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:
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…)
…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.
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.
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.
To be continued….
*Listen to the podcast edition here or on iTunes
Sources and Inspiration:
Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.
Jenkinson, Clay. The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Podcast.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. ‘I Have A Dream’ Speech, 1963.
Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House, 2012.
‘Timeline of Jefferson’s Life’. Monticello.org. Website of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
‘Washington, D.C.: Sites Associated with Thomas Jefferson’. Monticello.org. Wiki, Thomas Jefferson Foundation.