This week I’ve been thinking about Thomas Jefferson. His birthday was last weekend (April 13) and before the big news of the week struck, there was some talk of him.
President Jefferson was a brilliant man. He’s the guy, with four or five others, who people mean when they talk about “the founders.” If you look up “renaissance man” in the OED, there’s a picture of the Sage of Monticello staring there at you. Or at least there should be. Not that he was perfect – he was a white man of great privilege and more than willing to take advantage of his position, to say the least. He was, in a word, human.
I’m not writing here to praise Jefferson necessarily, just to point out that if I described some of his actions as president you’d be hard-pressed to call him anything but a socialist … at least by today’s popular understanding. To wit:
- He pushed through the purchase of about a third of a continent – on credit – and without constitutional authority.
- He financed (again, of his own authority) a full company of soldiers and scientists to just go exploring across that new territory. For no purpose other than to see what was there and to learn.
- He started a university (not the one you’re thinking of, that was after his presidency) whose graduates were required to work for the government (!) rather than going into private business.
I could go on, but you get the point. Can you imagine the anger, the outrage, the outright disgust, if President Obama pushed through something like any of these things? Can you imagine any modern president successfully creating something that wouldn’t benefit anyone for decades, possibly centuries just because it’s the right thing to do?
I can’t. It’s not possible for me to picture a late-twentieth or twenty-first century president making great things happen. And that makes me very, very sad. The Lewis and Clark Expedition. Land-grant universities. The national park system. The interstate highway system. Social Security? Rural electrification? Putting human beings on the moon? All those things would be denounced and derided as socialist boondoggles today.
Have we already done all the big, important things? Have we finished all the hard work and now all we have to do is bicker about tax rates and pistols?
Maybe that’s the case. Maybe we really have reached the end of history, and all there is now is to figure out how quickly we can re-create feudalism.
But you know, something tells me we have more work to do. Somehow I don’t think big ideas and forward-thinking projects are no longer necessary. And I’m so very tired of watching our elected representatives – from city halls to the halls of Congress – talk in circles and accomplish none of the work of advancing humanity.
American history, at its best, is the story of a people who wanted to do big things just because they could. I find it dangerous to our future and disrespectful to our past to continue on the path we’ve allowed to be chosen for us.
The spirits of the Sage of Monticello, the Bull Moose and the Squire of Hyde Park could not be blamed for shaking their heads and turning their backs on what we’ve allowed America to become.
Isn’t it about time we reclaimed what America should be?