Aug. 16, 2013
My college friend sent me this article from the New York Times on the death from lung cancer of the eminent historian, Pauline Maier. Her passing is indeed a loss. I’m only one of thousands of readers who highly praise her study of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Her title for that valuable work was American Scripture
The Times’ headline announcing Prof. Maier’s (MAY-erz) passing is one of the strangest I’ve seen—historian who described Jefferson as ‘Overrated’… With that, and even acknowledging Prof. Maier’s stature, I take sharp issue.
We are so indebted to Thomas Jefferson we hardly know where to begin. For example, if you live in one of the states west of the Appalachians, you have never had a concern about your home state having lesser standing than one of the Original Thirteen. Your religious and civil liberties are the same as those Americans who hail from the Atlantic Seaboard.
We can say that now. It was by no means obvious in the eighteenth century—or in the seventeen centuries prior to 1776. In the course of human events, colonies were founded by Mother Countries. It would not have been out of line, therefore, if Illinois (and some thirty-six other “daughters” of the Original Thirteen) had been treated as colonies of the new American republic.
That the new states carved out of virgin territories in the west would be regarded as fully equal to the Original Thirteen is an amazing innovation in human history. Thomas Jefferson was a persistent driver of the idea that territories become fully equal states.
It is one of the things that makes America exceptional. It is why we became “an Empire for Liberty.” But we take it for granted.
Another example: Look at the news from Britain this summer: A royal baby was born in London. There’s a new law that says had Prince George been Princess Alexandra, this child would still be first in line to inherit the throne.
But why should the first-born inherit everything? Primogeniture. We hardly know the word. And that’s because Thomas Jefferson the reviser of Virginia’s laws abolished Primogeniture. And his example was carried across the country.
One of the reasons I think some of our best scholars view Jefferson as “overrated” may be because they underrate religious freedom. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was introduced by Jefferson in Richmond in 1779 and carried through to final passage by his closest friend, James Madison, in 1786.
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was and is a model for the world. Look at this morning’s headlines from Cairo, from Damascus, from Baghdad. Because these Muslim lands do not respect religious freedom, they are forever convulsed in “sectarian strife.” It’s as if Mideast Turmoil has been painted on our TV screens.
Our State Department did not share with Iraq or Afghanistan America’s own experience from Jefferson and Madison. Instead, we encouraged them to write constitutions that established Islamist states. And the violence we see is the inevitable result of that failure. The State Department treats religious freedom rather as the star on top of the Christmas tree—instead as the vital root system that is required for the tree to live.
I am especially indebted to Jefferson for an understanding of the right to life. His draft of the Declaration makes clear we are “Created equal” and “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
For forty years, the elites in the United States have been denying the right to life. Roe v. Wade is based on the infamous lie that we do not know, can not know, when human life begins. Of course, we have known all along. That is why they must engage in “semantic gymnastics” to deceive people about the truth.
“The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government,” Jefferson wrote. And how do life and liberty relate? “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.”
Underrating Jefferson is part of the ongoing liberal project. If they can de-legitimize the Founding, they can persuade people to go along with their project of “fundamentally transforming” America.
The Founding Fathers were not gods. Nor were they even, pace Mr. Jefferson, “an assembly of demi-gods.” But they were determined to place this country, under God, on a firm foundation.
The Obama administration is trying to transform America with Obamacare, intentionally driving making us over into a socialist republic But they cannot even make their own machine work. That is why they have to grant innumerable waivers and delays. Some of the groups that most eagerly sought the re-election of this administration are the first to seek an escape—from Obamacare.
Abraham Lincoln did not underrate Jefferson. Nor did Lincoln undervalue the Declaration of Independence. Alerted to a credible assassination plot in February, 1861, the President-elect nonetheless insisted on appearing at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on George Washington’s Birthday. He raised an American flag on that site and exclaimed, with uncharacteristic emotion:
I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. (Great cheering.) I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here and adopted that Declaration of Independence… It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. (Great applause.) It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. (Cheers.) This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.
Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world if I can help to save it. If it can’t be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But, if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle–I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it (Applause)…I have said nothing but what I am willing to live by, and, in the pleasure of Almighty God, die by.
Lincoln’s passion, the cause for which he was willing to die, should animate us. And it should persuade us not to underrate those Jeffersonian principles throughout our lives.