Sunday, November 20, 2016

Quoting Thomas Jefferson

Last week, an open letter from several hundred students and staff at the University of Virginia was sent to the institution's president, denouncing her for quoting Thomas Jefferson in some recent communications to the student body. To describe this as stupid and childish is an exercise in stating the obvious. One might also describe it as sickeningly ungrateful, given that Jefferson was the founder of the University of Virginia. The professors and students who signed this letter would have no place to either work or learn if hadn't been for the Sage of Monticello.

This isn't the first time that Jefferson has been dragged into the mud by people utterly lacking any sense of historical perspective. Indeed, poor Thomas Jefferson seems to have become a punching bag in early 21st Century America. I've written about this phenomena before. It's absolutely true, of course, that Jefferson largely held to 18th Century attitudes regarding matters of slavery, race and gender, but that's because he lived in the 18th Century and not in the 21st. Why this is not immediately obvious to everyone is a mystery to me.

What we're seeing here is yet another manifestation of a sub-culture within American higher education that rejects a common American identity in favor of narrow group-based identities. We see it in all the nonsense about "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" and whatnot. We see it in the efforts to prevent lectures by speakers with whom some faction of the student body disagrees. And we see it in opposition to the existence of classes about the history of Western Civilization or classes which include classics written by white males in the curriculum.

Call it whatever you want, but this way of thinking is dissolving our once great institutions of higher education like a steady dripping of acid. It teaches that victimhood is somehow empowering, that we should shield ourselves from ideas different from our own, that we need to be coddled and protected rather than taught to stand on our own two feet, and that the values our republic was founded upon are worthless simply because the people who founded it happened to be white males.

Well, as my own little act of resistance, I've decided to allow Jeffersonian quotes to form the bulk of this particular blog entry.

Let's start with the epic, immortal, thirty-five words of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, which will be quoted so long as humans retain the ability to read and continue to care about liberty.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Fifty years later to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson died at his home in Monticello. He had been invited to come to Washington D.C. to participate in the anniversary celebration, but his frail health would not allow it. Instead, he wrote the following words about the document he had created, in a letter to Robert Weightman on June 24, 1826. It was his last public letter.

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 blessing and 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.

Contrary to how he is so often portrayed, Jefferson was always the champion of the common people against the ambitions of the powerful, wealthy elite (who found their champion in Alexander Hamilton). In particular, Jefferson saw the future of the republic as being tied to the fate of his yeoman farmers. His vision of an agrarian republic was beautifully articulated in an especially moving passage of his book, Notes on the State of Virginia.

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the earth.

These words should be etched in stone above the entrance to every gardening store in America. And if we have long since passed the point where Jefferson's agrarian paradise was possible, if indeed it ever was, that does not diminish the point Jefferson was making. A strong republic must have a foundation of free and self-sufficient citizens, not people who are in thrall to the wealthy and the well-connected. It's a lesson we need to remember today more than ever.

Having just passed through a presidential election of exceptional rancor and divisiveness, I think it's worth recalling the words of Jefferson's First Inaugural Address. After all, he was the first leader of a party to take up the reins of government from the opposing party and the 1800 election had been every bit as nasty of that of 2016. The very fact that the handover from Adams to Jefferson was accomplished by an election rather than through bloody violence marked, in a certain sense, the final victory of the American Revolution. Jefferson knew that he had to be conciliatory.

Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. . . [E]very difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.

The First Inaugural Address of President Jefferson also contains, in my honest opinion, the most concise yet comprehensive statement of general policy that all wise American administrations would follow. It is worth quoting in its entirety.

Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of our State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations of our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people - a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital and immediate parent of despotism; a well-disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war till regulars may relieve them; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burdened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid; the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of the person under the protection of the habeus corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected. These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and the blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.

Then there are the countless sentences taken from any numbers of letters or pamphlets Jefferson wrote, which sum up fundamental truths clearly and concisely.

I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a healthy thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. (Letter to James Madison, January 30, 1787)
I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man. (Letter to Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800)
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. (Letter to Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816) 
Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. (Letter to E. I. du Pont, April 24, 1816)
Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both. (Letter to John Adams, August 1, 1816)

The last quote is one that the students and staff who signed this open letter should take a moment to consider, for they are simultaneously guilty of both bigotry and "enthusiasm" (used in its 18th Century sense, which might be expressed today with the word "fanaticism"). They seem to know only a single fact about Thomas Jefferson - that he was an owner of slaves - and conclude from their black-and-white worldview, from which historical perspective appears to be entirely absent, that the man had nothing to say that would be worth listening to. If they had genuinely embraced education and free discussion, they would easily see that this point of view is utterly and completely wrong.

Thomas Jefferson was one of the most brilliant men ever to walk the face of the earth and his words are filled with wisdom that modern Americans need to rediscover. Indeed, we need to reclaim his wisdom now more than ever.


  1. "...steady dripping of acid." I think he's used this phrase more than my chemistry teachers.