Happy Birthday, Mahatma Gandhi!

Mahatma Gandhi spinning yarn in the late 1920's. Gandhi started the ultimate 'Shop Local' movement, in which he called on his fellow Indians to wear only homespun, locally made fabrics to counteract the British colonialist's exploitation of Indian textile worker

Mahatma Gandhi spinning yarn in the late 1920’s. Gandhi started the ultimate ‘Shop Local’ movement in which he called on his fellow Indians to wear only homespun, locally made fabrics to counteract British colonialist’s policies which impoverished and nearly destroyed India’s textile industry. I founded an apparel and accessory line and boutique in the early 2000’s based on the same principles, carrying only locally and US-made products as an alternative to buying goods made in overseas sweatshops whose workers were unprotected by labor laws. Gandhi’s and my own approach were nationalistic and protectionist, which I no longer believe goes far enough in promoting equal human rights for all. While such approaches may be a good place to start in some circumstances, a better way to go about improving the lives and prospects of workers around the world is to require our governments to institute more comprehensive labor laws and rigorously enforce them. This must include holding companies responsible for the abuses of their contractors, of course, to actually be effective. But Gandhi did, I think, point us down the right path, towards consciousness about what we buy, why we buy it, and how our market decisions effect others.

There are very few non-Americans, outside of our mother country of Britain and our godmother France, who have had a greater impact on the history of the United States and our attitudes towards human rights than the incomparable Mahatma Gandhi. For someone who preached simplicity, often wearing nothing but a loincloth, weaving his own fabric, and living a severely rustic lifestyle to exemplify his own teachings, Gandhi was a very complicated person.

He was a human rights activist, politician, journalist, social and religious reformer, and to many, a sort of messiah. Originally a British loyalist, Gandhi’s studies and personal observations led him to change his own views, often radically, many times over the course of his long life. His beliefs in the revolutionary and morally suasive power of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance were and continue to be particularly influential in the United States, beginning with the mid-20th century civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr, Gandhi’s intellectual and spiritual descendant, emerged as the leader of this movement following his role in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. King’s and Gandhi’s ideas about the civil disobedience and non-violence, in turn, both incorporate Henry David Thoreau’s ideas from his landmark essay ‘Civil Disobedience’.

Here are excerpts on Gandhi’s influence on the American civil rights movement from the encyclopedia of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University:

‘Upon his death, Mohandas K. Gandhi was hailed by the London Times as ‘‘the most influential figure India has produced for generations’’ (‘‘Mr. Gandhi’’). Gandhi protested against racism in South Africa and colonial rule in India using nonviolent resistance. A testament to the revolutionary power of nonviolence, Gandhi’s approach directly influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., who argued that the Gandhian philosophy was ‘‘the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom’’ (Papers 4:478)…

Gandhi was born 2 October 1869, in Porbandar, in the western part of India, to Karamchand Gandhi, chief minister of Porbandar, and his wife Putlibai, a devout Hindu. At the age of 18, Gandhi began training as a lawyer in England. After completing his barrister’s degree he returned to India in 1891, but was unable to find well-paid work. In 1893, he accepted a one-year contract to do legal work for an Indian firm in South Africa, but remained for 21 years. It was in South Africa that Gandhi was first exposed to official racial prejudice, and where he developed his philosophy of nonviolent direct action by organizing the Indian community there to oppose race-based laws and socioeconomic repression.

Gandhi returned to India in 1914. In 1919, British authorities issued the Rowlatt Acts, policies that permitted the incarceration without trial of Indians suspected of sedition. In response, Gandhi called for a day of national fasting, meetings, and suspension of work on 6 April 1919, as an act of satyagraha (literally, truth-force or love-force), a form of nonviolent resistance. He suspended the campaign of nonviolent resistance a few days later because protestors had responded violently to the police.

Within the next few years, Gandhi reshaped the existing Indian National Congress into a mass movement promoting Indian self-rule through a boycott of British goods and institutions…’ (Continue reading)

I’ve included a list of links of many excellent online sources on Gandhi below, including journalist and social critic Christopher Hitchen’s critique. Gandhi did, at times, express ideas and make decisions that many regard as problematic to this day, such as his early rhetoric on black Africans and his relations with some of the women in his life, including his wife Kasturba. Gandhi was no plaster saint: like the rest of us, he struggled to find truth and meaning in a world of mutually contradictory yet worthy-seeming values, principles, and goals; sometimes, like the rest of us, he didn’t get it right, and sometimes, he was very, very wrong. True understanding, I believe, is never reached through uncritical hero worship, even of one as influential, internationally revered, and I believe ultimately beneficial to the intellectual, activist, and political history of human rights as Gandhi.

Appreciating Gandhi Through His Human Side ~ by Hari Kunzru for the New York Times‘ Books of the Times, Mar 29, 2011

Civil Disobedience ~ by Kimberley Brownlee for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Gandhi and Civil Disobedience ~ from the Constitutional Rights Foundation.

In Search of Gandhi ~ by Lalit Vachani, from BBC’s Radio Four Storyville Why Democracy? series

Life of Gandhi ~ a documentary by GandhiServe Foundation: Mahatma Gandhi Research and Media Service.

Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand (1869-1948) and India Trip (1959)two entries from Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Global Freedom Struggle: Encyclopedia of the MLK Research and Education Institute at Stanford University

Mohandas Gandhi ~ by Salman Rushdie for Time magazine, Apr 13, 1998

The Real Mahatma Gandhi: Questioning the Moral Heroism of India’s Most Revered Figure ~ by Christopher Hitchens for The Atlantic, July/August 2011 issue.

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Happy Birthday, Henry David Thoreau!

Replica of Thoreau's cabin near Walden Pond, Rhythmic Quietude, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons, cropped

Replica of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond

Henry David Thoreau is the American philosopher and writer best known for two books, On Walden Pond and Civil Disobedience.

The first is about simplifying your life so as to find what it’s really all about, the second promotes breaking the law in protest when the state does wrong (think Martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail). Walden tells of Thoreau’s experiences and observations living a simple life in a cabin for two years, where he seeks to clear his mind of the encumbrances and distractions of life in society and focus on immersion in nature and the life of the mind. Civil Disobedience is an essay prompted by Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes in protest of slavery and of America’s starting a war to seize land from the Mexican government.

Here’s a list of resources, short but sweet, to introduce you to his life and work if you haven’t been already or would like a refresher. Not all are complimentary, but that’s good: we learn much from the debate over his ideas, too.

Henry David Thoreau‘, from American Transcendentalism Web

Henry David Thoreau‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Popova, Maria. ‘Happy Birthday, Thoreau: The Beloved Philosopher on How to Use Civil Disobedience to Advance Justice‘ and ‘The Spirit of Sauntering: Thoreau on the Art of Walking and the Perils of a Sedentary Lifestyle‘ in Brainpickings.org

Schultz, Kathryn. ‘Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s Moral Myopia.’ The New Yorker, Oct 19th 2015.

The Thoreau Reader: Annotated works of Henry David Thoreau – Three complete books and four essays, annotated copies of Walden and Civil Disobedience, and more…

West, Stephen. Henry David Thoreau. Episode 83 of Philosophize This podcast

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Anger and Hypocrisy, by Clay Jenkinson

Obamas on Inauguration Day 2013 by P. Souza, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Obamas on Inauguration Day 2013 by P. Souza, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I find it interesting that for eight years the anti-Obama legions kept their eyes open at all times for signs that Barack Obama was “an angry black man.” If at any time he showed the slightest impatience or raised his voice above a certain level, or spoke in something that could be thought to resemble black street English, the conservative punditry accused him of being an “angry black man.” They had slightly better luck with the First Lady Michelle Obama, who seemed to have a slightly more volatile temperament than her famously self-controlled husband. The academic papers of her young womanhood were examined for any sign that she hated white people, hated America, or sought radical revolution. Her statement in Milwaukee on February 18, 2008, that “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country,” was cited as proof that she hated white America.

That sentence was proof positive to millions of Obama detractors that we had somehow put into the White House a couple bent on destroying America, or at least the America we know and love. Every Obama association, no matter how ancient and no matter how thin–the Reverend Wright, Bill Ayes, Saul Alinsky–was routinely trotted out to prove that the President of the United States was a dangerous radical, and perhaps a treasonist.

Apparently all black men are angry and violent. You can go to Harvard or Princeton, speak in perfect grammar, dress with great elegance, exhibit ceremonial decorum not seen in the White House since Jack and Jackie, write thoughtful and eloquent books (by yourself), and exhibit an analytical capacity that even Bill Clinton rarely exhibited, and still be regarded by the yahoos as a Black Power Radical likely to reveal his core rage at any moment. Apparently, you cannot be a black President of the United States unless you have built up no resentment about the historic and ongoing oppressions of White America, and never reveal anything but a sunny minstrel temperament.That sentence was proof positive to millions of Obama detractors that we had somehow put into the White House a couple bent on destroying America, or at least the America we know and love. Every Obama association, no matter how ancient and no matter how thin–the Reverend Wright, Bill Ayes, Saul Alinsky–was routinely trotted out to prove that the President of the United States was a dangerous radical, and perhaps a treasonist.

Now, in 2016, we elect not just an angry white man, but an almost continuously angry white man. I doubt that a day went by on the two-year campaign in which Donald Trump did not lash out at some one or some group. At times he slavered in his rages. At times he became incoherent as he tried to find words sufficient for the level of anger and denunciation he felt. From the podium he singled out individuals for ridicule and abuse. He heaped abuse on American war heroes, parents of young men fallen in America’s battles, journalists just doing their job, women who had tearfully and reluctantly confessed that he groped them in public.

When was the last time in American politics when a major candidate was so angry, so often, and with such a mean-spirited manner?

If you are a student of history, you can think of only two obvious examples. Remember in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was upset by the logistics of a Republican debate in New Hampshire? His face darkened, and he said, with unmistakable anger, “I am paying for this microphone?” The reason we all remember that minor incident is because it was essentially the only time the even-tempered, genial, and happy Reagan ever lost his temper in public.

The only other modern politician worthy of comparison with Donald Trump is former Alabama Governor George Wallace in the 1960s–with his famous leer and sneer–a vicious southern racist whose every pronouncement during those years was “dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification,’” as Martin Luther King, Jr., put it.If you are a student of history, you can think of only two obvious examples. Remember in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was upset by the logistics of a Republican debate in New Hampshire? His face darkened, and he said, with unmistakable anger, “I am paying for this microphone?” The reason we all remember that minor incident is because it was essentially the only time the even-tempered, genial, and happy Reagan ever lost his temper in public.

The only other modern politician worthy of comparison with Donald Trump is former Alabama Governor George Wallace in the 1960s–with his famous leer and sneer–a vicious southern racist whose every pronouncement during those years was “dripping with the words of ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification,’” as Martin Luther King, jr., put it.

Think about it. Barack Obama was routinely accused of being an angry black man, but he wasn’t. He was about as gracious a human being as you could ever put into the Presidency (whether you like his policies or not). Donald Trump is perhaps the most angry man ever installed in the Presidency. Barack Obama had a great deal to be angry about: the history of American racism, oppression, racial profiling, segregation, lynching, belittlement. But he was invariably professional and often serene. What does Donald Trump have to be angry about? He has always been one of the most mollycoddled, indulged, and privileged of Americans, a man who can afford to install gold faucets in his homes. (Try as I might, I have never been able to find gold faucets at Home Depot).

Angry White Man with no reason to be angry: OK.

Gracious Black Man with plenty to be angry about, but beyond anger: Dangerous radical.

But as the far right likes to say, “I ain’t racist, ain’t no racism or prejudice in my body.” – CSJ

Originally published at clayjenkinson.com

– Clay S. Jenkinson is the author, educator, and scholar who created The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and is a sought-after historical impersonator, speaker, and media commentator, providing a deep but playful context to today’s events. (Bio credit: The Thomas Jefferson Hour) To discover more about Clay and his work, please visit http://www.clayjenkinson.com/

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Philosopher’s Way at John McLaren Park, San Francisco

Philosopher's Walk entry path, John McLaren Park, San Francisco

Philosopher’s Way entry trail, John McLaren Park, San Francisco. The plaque contains the trail map and text seen below

Earlier this summer, I walked the Philosopher’s Way in San Francisco. Between wrapping up the main portion of my Frederick Douglass history of ideas travel series (I have more essays in the works about his life and ideas which I’ll finish and publish over time), preparing to resume my formal education, a health issue, and a family trip, I’ve had less time to write other pieces, so I had to put this aside too. But finally, here it is.

The Philosopher’s Way is inspired by a tradition of such philosopher’s walks that are meant to inspire contemplation and an appreciation of the natural world and our place in it. I was reminded of the Hume Walk on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. In 1775, the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume helped get a park built here so that the people of Edinburgh had a beautiful and accessible place to get exercise and admire nature.

Philosopher's Way

Philosopher’s Way downloadable trail map and article, by artists Peter Richards and Susan Schwartzenburg. Courtesy of the San Francisco Arts Commission / Public Utilities Commission

An arrow marker stone marks each fork and turnoff on Philosopher's Way

An arrow marker stone marks each fork and turnoff on Philosopher’s Way

Though the parking lot is full of trash, including the largest pile of discarded whip-it canisters I’ve ever seen, the park is not. It has a wild look, only minimally pruned and landscaped. On the whole, I like it. The grassy hill leads to shady groves, that gold-and-green California look I love. Many of the overlooks of the city and the bay contain too many industrial-looking structures to be considered very beautiful in my view, but the park itself is nice. It’s only June, and already very dry. The drought’s still going strong.

mclaren-park-in-green-and-gold-san-francisco-ca-2014-amy-cools

John McLaren Park in green and gold.

San Bruno Mountain marker

San Bruno Mountain marker

Each overlook and designated view has an etched stone plaque with information about the landscape and history, and a poetic, inspirational, or thought-provoking quote.

I wander, through shade and sun, sometimes seeing only the path and trees ahead and sometimes more open views, sometimes of the surrounding hills and sometimes of the flats and water below.

San Bruno overlook from Philosopher's Way

San Bruno overlook from Philosopher’s Way

Turn in the shady path. Note the helpfully arrowed stone marker.

Turn in the shady path. Note the helpfully arrowed stone marker.

A particularly pretty view from Philosopher's Way. Note one of the arrowed stone markers

A particularly pretty view from Philosopher’s Way.

Eucalyptus, flowers, and greenery on a hillside

Eucalyptus, flowers, and greenery on a hillside

martin-luther-king-marker-at-cow-palace-overlook-philosophers-way-sf-2016-amy-coolsThere’s an overlook with a clear view of the large, sideways half-cylindrical shape of the Cow Palace, a large forum where, it turns out, Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke. An interesting tidbit of local history!

As I’ve explored much of the walk already, I sit here for a little while, then choose another spot more shielded from the sun glaring off the pages of my book. I read, and rest, and exchange messages with a faraway friend, and think a little, but mostly daydream.

After a couple of hours, I explore the rest of the trails. It’s a lovely, quiet way to spend an afternoon.

cow-palace-overlook-with-martin-luther-king-marker-philosophers-way-sf-2016-amy-cools

Cow Palace overlook with Martin Luther King, Jr. photographic marker

A hillside view from Philosopher's Walk

A hillside view from Philosopher’s Walk

A marker which tells about the native San Francisco grasses here in McLaren Park

A marker which tells about the native San Francisco grasses here in McLaren Park

another-view-of-philosophers-way-trail-mclaren-park-sf-2016-amy-cools~ Thanks, Michelle, for telling me about this place!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and Inspiration:

Philosopher’s Way: McLaren’s Contemplative Jewel‘. From SaveMcLarenPark.org

Richards, Peter and Susan Schwartzenburg. ‘Philosopher’s Way‘ trail map and article, San Francisco Arts Commission / Public Utilities Commission

Todd, Gail. ‘Philosopher’s Way in McLaren Park‘. June 5, 2013, SFChronicle.com

Happy Birthday, Henry David Thoreau!

Replica of Thoreau's cabin near Walden Pond, Rhythmic Quietude, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons, cropped

Replica of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond

Henry David Thoreau is the American philosopher and writer best known for two books, Walden  and Civil Disobedience. The first is about simplifying your life so as to find what it’s really all about, the second promotes breaking the law in protest when the state does wrong (think Martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail). Walden tells of Thoreau’s experiences and observations living a simple life in a cabin for two years, where he seeks to clear his mind of the encumbrances and distractions of life in society and focus on immersion in nature and the life of the mind. Civil Disobedience is an essay prompted by Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes in protest of slavery and of America’s starting a war to seize land from the Mexican government.

Here’s a list of resources, short but sweet, to introduce you to his life and work if you haven’t been already or would like a refresher. Not all are complimentary, but that’s good: we learn much from the debate over his ideas, too.

Henry David Thoreau‘, from American Transcendentalism Web

Henry David Thoreau‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Popova, Maria. ‘Happy Birthday, Thoreau: The Beloved Philosopher on How to Use Civil Disobedience to Advance Justice‘ and ‘The Spirit of Sauntering: Thoreau on the Art of Walking and the Perils of a Sedentary Lifestyle‘ in Brainpickings.org

Schultz, Kathryn. ‘Pond Scum: Henry David Thoreau’s Moral Myopia.’ The New Yorker, Oct 19th 2015.

The Thoreau Reader: Annotated works of Henry David Thoreau – Three complete books and four essays, annotated copies of Walden and Civil Disobedience, and more…

West, Stephen. Henry David Thoreau. Episode 83 of Philosophize This podcast

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Communitarianism, Writ Large

Listen to this podcast episode here or subscribe on iTunes

I listened to Bill Moyers’ discussion with Michelle Alexander recently, about her book The New Jim Crow and her activism against the over-incarceration of black people here in the US. Something she said really struck me, as it relates to a problem I’ve been mulling over for some time. She said:

‘…I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was, it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking… Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life….’

Alexander’s reflection on her own work illustrates our need not only to grow more expansive in our thinking in order to achieve a more just society not just locally, but globally: we need to witness and internalize the sufferings faced by other human beings who are not like us in appearance and culture, so that our instincts for empathy and for justice expand as well… Read original essay here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

 

Thomas Jefferson Sites, Part 1: Washington, D.C., First Day

First day, Sunday April 19th:

I get a late start on my first day. But that’s okay: I’ve long since made it my policy to get my rest at the beginning of a trip because three things happen when I’m sleep-deprived: 1) I’m cranky and don’t enjoy myself fully 2) It’s much harder to take in everything and remember it, and 3) I lose my sense of direction and ability to read maps. Since I need to have my good spirits and my thinking, remembering, and map-reading capabilities intact for the purposes of this trip, I sleep in. I get a late start on my first day. But that’s okay: I’ve long since made it my policy to get my rest at the beginning of a trip because three things happen when I’m sleep-deprived: 1) I’m cranky and don’t enjoy myself fully 2) It’s much harder to take in everything and remember it, and 3) I lose my sense of direction and ability to read maps. Since I need to have my good spirits and my thinking, remembering, and map-reading capabilities intact for the purposes of this trip, I sleep in.

When I finally get a move on, I head over to the Mall, and start with:

 
– The Jefferson Memorial 
It’s neoclassical in design, inspired by the ancient Greek and Roman architecture that Jefferson loved. It’s also tall, well-appointed, classy, and full of memorable quotes… like the man himself. He would also appreciate its open-air design, its setting among trees and on the water: he was quite the outdoorsman, as studious and writerly as he was. And he would love to see the crowds that visit the site continuously, people from all walks of life, admiring the building and the grounds, resting on the steps, discussing the thoughts expressed on the walls.

Jefferson would probably have protested the idea of setting up such a grand monument to himself, something so close to a shrine or a temple; he described himself as a modest man. But it’s also clear, despite his protestations to the contrary, that he enjoyed being admired, that he sought love and approval from others. I think he’d look on this monument with secret pride and gratification, and would praise its hospitable openness to the public, as available to them as he made himself and the White House during the years of his presidency, and its edification to the people’s sense of beauty and the intellect.

I visit the museum beneath the memorial, which gives an overview of his life, times, and ideas. Jefferson was born at Shadwell in Albemarle County, Virginia in 1743, his father a successful planter, his mother from a well-connected, wealthy family. Jefferson was educated at home by tutors and at boarding schools as a youth, and studied law at William and Mary College. He entered public life early, elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses at age 25. His tenure as a public servant lasted over 40 years, from congressman to minister to France to Secretary of State to President. All the while, he was a farmer, amateur scientist, inventor, architect, writer, philosopher, and whatever else captured his imagination, more details of which will come up in later posts.

As I leave Jefferson’s memorial, I waver in deciding where to go next: do I abandon the Mall and go immediately in search of other sites associated with Jefferson’s life, or do I continue on my way? It’s really a beautiful day, a bit windy, perhaps, but it’s fairly warm and there’s still some cherry blossoms left on the trees and wildflowers scattered all around the Mall’s park grounds.

I decide do something a little different this time: I usually stick to writing about the sites more or less directly related to the people I’m writing about, be it sites they visited themselves or sites created by others in their memory. But it occurs to me that I’m surrounded by memorials to people who, in addition to carrying out their own vision, carried out something of Jefferson’s vision as well. Nearly all American civic and moral leaders since Jefferson’s time reference his ideas when promoting their own, and cite his authority in carrying out their political missions. That’s to be expected: none of the members of our nation’s founding generation addressed so many matters of public concern, wrote or helped to write so many of its founding documents, explained the philosophy behind our form of government and our bill of rights so throughly, helped formulate the political structure of our government, and personally lived out our promises, our strengths, our contradictions, and our weaknesses as a nation as Thomas Jefferson, with the possible exception of James Madison and John Adams.

And no others were as widely influential, and who, while a de facto aristocrat, was more of a man of the people than Jefferson, with the possible exception of… (and who, by the way, laid the cornerstone of the Jefferson Memorial…)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

…FDR!A year or so ago, I first listened to an utterly fascinating episode of the Thomas Jefferson Hour discussing how Jeffersonian ideals may only be realizable by non-Jeffersonian means. It’s a radio show and podcast by Jefferson scholar and historian Clay Jenkinson (one of my all-time favorite podcasts, I’ve listened to every one that I could get ahold of at least once, often two or three times, except the ones about gardening, since I have no yard and hence, no garden). I recently went back and listened to again. It’s a discussion on Jefferson’s letters to Madison, and one in particular, after he had spent some years in Paris before the French Revolution. Jefferson discussed the dangerous political situation in France that resulted from a long history of a powerful and wealthy few systematically gobbling up most of the nation’s wealth and political power for themselves, leaving the majority of the population destitute. It was only a matter of time, Jefferson pointed out, before the people could take no more, and would inevitably rise up violently against their oppressors.

It’s always been the case that there will be some portion of a nation’s population that lack sufficient humanity, that are greedy and rapacious, and their thirst for power and hunger for wealth will drive them to spend their lives getting as much as they can, regardless of how many others they must harm to get it. Others might not be so purposeful in their predations, but their shortsighted efforts to increase their own personal gains without a though for the welfare of others, or a blind faith that the market will alwasy correct itself, often lead to the same harmful results. Because of this, Jefferson explains, it might very well be necessary for society to engage in some sort of redistribution of wealth.

Given Jefferson’s background as a passionate promoter of states’ rights and his fear of a too-powerful central government, this might come as a surprise to the modern reader, as it was to me when I first heard Jenkinson’s podcast on the subject, and read the letter for myself. But Jefferson was a believer in John Locke’s theory of natural rights, as Jenkinson explains, and in particular, in his theory of property rights. Our primary property right is the right of subsistence, to have enough to provide for one’s own needs, to preserve the health of one’s body and of mind. Our secondary property rights allows for the accumulation of wealth beyond that needed to maintain a happy and healthy existence, but we may only take advantage of secondary property rights if they do not infringe on the primary property rights of others.

This is the key point of property rights that many overlook today, especially those who select from Jefferson’s writings, especially his early writings before the evidence of the dysfunctional and unraveling French society tempered his views, to support their ideas about small government and absolute rights of property and contract. But Franklin Delano Roosevelt, like his progressive cousin Theodore Roosevelt, realized that the pursuit of personal gain without respect for to the primary property rights of others led to a society that systematically placed Jefferson’s ideals of a self-sufficient, educated, free citizenry out of the reach of too many people. Teddy Roosevelt, initially a more strait-laced conservative, had toured the slums of New York City, and had seen for himself how the ruthless, unrestrained pursuit of profit led to the impoverishment, sickness, and death of so many people, rendered easily exploitable by circumstance. In response, he changed his mind about the extent of rights of contract and made some reforms. Spurred on by the Great Depression, FDR carried forward the progressive vision of his cousin and overhauled the whole system, enlarging the government so it would work better for the ordinary citizen in the way Jefferson had hoped a small government would.

– Martin Luther King Jr Memorial

MLK was quite the wordsmith; besides revealing extraordinary personal bravery in the face of repeated and threatened imprisonment as well as death threats, he had a way, like Jefferson, of putting things.There are many of his memorable quotes engraved on the walls surrounding his memorial. One that’s not engraved on his memorial (but I think should be) is the one that links most directly to Jefferson and that stands out in both succinctness and explanatory power: his analogy of the promissory note from his great ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ of 1963.

At the time they were written and first put into action, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution increased the liberty of very few people. In severing themselves from Great Britain, the leaders of our new country mostly secured more rights for themselves and those like them: landowners, lawyers, merchants, and so on. The ordinary colonist lived more or less the same life just after the Constitution was ratified as before. Most free men could not vote since they were not property owners and/or were not fully literate, and no women or slaves at all could vote. Same for members of some religious minorities; this situation was one of the first political injustices to be reformed. Taxes went to a new set of leaders almost as far removed from the reality of most Americans as before. In other words, ‘taxation without representation’ was still the rule rather than the exception in the newly United States of America.

As MLK pointed out, the promissory note promising ‘liberty and justice for all’ remained unpaid: for black people, for other ethnic and racial minorities, for women, for working people. He revealed, in an eloquent and moving way (aided by his experience as a preacher), how the words of the Declaration of Independence rang hollow since ‘all …are created equal’ was not manifested in law, attitudes, and practice in the lives of far too many American people.

While he reviled and wrote and fought against slavery as a young lawyer and politician, giving up the fight after years of unsuccessful opposition to (and I add, hypocritically enjoying the benefits of) of what he called the ‘abominable crime’ of slavery, Jefferson also believed the races could not live together in peace and friendship. MLK dreamed otherwise.

 Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln, unlike Jefferson, was a man brought up in poverty, and had little formal education in his youth. Like Jefferson, he was largely self-motivated and self-taught in his advanced education, and like Jefferson, hated slavery as a young man and spoke passionately and eloquently against it, only to waffle on the issue in his later years somewhat for reasons of personal bias, and even more for political reasons. Fortunately, yet again unlike Jefferson, he came back around, and did what Jefferson had hoped and predicted future generations would do.
The violence of the Civil War was as horrific as were the centuries of slavery that proceeded it; while it’s debatable whether it could have been averted or that it was the inevitable outcome of the discrepancy between the practice of slavery, the political and moral theory informing our founding documents, and the individual human longing for freedom, Lincoln, like MLK, recognized the societal moral debt that remained unpaid, using the rhetoric of blood redemption in the words of his second inaugural address, immortalized on the right wall of his memorial: ‘…shall [the Civil War] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

And as Jefferson pointed out in his letters referring to the bloody Revolution in France, it would be unrealistic to expect that the struggle for freedom against such a deeply entrenched, cruel, and oppressive institution would be pleasant or easy. Jefferson famously wrote ‘The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.’ I hope he’s wrong when it comes to the future, though he was not wrong about the revolutions of his own time and about the worsening effects of slavery on society. There’s an excellent book I often refer to, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (a phrase borrowed from Lincoln) which, as the book’s subtitle Why Violence Has Declined suggests, indicate that, among other things, the free(ish) market world economy, the scientific and human rights revolutions, and the advances in communications are making the world a much more peaceful place than it ever has been. Perhaps these advances will give many more of us the potential to become as informed, as cosmopolitan, and as courteous as Jefferson himself.

I had come to the end of my tour of the memorials.
Between visiting the MLK and Lincoln Memorials, I had swung around to the left to see if I could stop by what is now know as Theodore Roosevelt Island, known in Jefferson’s time as Analostan. He used to visit his friend John Mason, who had a farm and mansion there. The 66 connects it to the mainland, and there’s a footpath on the bridge.

It was a blustery walk, to say the least, and I discovered that footpath reaches across, but not down to, the island. I’ll return to visit another time. But looking back, I could plainly see TJ’s memorial between the trees.My Uncle Bob, who lives in nearby Fall’s Church, Virginia, picked me up to take me on a little driving tour and then to dinner. I’m fond of my Uncle Bob, tall, handsome (a common trait of the Cools’), courteous, old-fashioned in his sensibilities and speech, seemingly grave and imposing with his deep and slightly thick voice (I was a little scared of him as a child, funny to think of that now!), but with an enthusiasm that would rival any small child’s when it comes to seeing something beautiful or discussing a subject he loves. He has a good sense of humor.
On our way around the Mall, we passed by the corner of C and New Jersey Streets, where Conrad and McMunn’s boarding house was. Jefferson lived there for a while when he was Vice President, but the building no longer stands. I check it off my list. The rest of the evening is devoted to non-Jeffersonian-themed touring and dinner.

To be continued….

*Listen to the podcast edition here or on iTunes

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Sources and Inspiration: 

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.
http://us.macmillan.com/freethinkers/susanjacoby

Jenkinson, Clay. The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Podcast.
http://www.jeffersonhour.com/listen.html

King, Martin Luther, Jr. ‘I Have A Dream’ Speech, 1963.
http://www.ushistory.org/documents/i-have-a-dream.htm

Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House, 2012.
http://www.jonmeacham.com/books/thomas-jefferson-the-art-of-power/

‘Timeline of Jefferson’s Life’. Monticello.org. Website of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/timeline-jeffersons-life

‘Washington, D.C.: Sites Associated with Thomas Jefferson’. Monticello.org. Wiki, Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

http://wiki.monticello.org/mediawiki/index.php/Washington,_D.C.