I like to spend time on certain holidays remembering what they’re about. On Christmas I read the Sermon on the Mount. Last week I read about the significance of Eid al Fitr, the end of Ramadan. I do it because it’s so easy to forget what the day is actually about, why people began to celebrate it and why we should celebrate it now.
Today, the Washington Post gave part of its front page to a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote eleven days before he died, on July 4, 1826, a few hours before John Adams.
On July 4, 1826, the US was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. Three of the original signers were still alive including the second and third presidents, John Adams and Jefferson. The mayor of Washington, DC invited them to attend a special celebration but they declined because their age and health. Jefferson, however, saw it as a chance to have one last say about what the day means.
It reads like the last great effort of a sick, dying man. Jefferson was deeply depressed over the death of his granddaughter and the massive debts he had incurred. He had already sold his book collection (the largest in the US) to Congress in 1815. It started the Library of Congress, after the British had burned Congress’s earlier collection in 1814. That money and much more gone, the 88-year-old ex-president was about to lose Monticello.
The penmanship is painstaking, even while the punctuation is haphazard. He starts sentences without capital letters, but the prose still has that music we have come to know as Jeffersonian. The contradiction shows it to be the last blaze of a dying candle, but also as clear-eyed a summary of the Declaration’s meaning as any ever written.
If any Founding Father was defined by his contradictions it was Thomas Jefferson. The man who purchased the Louisiana Territory for the bargain price of $350 million (in 2017 dollars) and had at least a dozen inventions to his credit went hopelessly, humiliatingly bankrupt. And the Louisiana Purchase was actually just a deed for the right to invade and occupy Native American lands without interference from other colonial powers—the man who called Natives “in body and mind equal to the whiteman” was the same one who planned their forced removal, which his successor Andrew Jackson (who wasn’t so self-contradictory) executed.
And so it was that the same man who made that fortune which he later lost by exploiting the labor of enslaved workers, including Sally Hemings and their children, was also the man who wrote this in his final public letter:
“all eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born, with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of god. these are grounds of hope for others. for ourselves let the annual return of this day, for ever refresh our recollections of these rights and an undiminished devotion to them.”
Whatever you think of the messenger, the message is not just beautiful but timely. We face a time when a “favored few” are openly working to take away health care and living wages from the masses to make themselves even richer. We live in a time when the general spread of the light of science is being blocked and dimmed by an EPA and Energy Department that deny climate change, by an Education Secretary who wants to stifle the teaching of evolution and turn public education over to private profiteers, and…well, the White House Science Division now has a staff of zero.
The most well-known recent rebuke of the founders’ “light of science” has been the president’s hundreds of statements like this 2013 tweet: “I’m in Los Angeles and it’s freezing. Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!” And of course, there’s this one from 2012: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
If he really thinks that, why has he never mentioned it to Xi Jinping or the Chinese government? Yes, the bombing of Syria and the “beautiful chocolate cake” dominated Xi’s visit. And last Sunday’s phone call focused on North Korea. But perpetrating a hoax that big is serious. If he really believes it, why not mention it? I wonder if any reporter will ask him that.
Of course he doesn’t believe it, he just finds it a useful cover for other policy changes designed to help the fossil fuel industry. The president retweeted a video of him beating up CNN (retweeted from a racist anti-semite someone in his inner circle apparently follows) and it would be silly except that a growing number of people have been calling for attacks on journalists on extremist websites. If the president doesn’t believe in the First Amendment, that’s sad for him. Our job is not so much to get outraged in some comment section, but to reaffirm that the vast majority of us do believe in it and do not see the press as the “enemy.”
Today isn’t about condemning the petty and negative, but giving thanks for the noble inheritance that our American citizenship gives us. For me, it’s about remembering that we weren’t born “with saddles on our backs,” we weren’t born to be exploited but rather, we were born “to assume the blessings & security of self government” and enjoy “the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.” And that by doing so, Americans give the rest of the world permission and courage to do the same. I hope the 4th of July will “for ever refresh our recollections of these rights and an undiminished devotion to them.”