Thoughts on the Founders, their times and Lessons lost: Jefferson and Statues

by on Oct.08, 2010, under History

About a year ago I decided to dive into a study of the  people, events, and ideas that were responsible for the creation of the United State of America.   After reading American Creation by Joseph Ellis and seeing all the fervor in the political climate today drawing upon the founders and their intent, I took to my default course; learning.

I started with Jefferson as he tended to be my favorite of the group and the one, I later concluded who best embodied what I see as the spirit of the nation.  From a few disjoint discussions and quotes I had read I had very high hopes when I picked up a recommended biography and began reading.  Soon my reading expanded to include his letters and autobiography as well a few not so flattering views on the man.

What I found was contradiction; and near the end of my reading, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Jefferson.   During his political career in the fledgling U.S. government he saw himself as a man of the people.  According to several sources, as president, he often answered the White House door and greeted visitors in bedroom slippers.  In direct contrast to Washington and Adams before him, he walked rather than riding in drawn carriages essentially reversing the hints of royal privilege one might see in the acts of his predecessors.   However, he lived on a large estate on the top of a mountain tended to by hundreds of slaves; very much out of reach of “the people”.

He tried several times to introduce legislature to abolish the slave trade and even wrote passionately against slavery in a passage that was struck from his rough draft of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress:  “[King George] He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidels powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. He has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold…”  Yet, he “owned” several hundred people himself.

Several historians claim his was disingenuous.  A genius no doubt, but a brilliant schemer with political aspiration disguised with the mask of champion of the people.  I was becoming inclined to agree;  then I realized, he was a human being.  He was necessarily prone to mistakes, influenced by strong emotion, and, most important, not to be written off nor his achievements and wisdom diminished because of his inescapable condition in which we all share.

He “inherited” the people and the plantation and records suggest that those people were born in Virginia.  Records also show that he paid some for more difficult tasks and that some members of his family educated the children despite the popular condemnation of the practice.  So, perhaps he saw them more as members of his community.  Perhaps he didn’t live isolated on a hilltop.  Perhaps, given the apparent economic modalities in the south and the resultant political implications of immediate emancipation he chose his course of driving the phasing out of the practice.  To my mind, this was not the conclusion of a revolutionary for liberty who was for me the soul of the new nation, and there were other courses available which were far more favorable.  However, it is logical that it was the pragmatic compromise of a man torn between Enlightenment thinking and the political ramifications thereof.

This shocking, and yet blatantly obvious, realization led me to reevaluate how I thought about the founders and the documents that formed this nation.  Jefferson did his best.  The apparent contradictions are, to my mind, the expected results of fallible human, engaged in a monumental task, in a very trying time.

I think there is value in statues and buildings named in their honor.  I think there is a place in remembering the greatness of the accomplishments.  However, there is also value in understanding that they were people with flaws just like us.

Today, I would wager, Jefferson wouldn’t stand a chance.  From my reading, in his day, political attacks in the media were seen as just that; political.  Today they are either accepted blindly in an ideological rage, or ignored out of hand in an ideological rage.  The nation’s founding, people searched texts for precedent and practiced arguments to prepare for debate, today marketing firms are hired to package and present positions with little if any substance conveyed.

So, yes, the founders were people.  Humans like the rest of us, however, unlike many today, they were people of substance.  Jefferson may have been big on French wine and dinner parties, but one of his defining legacies was his considerable library.  After the British burned Washington in the War of 1812, Jefferson, in 1814 offered to donate his library to replace the volumes destroyed.   Washington studied the sociology of his day, Madison and Adams dove at length into the ancient republics and the political philosophy of contemporary European and British authors.  In fact, if one was inclined to read the works of the French philosopher Montesquieu, one would find some very familiar ideas including the separation of powers.

Today, instead of thriving in the fruition of the works they accomplished, we are suffering from the retention and inflation of what I see as their failings.  The inefficiency and danger of an ideologically based two-party system.  The barbed and pointless tabloid-like attacks done through party owned news sources now completely unbridled.

Among many other things, it seems we’ve lost the sense of respect for the responsibility resting on the shoulders of an elected representative, possibly because representation and the people are not necessarily on the mind of those elected.  Jefferson said in his first inaugural address ” to declare a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents, and that I approach it with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge, and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire. ” 

In conclusion…..   The founders of the United States while not perfect and not free from personal ambition, acted largely out of a desire to create something great.  To create something larger than themselves where all people’s lives were respected.  They made no permanent rule other than the establishment of inalienable rights for everyone (eventually).  They made mistakes, but left a way to correct for them

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7 Comments for this entry

  • Biography Autobiography

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  • Dave Outlaw

    Nice Post Scott I agree
    The idea to serve in the government was to be a statesman and public servant to look out and protect our freedoms…seems as though we have lost our way and the intent of those seeking office has changed…

    Now the position is a desired job and you are elected by doing whatever it takes to get the vote . Pollsters now tell the politicians that to be elected they must conduct a dirty campaign to discredit the opponent…to do this requires campaign money and this makes the political obligated to whoever donates to his campaign….
    It is up to the citizens to let them know that this will not be tolerated. The voters apathy must be reversed and now is the time …

    • admin

      Thanks, Dave, for an excellent comment. I agree, the time is now. Not for media fueled anger, but for learning and contemplation, followed by the action you correctly, in my opinion, asserted.

  • Kenny

    Your perspecitves above was both intrieging and argumentative.

    In the end I really didn’t see what point there is in demining the founding fathers or our countries doctrines. You are illistrating the obvious of human kind while belittling the great sacrifice of men whom in times of great trial prevailed for the greater good of the people..

    I think, during times of great strife as is today, we are best served to “coach up” as opposed to “coach down” the heritage of our great nation!

    -An American Patriot


    • admin

      I don’t see illustrating that they were human as demeaning. Actually, it makes their accomplishments all the more impressive… If someone is super-human, then doing a great job is pretty much sub-par.

      As to demeaning their doctrines; I did not.

      Why? If we are to be active in our government, which is what should be… If we want to comment on our government, which is understandable… we have to learn about our government and the people who created it.

      Or… we can just keep yelling blindly until someone starts doing something worse than yelling. I, for one, prefer learning and debating.. .in the spirit of the founders.

    • Dave

      Hi Kenny
      Thanks for joining the conversation, I liked the way you defended our forefathers, which is refreshing. Without them we may not have the privilege of this conversation without fear…. That being said could you please expand on the coach up verses coach down?
      I think we all have experienced it both ways but that is based on my definition…
      Just so you know I like to hear other opinions and hope you understand I am not offended by diversity in them… and I think I can speak for Scott on that as well as we have differed a time or two and I felt as though I came away more informed even though my opinion may not have changed.
      Kind Regard

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