It’s so hard to say goodbye to Thomas Jefferson. He had his faults, some of them grievous, but he was the main architect of the American Dream, the greatest articulator of the concept of American exceptionalism. He wanted a republic, if possible a civil, mild-mannered, lightly governed, agrarian republic, a nation of self-reliant, skeptical, farmer rationalists who didn’t need much from government, and who cared more for political liberty and personal freedom than for money, things, military glory, or some grandiose notion of America’s place in the world. That’s the America I want to live in, particularly the part about self-reliance. We now all depend on government for so many things that it has produced the very “enslavement” that the Founding Fathers were always fearing.
Whatever else is true, America has symbolized humankind’s aspiration to live in an idealistic civilization that treats everyone with equality and dignity, that would rather preserve human rights at home than become the hegemon of the world. America’s destiny truly was, as Ronald Reagan used to say, to be the shining city on the hill, the world’s principal model of doing things right—working sternly to prevent a class system, making sure the least American had the same basic rights as the most privileged American; never engaging in wars of selfish advantage, and in fact bending over backwards and then backwards again to avoid an armed struggle of any kind; a nation of healthy, highly-educated, harmonious, and self-actualized citizens. We ought to be the one nation that everyone in the world looks up to, as the very epitome of what life and civilization can be on earth. We want everyone in the world to say to their imperfect societies: Why can't we be more like America?
I’m a devoted American patriot. I love this country, but I want it to be more like the country I love than the disillusioned, vulgar, and divisive place it has become. I grew up thinking that we were the best, most enlightened, most remarkable nation in the world and though we sometimes failed to live up to our ideals, we were nevertheless progressing, at times haltingly, towards greater and greater national perfection, and we could all see the goal on a realizable horizon. We were all inspired and convinced by the great sentence attributed to Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
In my lifetime, I have observed and celebrated the civil rights movement, the creation of Medicare, the Environmental Protection Act, the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the feminist movement, the war on poverty, the explosive growth of our higher education system, the end of the Cold War, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other progressive reforms. Not everything has worked out exactly as envisioned by the reformers, but each of these movements was intended to make the country a healthier, better-educated, more just and more humane place in which to pursue happiness.
The whole purpose of America is to build a civilization where the greatest number of individuals can thrive—or at least have a dignified sufficiency—with the least possible government intrusion. That’s Thomas Jefferson. How can we maximize liberty and yet insist upon some meaningful principle of equality? How can we make sure that America doesn’t just serve the privileged, but everyone who is willing to work hard and play by the rules?
Jefferson was America’s greatest optimist. He said he steered his vessel with hope ahead and fear astern, that on the whole there is much more good to life than bad. In his first inaugural address, on March 4, 1801, Jefferson spoke of “A rising nation spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry … advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye … possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the hundredth and thousandth generation.” That's the Jefferson music.
Jefferson always believed that the future would be brighter, better, more just and more bountiful than the past.
In the last letter he ever wrote, just ten days before his death in 1826, Jefferson re-affirmed his uncompromising commitment to the cause of human liberty. To Roger Weightman he wrote:
The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others.
I’m a Jeffersonian. Why else would I do this thing week after week and city after city?
These days I find myself grieving for America. We have slipped dramatically on the Enlightenment scale. We are in some respects not only a shadow of what we might be but a shadow of what we have been earlier in my own short life.
Still, like Jefferson I believe the best is yet to come. If you agree with that, it means that each of us is going to have to carry America back up the hill. It starts with reading books. And gardening. And civil conversation.