by John Ragosta
I had a wonderful time this weekend, not only meeting a lot of fine folks, but also learning some things.
Thinking back briefly on the conference, I had a few immediate thoughts. First, in a conference about Jefferson’s love of the written word, one might have more methodically explored his famous texts – Summary View, the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms (his version), the Declaration, Notes on the State of Virginia, the Head and Heart Letter, or the Adam and Eve Letter – and the historiography concerning each. We really only dug into the particular words and arguments concerning Summary View, the most obscure and disparaged of his major works.
Instead, we took an expanded view of Jefferson’s love of the written word and its significance. We saw his words in letters to children and grandchildren (and their observations on him); the correspondence with his private secretary, an “adoptive son,” provides another perspective on his use of words; we studied Jefferson’s treatment of scripture, some of the words of which he loved; the power of some of his most precious written words to affect policy even today was considered, and the power and beauty of written words that were intended to be spoken. All of these are interesting ways to understand more fully Jefferson’s love of the written word.
This divergent approach reflects the efforts of modern historians to take our understanding beyond idolization of a Founding Father, what Peter Onuf might refer to as fetishizing the Founders. Rather, looking at those around the Founders, and the influences on them and that they had on contemporaries, is equally important to understanding the early modern world. This trend of expanding our vision is both good and essential. Bringing back into our historic perspective women, African Americans, Natives, children, different classes of people, … is essential for any valid understanding of history.
Yet, in expanding our vision, we need to be careful not to forget why we honor the Founders in the first place. This weekend, while walking the Grounds before breakfast, I came each day upon the monument to Jefferson just north of the Rotunda, dedicated to preserving the teachings of the Founders. On that monument are representations of liberty breaking the bonds of tyranny, a blind justice with scales, law preserving religious freedom.
Returning our focus to those things might make some uncomfortable. After all, in honoring those Founders, for too long we forgot, or attempted to hide how unjust they could be, how tyrannical, bigoted, small minded…how human. For years, Monticello guides would not even mention the slaves who built the plantation and lived and worked there, perhaps in passing referring to “servants.”
Jefferson, too, was painfully aware of his and his generations’ many shortcomings. Slavery, obviously, and I do not even attempt to defend Jefferson in that regard, a discussion for another day. As a lawyer, he was aware of injustices in his world. He saw the same for religious liberty, writing “if the freedom of religion, guaranteed to us by law in theory, can ever rise in practice under the overbearing inquisition of public opinion, truth will prevail over fanaticism,…” He knew that his vision of religious freedom, however passionately he felt about it, had not been achieved, but he never shrunk from the vision.
Recognizing and studying those failings and injustices is extremely important. But to stop with that is to miss a powerful point. If we allow the failings to obscure the principles, it is we who are diminished and impoverished.
Peter Onuf, on Thursday evening, I think was speaking to why we gather to study the words of Jefferson and his love of the written word. Jefferson, through a republic of letters, through his own words and letters in a new world of equality, saw that, as Peter said, “what is beautiful is what can be.”
Jefferson’s words, and actions, and life remind us not of how wonderful and perfect life was in the late 18th century. It was a time of human experience with the good and the bad, the sweet and the bitter. What he sees, though, what he tells us, is that America’s greatness lies not in its history, but in its promise.
Lincoln, who was weighted with almost unbearable challenges and the obvious failure of principles, was deeply dedicated to those principles nonetheless, and he honored the Founders for having declared the principles, even as he struggled to preserve them. Lincoln wrote: “All honor to Jefferson–to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”
Truths, expressed in powerful words, matter.