No one particular reason for posting this quote from Thomas Jefferson, which is a line from a letter written in his ever-reflective old age. It is a personal favorite, and if there needs to be a reason a quick look at this morning’s news was reason enough. In an age of apathy, obsession with entertainment, and the mistaken belief that the average American can do nothing to change the course of our beleaguered democratic republic, Mr. Jefferson’s words are sharper than a two-edged sword. Knowledge is power — why do you think your government wants to watch you? Once you know, act. The United States will only remain a republic of constitutionally protected men and women if we work to keep it that way. Those ideas worked for Jefferson and his colleagues when they declared independence, supported a war that made “liberty” its credo, and built a nation of exceptional value. Those ideas will work for us today if we still are willing to work for our freedom and pay the price for liberty rather than laziness.
Tag Archives: liberty
Memorial Day began in the years following the Civil War to honor the dead on both sides of the conflict. Rooted in ancient commemorations of war dead that included bringing offerings to the graves of fallen warriors, the event was originally called Decoration Day because of efforts to clean gravestones and decorate graves with flowers. Like so many things associated with a war often called “the Second American Revolution,” Memorial Day has themes of death and rebirth that align with Abraham Lincoln’s charge that we “never forget what they did here” as the nation warred so there could be “a new birth of freedom.”
In 2013, there are those who ask if the nation is locked in perpetual warfare. War, the cruelest act that humans perform, is close to my mind — many members of my family are military or retired military who experienced warfare first hand. No matter what their personal politics, all say that if the United States fights a war it had better do so with the understanding that young men and women die so a nation called the United States of America will live. We have a way of life, a culture of rights and opportunities, that marks us as an exceptional nation in the scope of world history. If the nation lives, we keep that culture. If it the nation is diminished or dies, another, less favorable political culture replaces the one we cherish. It is that simple.
The Declaration of Independence recognized that idea. The American Revolution had been a shooting war for more than a year. But the Declaration made clear that liberty, equality of political rights, equality of economic opportunity, and personal freedom were worth the fight. Too often, professionals in both history and education present American history as an unremitting story of oppression. The revolution in the writing of history that forced the craft to examine marginalized people undoubtedly improved scholarship and told stories about our past that had gone unnoticed or forgotten. However, in an effort to avoid the pitfalls of excessive American exceptionalism many professional historians have gone too far in the other direction, producing exceptionalism of another kind: We are so bad, so very bad, and there is little worth acknowledging in the traditional story of American liberty. I humbly suggest that this approach is no longer useful to the craft of history. It is exhausted; it tells us nothing new; it has lost its critical edge.
Besides, those traditional ideas in the Declaration have often been the source of our survival as a nation, even a civilization. For reasons other than a grateful sense of patriotism, I am glad the men at Valley Forge and Saratoga, Antietam and Gettysburg, Normandy Beach and Iwo Jima, the A Shau Valley and Da Nang did not choose to see the history of this nation in the same way many professors and social studies teachers do. Belief in the liberty and freedom described in the Declaration sustained many who fought for this nation’s survival when there was little else to trust in. When the British sent the largest invasion fleet in their history to put down the American Revolution– so large it was only dwarfed 170 years later by D-Day –Congress spent two days revising the draft of the Declaration. George Washington ordered the Declaration read to his troops. “Wars, it understood, were not won by ships and sailors and arms alone. Words, too, had the power to serve victory,” wrote one historian about their actions. There must be something good and worthy in that fact of American history. That fact is worth remembering along with those who gave the last, full measure of their devotion.
The most common image of Thomas Jefferson is the Sage of Monticello, an intellectual and political luminary who rose above the tawdriness of politics in a way that defies gravity. Jefferson himself preferred the reputation he gained during the last decade of his life as the Pen of Liberty, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, founded the secular University of Virginia, and convinced the Virginia legislature to adopt his bill for religious liberty. (If a man’s tombstone is any indication of how he wishes history to assess him, Jefferson’s self-composed epitaph speaks volumes.)
As in all matters Jeffersonian, the reality is far more complex. Few biographers have examined Jefferson’s political career – and a career politician he was. Schooled in roughhouse Virginia politics from the first time he rubbed shoulders with the royal governor during his college days at William and Mary, his career was marked by tactics familiar to anyone in the cockpit of partisan politics today. Jefferson frequently used surrogates to fight his battles on controversial issues, remained silent in the face of criticism (the Sally Hemmings controversy is one famous example of the Sphinx of Monticello at his most mute), and practiced the art of the well-placed contradiction (for example, publicly espousing the “Jeffersonian” ideal of open, limited, constitutional government while secretly negotiating the Louisiana Purchase and then presenting the deal to Congress as fait accompli).
Jon Meacham in his new book Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power spends much-needed time in the political world of Thomas Jefferson, and it is a welcome visit. One always can be cynical about Jefferson, a trend that has marked at least the last 40 years of Jefferson studies that often can be boiled down to a simple statement: Jefferson is an unknowable hypocrite who declared “all men are created equal” while sexually enjoying at least one of his slaves and clinging his entire life to the continuance of slavery as an institution. The questions about Jefferson and slavery are perennial and unavoidable, but Meacham convincingly portrays Jefferson as a man who understood the emerging crop of voters in the new republic as men (remember the times) dedicated to representative government and agrarian opportunity. The book is particularly clear on Jefferson’s role in the growth of what would become the Democratic Party, though Jefferson swore his entire life that he was not the founder of any political party and his efforts to reverse the Federalist agenda of the Washington administration were simply attempts to preserve the republican spirit of the American Revolution and a rejection of monarchial power he believed Alexander Hamilton favored. (Hence, the first name of the first “Democratic Party,” the Jeffersonian Republicans.) Yet, Jefferson’s own words clearly detail his belief that in a free society, differences of opinion will naturally give birth to partisan factions. The agenda the factions pursue is what really matters. As Jefferson once wrote to his friend Henry Lee in 1824:
“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last one of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.”
Considering 1824 is the year of the first presidential election cycle that recorded the popular vote and the inaugural year of what some American historians still call The Era of the Common Man, Jefferson was a clear-eyed analyst of what would forever mark the landscape of national politics in the United States. From then on, a two-party political system each claiming a vision of liberty that they would present to the people while pursuing the same object, namely what is good for nation, would dominate American national politics. Again, like so many things about Jefferson, the idea is simple but the reality is often monstrously complex. Meacham, however, navigates his way through the thicket.
A brief but thorough review of the book is here. As biographies go, this is a welcome new approach to Jefferson, a man whose obvious flaws still do not drown his lifelong contribution to the growth of government by the people and for the people through the sometimes seamy but always necessary pursuit of power on behalf of the people, not the government.
A puckish attitude on a Friday evening made it impossible to resist this contemporary hat tip to the original painting by Peter F. Rothermel “Patrick Henry Before the Virginia House of Burgesses” (1851). It actually portrays Henry’s “If this be treason, make the most of it!” speech against the Stamp Act of 1765, not his famous “Liberty or death!” call for Virginia to send to troops to the Revolutionary War in 1775. Still, it is a funny bit of timely satire that makes me ponder what Henry would say if he knew that a time would come when “liberty” would mean “the freedom to take all federal dollars within the law.”
Yale law professor and novelist Stephen L. Carter offers his perspective on Abraham Lincoln as a touchstone for what Americans define as a good politician in an essay at the Bloomberg.com Web site. Carter admits his indulgence in the guilty pleasure of viewing “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” prompted him to write the piece. I thought the movie sucked (yes, I am indulging in middle-school humor) because it drowns viewers in scenes shot purely to emphasize 3-D special effects and the Lincoln portrayed in the film is no more exciting than Joe Dokes: Vampire Hunter or anyone else given the task of re-slaying the undead. (I have to admit that the best moment in the movie was a scene that wryly portrayed Jefferson Davis making an unholy alliance with the vampire nation to provide bloodsuckers who would fight on the side of a slave-holding republic.)
Carter writes about the current generation’s admiration of Lincoln and how he believes it reflects a desire for a mythical simpler age populated with political greats who accomplished mighty deeds. He understandably points out that Lincoln sometimes used questionable means to save the Union and end slavery such as suspending habeas corpus by presidential authority. But the quote that grabbed my attention is Carter’s comment that “we should try to remember what Lincoln knew, for he rarely cited other politicians as authority. Rather than invoking the greats of the past, Lincoln preferred to give reasons for his actions, and to leave judgment to the American people.” Lincoln frequently based his case for American liberty (free soil, free labor, free markets, and free men and women) on the ideas outlined in the Declaration. He needed no better reasons for his actions. As the great Harry Jaffa wrote in Crisis of the House Divided, “Lincoln did not appeal to the Declaration of Independence merely because it was our first and foremost founding document. It was, he said, the immortal emblem of man’s humanity and the father of all moral principle because it incorporated a rational, nonarbitrary moral and political standard. The equality of man and man was a necessary inference from the inequality of man and beast — and of man and God. No one possessed of a civilized conscience can fail to feel this sympathy. The empirical evidence bears Lincoln out.” Fortunately, not even a great civil war could drive a stake through the heart of the ideas that were at the heart of Abraham Lincoln: America’s Greatest President, and our greatest exponent of the value of the Declaration.
My goodness, it’s been a while since my last post. I could offer excuses, but they are pretty dull and very much in the realm of the personal. Perhaps it is time to resort to an excuse I’ve longed to use my entire life.
But time gives a person a chance to think things through. Liberty is the right to protect the God-given rights possessed by human beings and to protect those rights by force if necessary from anyone using arbitrary power to strip them of their liberties. My assertion in Part 2 is a serious one: Liberty is worth fighting for. Do I mean with arms and war? When the occasion is right, yes. (Note to Homeland Security: This post is not a call to armed revolution against the government of the United States.) Today of all days is worth discussing what that fight means during times of peace.
I hold a profound sense of wonder regarding the achievements wrought by the men and women of the Revolutionary Generation who were guided, encouraged, and challenged by the words of the Declaration. Many of my colleagues (as well as many professional historians in the academy) tend to regard any awe toward the traditional heroes and heroines of America’s past as sentimental, even tasteless by the standards of intellectual and political correctness, or evidence of triumphalism, that most egregious of the historian’s sins that promotes a nation’s cultures or achievements over the culture and achievements of others. As unfortunate as those assumptions are, what is even more harmful is the consequences of those attitudes, namely that nothing good can come from that sense of wonder. The most potent antidote to that fallacy is a simple conclusion: We live on the far side of democratic revolutions that occurred more than two centuries ago, and we take for granted that democracy is simply the chosen form of government any reasonable human being would tolerate. The fact that reasonable human beings accepted that drastic change is jaw-dropping when viewed in hindsight. Popular government had a bad reputation among 18th and 19th century students of history and politics: Shaky at best, even in the hands of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and sometimes murderous as the English Commonwealth became under Oliver Cromwell. Monarchy was the “gold standard” for political stability and reliability, tested by time for its efficiency, and Great Britain had created a constitutional monarchy that offered its subjects political liberties that were (before the American Revolution) second-to-none. Even in the colonies whose early battle cry before the Revolution was “no taxation without representation,” one of the most democratic colonies was Rhode Island (known to its contemporary detractors as “Rogue’s Island”), and it was renowned for its “restless state,” eighteenth-century shorthand for a population swayed constantly by demagoguery. Carter Braxton, one of the Virginians delegated to the Second Continental Convention, presented the Rhode Island political paradigm as an example why Americans should not declare independence, forsaking a king and Parliament that at least kept order. When Jefferson wrote, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” there were plenty of people from all walks of life – including Americans struggling to decide whether to support the revolution that the Declaration embodied – who believed he was drafting a recipe for anarchy. Much has been written about how the American Revolution prevailed in the face of armed opposition from the British Empire, the most potent economic, military, and political force of the 18th century world. What is even more amazing is how so many men at the apex of the colonial social pyramid backed a revolution that gained them nothing but the chance to lose their status and wealth through support of a republican, anti-monarchial revolution – and many of them were the writers and signers of the Declaration. They gave power away. If that does not prompt a sense of wonder in an observer regarding the events that created our nation, what will? That sense of wonder and admiration is part of the fight.
Ordinary Americans still hunger to know more about why America is great. They have a sense of duty regarding the United Statesand a deep respect for its founders. In addition, they are intelligent people, and many, many Americans know (at the very least) that their revolution changed the world. They want to discover why it is both legitimate and valuable to have a sense of wonder about the Founder’s accomplishments, and why our shared heritage is the only thing we can claim that makes us Americans. They know that this nation is more than a place where the economically down-trodden from other lands can make more money, or just one nation among many other nations. They see the value of the Declaration every day in a nation that has made the world a better place because America was founded with a careful choice of words. Those words are worth reading and it worth the time to examine the ideas and history behind them. Reading and understanding the Declaration and how it applies today with its timeless values is part of the fight.
The Declaration is our heritage; it also is our history.The Declaration is more than a document that produced a state or described a political reality. One of those Americans was among our greatest. As I worked both on my book and the numerous entries to this blog, I became increasingly aware of the long shadow that Abraham Lincoln cast over the question of the importance and influence of the Declaration.
No citizen of this nation understood the Declaration better; he is among the few who lived its promise to its fullest. Lincoln once stated that he never had a feeling that did not spring from the Declaration of Independence and he spent his life defending the principles of political freedom, free markets and the economic opportunities it describes (he called it “the right to rise”) for Americans both black and white, as well as its defense of the morality of self-government that became the heart of this nation.Lincoln found those self-evident truths important, and when we commonly say that he “saved the nation” we must remember that he did not save a geographical entity, which had protected the enslavement of other human beings through lines drawn on maps that delineated slave and free. He worked to the day he died to save the enlightened love of freedom and liberty that the Founders declared – that is the nation he loved and saved. If we choose to be more like Lincoln when we exercise our citizen’s duty, then we are part of the fight.
I am keenly aware of America’s failures. Our government has fought cruel, unnecessary wars. Women have been treated as less-than-equal-human beings without the rights of this nation’s male citizens. Slavery was a cancer in the body politic of the republic, and blacks were held in political and economic subjugation long after America fought its bloodiest war to end the blight of human bondage. Loyal Japanese-American citizens were wrongfully placed in internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Anyone who has graduated from many public high schools and American universities has learned little else. But I am also aware that this great nation has inestimable worth because of our political heritage. Millions can justifiably thank God on a daily basis for the efforts of Americans who worked, and even died, in the cause of freedom and liberty. Too often, professionals in both history and education present American history as an unremitting story of oppression. The revolution in the writing of history that forced the craft to examine marginalized people undoubtedly improved scholarship and told stories about our past that had gone unnoticed or forgotten. However, in an effort to avoid the pitfalls of excessive American exceptionalism many professional historians have gone too far in the other direction, producing exceptionalism of another kind: We are so bad, so very bad, and there is little worth acknowledging in the traditional story of American liberty. I humbly suggest that this approach is no longer useful to the craft of history. It is exhausted; it tells us nothing new; it has lost its critical edge. Besides, those traditional ideas have often been the source of our survival as a nation, even a civilization. For reasons other than a grateful sense of patriotism, I am glad the men at Valley Forge and Saratoga, Antietam and Gettysburg, Normandy Beach and Iwo Jima, the A Shau Valley and Da Nang did not choose to see the history of this nation in the same way many professors and social studies teachers do. Belief in the liberty and freedom described in the Declaration sustained many who fought for this nation’s survival when there was little else to trust in. When the British sent the largest invasion fleet in their history to put down the American Revolution– so large it was only dwarfed 170 years later by D-Day –Congress spent two days revising the draft of the Declaration. “Wars, it understood, were not won by ships and sailors and arms alone. Words, too, had the power to serve victory,” wrote one historian about their actions. There must be something good and worthy in that fact of American history. If we know both our weaknesses as a nation and the strength of the words that have changed us for the better, we are continuing the fight.
The Declaration of Independence is worth knowing and understanding. Some words are better than others; some words are more important than others. It is no surprise that it is often the outsider or an admirer from another nation who comprehends the truth of the Declaration with far more respect and even awe than many American citizens. In 1990, the late Vaclav Havel, then the newly elected president of a Czechoslovakia freed from Soviet tyranny, stood before Congress to describe the hopes of his liberated nation rising from the end of the Cold War. Speaking in his native tongue, Havel said:
As long as people are people, democracy, in the full sense of the word, will always be no more than an ideal. One may approach it as one would the horizon in ways that may be better or worse, but it can never be fully attained. In this sense, you, too, are merely approaching democracy. You have thousands of problems of all kinds, as other countries do. But you have one great advantage: you have been approaching democracy uninterruptedly for more than 200 years, and your journey toward the horizon has never been disrupted by a totalitarian system ….
Wasn’t it the best minds of your country, people you could call intellectuals, who wrote your famous Declaration of Independence, your bill of human rights and your Constitution and who, above all, took upon themselves practical responsibility for putting them into practice? The worker from Branik in Prague that your president referred to in his State of the Union message this year is far from being the only person in Czechoslovakia, let alone in the world, to be inspired by those great documents. They inspire us all; they inspire us despite the fact that they are over 200 years old. They inspire us to be citizens.
Then, Havel spoke these words in English to his electrified audience:
When Thomas Jefferson wrote that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” it was a simple and important act of the human spirit. What gave meaning to that act, however, was the fact that the author backed it up with his life. It was not just his words; it was his deeds as well.
Jefferson and the revolutionary generation – men and women, white and black – performed deeds that make us pause even now and reflect on the power and the influence of their work of changing ideals into a political reality. Eleven years after Congress issued the Declaration, James Madison wrote, “Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society.” The Declaration of Independence was the birth-cry of a nation that has changed the lives of millions with words with a significance rarely seen in history. Our lives as Americans cannot be lived with complete meaning if we do not understand what Vaclav Havel, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, slaves yearning for freedom, abolitionists who challenged human bondage, and so many others understood as self-evident truths. We should learn them. It is the only way we will stay in the fight.