Posts Tagged ‘liberty’

In preparation for our secular High Holy Day, I watched Ken Burns’ documentary on Thomas Jefferson. Recently, Jefferson’s importance as an American Founding Father was debased by the Texas Board of Education and members of the Christian Right. I, in contrast, maintain that Jefferson was our most important Founder and if anyone deserves to be remembered for All Time, it is Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson was the preeminent American philosopher. He, practically single-handedly, crafted (as George Will said) “the catechism” for our country’s “civil religion”. He stated clearly, unequivocally, and absolutely what it means to be an American. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” There are no greater words ever written, prior or since, that so succinctly, accurately, and magnificently state our core values. Go ahead, I dare you to take any other quote written from colonial times to the present, and weigh it up against that singular sentence from the Declaration of Independence, and claim it a better statement of American values. You can’t do it, and if you can, I will weigh it. Most likely, I will tell you that you have missed the ruddy point of our entire existence from Plymouth Rock to today.

What is remarkable about Jefferson the Philosopher is that America doesn’t really have any other philosophers. We really don’t. We’ve had poets and statesmen and authors and capitalists, but we haven’t really had philosophers. We haven’t had philosophers because we don’t really need them. We don’t need anyone to examine and decipher the soul of America. We know what the soul of America is: it’s what Jefferson stated back in 1776. No further national introspection is needed. Those words are encoded in our DNA, and we know they are there, and we’re all glad for it.

What we have needed since that fated day, now celebrated as Independence Day, isn’t philosophers but pragmatists. Thanks to Jefferson, we have the core value, the goal of our existence as a nation and as a society, but we’ve needed direction on how to attain that goal. That’s where our other great orators, thinkers. artists and musicians  come in: trying to figure out how to get there, gain freedom and equality for all, and remove the bonds of tyranny without simply adding more under another guise.

That’s the journey we’ve been on ever since: not to find out who we are, but how do we get where we’re destined to be. And that’s the journey that seems hopelessly stalled. Today, we are as divided as a society as we’ve ever been since the end of the War Between the States. Reasoned discourse has failed, the two-party system is gridlocked in contests of pointless rage, and our government certainly appears to be an impediment to, not an enabler of, liberty. We are under tremendous strain: a faltering economy, a failed energy policy, a lackluster educational system, three branches of government withered and cracked, and a social safety net that could very well be the anchor pulling us under. Toss in environmental catastrophe and the threats of global terrorism and you’ve got quite the fecal stew. No wonder 55% of Americans think we’re on the wrong path.

I think we’ve simply lost our way. The guiding star, Jefferson’s writings, are still out there. We need to train our binoculars and find it again. Find it, and study it, and accept it as our own. Honestly look at how we’re going down the right path, and reinforce that. Honestly look at where we’re going wrong, and stop that. Then we can get back on the path and travel to that grand destination.

Happy Independence Day to all Americans, and to all across the world who’ve been inspired to act in the cause of liberty by the words of Thomas Jefferson put forth 234 years ago on July 4th, 1776.

And here’s to hoping that, in our 235th year, we figure out how to get back on the right track.


My 2009 Independence Day essay

My 2008 Independence Day essay

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