Civil Discourse

WWTJD_1300 Civil Discourse.jpg
I think the American people are overwhelmingly good and decent.
— Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson

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The following is a rush transcript.

DS: 00:00 Good day, citizens, and welcome to What Would Jefferson Do?, our weekly opportunity to discuss current American events with President Thomas Jefferson, who is seated across from me now. Good day to you, Mr Jefferson. 

CSJ as TJ: 00:14 Good day to you, citizen. 

DS: 00:16 Mr Jefferson, there are troubled times in this our happy republic. Just recently witnessed citizens in the streets exhibiting violence against one another. Now, I know you lived through some very tumultuous times in American history. How do we deal with this? 

CSJ as TJ: 00:37 I think the American people are overwhelmingly good and decent. We do get stirred up from time to time by whatever's passing in the world. There are demagogues, there always have been and always will be who try to stir the waters and make more of certain situations than they can bear. But on the whole there's an equilibrium at the center of American life. And that equilibrium reestablishes itself after a period of chaos. For example, when the French revolution spilled over onto our shores, there was widespread anxiety in this country. There were street marches, people were being burned in effigy. John Adams felt that there might actually be an armed revolution and even a reign of terror in the United States. And yet a few years later, that all seemed like a foolish fantasy. And even John Adams was embarrassed by what he had done by way of overreaction during the Quasi War in 1798. We passed the alien and sedition laws, which were palpably in violation of the bill of rights. And it seemed like a serious crisis to the federalists. But just four or five years later, we realized that we had overreacted, but the system had worked. It had reestablished equilibrium. Elections had put out of office those who despaired of democracy and had returned to office those who were more optimistic. So I'm probably America's greatest optimist amongst the founding fathers, and I believe in the good sense and the sanity of the American people over time. 

DS: 02:10 But there are those moments of passion that the public exhibits. And we're in one of those periods now Mr. President. And I take heart at you recognizing that with the passage of time, those passions dimmed down a bit. 

CSJ as TJ: 02:26 I think that's why we have a tripartite system of checks and balances. You know, George Washington famously said, talking about the difference between the House of Representatives and the Senate, the house elected every second year, the Senate, every sixth year. And he said, the Senate is like a dish of tea. People poured their tea into dishes and then it cooled. He said, it cools the passion. So the house might respond in some immediate, volatile way to passing circumstances. The Senate slows it down a little, deliberates, debates, maybe changes the tenor of the conversation and after a period of time, equilibrium reestablishes itself. And if that doesn't work, the president can veto legislation that he regards as unconstitutional or dangerous. And if that doesn't work, the court system can challenge the constitutionality of illiberal measures. And if that doesn't work, there's secession. 

DS: 03:23 Mr Jefferson, I guess what I am getting towards is how can we further civil discourse. 

CSJ as TJ: 03:30 We would hope that our leadership would urge us to smooth things out and find common ground rather than to divide us, but as I wrote to my grandson in 1808, if you show civility yourself, what I sometimes called artificial good humor, it will help to teach your antagonist or your critic or somebody who is illiberal to be more thoughtful, more respectful, more civil in turn, and so artificial good humor, always responding to provocation with a kind of polite civility and good sense has an ameliorative effect on our public discourse. So even though we hope that our leaders will be the ones to take us to more harmony, if they don't do it, individual citizens can in all of their personal discourse. 

DS: 04:16 It's not so much who you voted for as what you believe. 

CSJ as TJ: 04:20 Elections matter of course, and we have them periodically, thanks to Mr Madison, every second year of the House of Representatives, every fourth year, the executive branch of the government and the Senate, every sixth. So people can reassert calm at the election booth, but in the meantime, it's in everyone's interest to find absolutely as much civility and harmony as possible. After all, we share one fact. We are all free Americans

DS: 04:46 When passions run high Sir, It's a difficult thing to accomplish, but I do appreciate your insight and your time, Mr Jefferson. 

CSJ as TJ: 04:55 Thank you so much, my dear citizen. 

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