Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Man Who Gave Us America.....

He wrote a revolutionary document with the express intention of explaining why a colony an ocean away from the sovereign state was going "to dissolve political bands which have connected them with another..."

In doing so, he defined a new world order, a world where "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Of course, I am speaking of Thomas Jefferson. With the Fourth of July looming just ahead, it's a good time to take a look at the remarkable American who gave us The Declaration of Independence while a rebellious British subject - and the Louisiana Territories as the president of a new nation.

Jefferson is our Plato - our philosopher king - the man who viewed the world from high on his mountaintop perch at Monticello.

President Kennedy once told an assembly of Nobel laureates that it was "the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House - with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

He was brilliant. He was remarkable. His ideas on liberty, expressed in collaboration with the other Founding Fathers, have changed the world forever.

In the old world order, in a world where monarchs and regencies and rulers were determined by blood lineage instead of personal qualifications, the Declaration of Independence defined a radically new approach to political power - creating a government "instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."

Jefferson used the Declaration of Independence to explain "that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

That ordinary people claimed the divine right of kings to institute a new government was truly a revolutionary philosophy, one that Americans went to war to uphold.

It's a philosophy we've continued to uphold with each presidential election. And when each outgoing president hands over power peacefully to the rightfully elected new leader, we see the enduring power of the unalienable rights of man that Jefferson defined for us more than 200 years ago.

And yet...Jefferson was a man of startling contradictions.

The man who wrote the founding document for our country died owing others $100,000. That was in 1826. That’s a hefty debt today - and one that is astounding for the early 19th century.

The man who celebrated the freedom of the individual owned several hundred slaves.

Jefferson's genetic code can be found in the descendants of Sally Hemings, the slave long rumored to be his concubine. Though his (white) granddaughter suggested in a letter that Jefferson's nephews were perhaps the father(s) of Sally's children, DNA disproved that link. Sally also shared the same (white) father as Jefferson's wife, which meant Jefferson's wife (who died from complications of childbirth) and his concubine were half-sisters.

And when he died - on July 4th, 1826, just a few hours after John Adams died, only a handful of his slaves were allowed to go free (five, I believe) - all of them related to Sally Hemings. Those without the blood tie to his concubine were sold as property to alleviate the grotesque debt he’d acquired in his lifetime.

Jefferson could be considered one of the first modern Americans, a man who adored living in a splendor he could not afford. He was, for most of his life, leveraged to the hilt and a slave to his own sexual desires.

But every year, on July 4th, we pay tribute to his intellectual genius as we celebrate the birth of our nation and the extraordinary document he wrote at a defining moment in our history.

For a fascinating glimpse into the life of Jefferson, click here.

No comments: