© Another Day in the Country
I’ve not thought of myself as a history buff, but recently I’ve been reading some historical books. My latest was a biography of Thomas Jefferson. Having always thought of him as a closet liberal, a free thinker, and a very amazing man who by some miracle of miracles authored our Declaration of Independence, I was surprised to learn that he did some rather despicable things.
I knew that he’d had slaves, so that wasn’t a big revelation. I’d also read before that he’d had a longstanding relationship with one of those slaves and had fathered her children. What I didn’t know was that she and his deceased wife had the same father.
Once again, the horror of bigotry because of the color of someone’s skin washed over me. How abhorrent that there have been times in our collective history where people were considered acceptable or not acceptable because of their color. And it was a time very much within my memory. Now it seems ludicrous (doesn’t it?) where once it was considered normal. And it surely was, as it is today, that even Jefferson, an unusual, educated man in his era, someone who turns out to be my hero, was still influenced by the general ideas of his time.
It makes me wonder about the general ideas of my time — what are they?
One of those general ideas that I hear mouthed around is that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. The belief that we are in deep trouble both economically and spiritually with the general assumption that crooked bankers and politicians are new to our age. If you read your history books, you’ll probably discover, as I did, that greed and deception have been around for as long as anyone can remember.
Another general idea that I’ve heard said is that the younger generation is a mess. “What’s the world coming too?” I used to hear my father wax eloquent from the pulpit after he’d read his latest issue of Time magazine. Jefferson struggled to be optimistic.
“I think, with you that it is a good world on the whole, that it has been framed on a principle of benevolence, and more pleasure than pain dealt out to us,” he wrote to his friend John Adams in 1816. Jefferson took the broadest of views: “I indeed sometimes fail, but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy.”
Adams was less sanguine.
“I dare not look beyond my nose into futurity,” he wrote back to Jefferson, “Our money, our commerce, our religion, our national and state constitutions, even our arts and sciences are so many seed plots of division, faction, sedition, and rebellion. Everything is transmuted into an instrument of electioneering.”
It sounded to me like he’d been listening to the evening news. Jefferson wrote back that all in all, with all its faults, he still believed in the power of the people.
“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their indiscretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power,” Jefferson wrote.
And with that the man set about establishing the University of Virginia, to educate the mind and will of the next generation.
And here I am, a lot of decades later, the product of his dream with my university education and my mind brimming with ideals for everything from equality to ecology and I have this partially flawed man who fell in love with an already married woman and tried to seduce his best friend’s fiancé, to thank from my freedom!
Amazing isn’t it that such good things can come from people who aren’t always at their best? This mix is a mark of our humanity, what we all have in common.
Thomas Jefferson was a politician (a career path I inherited a mistrust for as a child of my times) who sought office and once in office tried to solve the problems of his day and set a course for the future within the constraints of his time and place (which I greatly admire). Jefferson fought for a particular habit of mind and of government that gave the many, more of a role to play in the fullness of time, than the few, and for this I will be every grateful.
May we be as courageous to speak up, take risks, and fight for what’s right (even if we lean left) on another day in the country.