored so hard to pass was not lost on their peers. Congressman Daniel Webster called their long lives and timely deaths “gifts of Providence,” proof that God really did shed his grace on the USA. Then, in 1831, Independence Day claimed a third Founding Father. James Monroe—our fifth president and a hero of the Revolutionary War—passed at the age of 73, on the 55th anniversary of American Independence.
Independence Day is, without contest, the single deadliest day for American presidents. If you’re wondering why, you’re not alone. After Monroe’s passing in 1831, papers called the Presidential Deathday a “coincidence that has no parallel,” so extraordinary that any precedent was “scarcely to be found in history.” But now, with the benefit of nearly 200 years of hindsight, we may be able to guess at an answer. And it has to do with the fact that you’re more likely to die on your birthday than any other day.
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It’s sad, but true. A 2012 study of more than two million people found that any one us is 14% more likely to die on our birthday than any other day of the year. The reason is twofold: for one, deaths by falling, heart attack, and stroke show a huge uptick each b-day. The takeaway? People are prone to partying too hard—literally eating, drinking, and dancing themselves to death. But the second reason is far more unusual, and the one that may give us an insight into the presidential death trend: death by cancer, cardiovascular disease, and scores of other common illnesses also spike on birthdays.
Some researchers believe that patients suffering with chronic diseases like these may likely pick an upcoming holiday as a sort of psychological waypoint for survival. If a person can just fight the sickness inside them until one more Christmas, the thinking goes, she has one last chance to surround herself with loved ones, happy memories, and good spirits. When the special day passes, perhaps they will to fight passes too. Adding fuel to the theory, Christmas and Thanksgiving are among the top dates for deaths by natural causes in America (after birthdays).
Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe all died on the nation’s birthday—a nation they, er, helped birth—after long fights with chronic illnesses. Jefferson himself is said to have awoken in his deathbed in the middle of the night on July third and asked those around him, “This is the Fourth?” When his grandson said it soon would be, Jefferson denied a dose of laudanum from his physician. “No, doctor, nothing more.”
Did Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe will themselves to resist death until one more Independence Day? A century later, did presidents Harry S. Truman and Gerald Ford will themselves to stay alive until December 26th—the second most popular POTUS death day—to experience one last holiday with their loved ones? We’ll never know for sure. But we do know this: three good American presidents have died on our nation’s Independence Day (so far). This July Fourth, pour a little Sam Adams onto the grass for them, suck in a deep breath, and enjoy the life they laid out for us. Just don’t enjoy it too hard.