#1356 Considering Exceptionalism

#1356 Considering Exceptionalism

"Our society should be a way of encouraging human possibility and human community."

— Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson

Prompted by a letter from a listener, President Thomas Jefferson shares his views on American exceptionalism and his hope that America will stand as a strong and good example for the rest of the world to follow.

#1330 Wilderness and War

#1330 Wilderness and War

"This book reveals [Washington] as a man of emotion, raw emotion."

— Clay S. Jenkinson

In anticipation of our conversation next week with Peter Stark, the author of Young Washington, we speak with Jefferson about our first president. Jefferson also comments on the time change, and the importance of using available daylight.

#1325 Pax Americana

#1325 Pax Americana

We answer listener questions this week, and the most mail we received was about Robert Kagan's new book, The Jungle Grows Back, which Tom Friedman of The New York Times called "An incisive, elegantly written, new book about America’s unique role in the world."

#1274 The Classics

#1274 The Classics

"You cannot understand the founding of this country without understanding the Founding Fathers’ obsession with classical languages and literature."

— Clay S. Jenkinson

Guest host Catherine Jenkinson has an extended conversation with President Jefferson about the classics, and Jefferson’s understanding and support of the classics.

#1268 Peaceful Transition

#1268 Peaceful Transition

"Most revolutions end with the establishment of a dictatorship."

— Thomas Jefferson, as portrayed by Clay S. Jenkinson

#1266 Looking Back at 2017

#1266 Looking Back at 2017

This week on the Thomas Jefferson Hour, we look back at the conversations we had with President Jefferson and the many subjects we discussed during 2017.

Rome in a Day

Rome in a Day

Clay is back in the barn again today to speak with David for this 1776 Club broadcast. Rome wasn't built in a day — but now, as Clay tells us after his flight, you can get from Rome to Bismarck, ND in less than 24 hours. Clay talks about his history in radio and the stack of tapes in his basement that contain his early days on the air.

Jefferson Would Have Loved It

Jefferson Would Have Loved It

Clay wonders why Jefferson never made it to Rome considering that it would have been a high point of Jefferson's life. David lists three character traits that Clay has in common with Jefferson — both good and bad! Finally, the hosts discuss listener questions and international views on the presidential elections of the Unites States.

Easter in the Rain at St. Peter's Square


My various work projects had been so demanding that Easter 2015 had hardly even entered my mind before I boarded flights for Rome last Friday. I had no way of knowing that this would be the most intense Easter of my life.

Shortly after landing at Rome's Fiumicino airport on Easter eve, I found myself watching Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) with a dozen deeply devoted Catholic college students. I had never seen The Passion before, and I can affirm that I will never watch it again. In its own way the film's depiction of the last twelve hours of Jesus' life is gripping, but it is so unrelentingly and graphically violent that I had to cover my face a number of times just to get through it. It seemed to me that no body could ever endure so much grotesque physical abuse, that if Jesus had actually been subjected to the kind of torture depicted in the film, he would never have lived long enough to be crucified.

There are paradoxes here. We know that Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities after being whipped and scourged and beaten. The Romans were ruthless about such things. So the depiction in The Passion of Christ is probably more realistic and historically accurate than we like to think. And—I get it—the point of Mel Gibson's film is to make us just as uncomfortable as possible without driving us out of the theater. How can we understand God's decision to make himself suffer the ultimate human degradation unless we have something like a real understanding of what that must have involved by way of physical and mental suffering?

As I watched The Passion in horror, I realized that my idea of the crucifixion has always been pretty vague and mythological. Whenever I have stood before Michelangelo's stunning Pieta in St. Peter's—one of the world's supreme works of sculpture—I have never once stopped to recognize that by the time Mary held her dead son in her arms, Jesus' body was torn in every way, pierced by a spear, whipped and scourged right down to the ribs, bloody, bruised, swollen, and profoundly disfigured. The perfection and artistic serenity of Michelangelo's treatment removes the bloodlust from the story, and lets us concentrate instead on the pity of the crucifixion, and even the divine dignity of it, rather than its sickening violence. I give Gibson credit for that—he made the torture and execution of Jesus real for me for the first time.

Too real. The film's obsession with graphic violence felt gratuitous to me. It turned my stomach rather than deepened my understanding of the sacrifice. I could not sleep for many hours, but during that time I was not praying to God or Jesus in praise or sorrow, I was just sick at heart at man's ingenuity in meting out pain to his fellow man.

One more note about the film. Just as Jesus began to climb the steep hill of Golgatha, carrying a cross that even a healthy man would have had trouble hoisting up the trail, a real thunderstorm broke over Rome. We all jumped from the unexpected flash of lightning, and exchanged nervous glances. The last forty minutes of The Passion were, for us, accompanied by a kind of angry orchestral thunderstorm.

On Easter Sunday we got up at first light to hasten by city bus to St. Peter's Square. An audience of more than a million pilgrims was expected. If we had any expectation of getting seats close to the platform on which Pope Francis would celebrate the mass, or for that matter to get any seats at all, we had to get to St. Peter's three full hours ahead of time, and then jostle our way to preferred seating once the security team began to let people pass through the magnetometers. At times it felt more like a badly organized Super Bowl than a Papal mass at the Vatican, but the students I was with were savvy and ready to forge their way (politely but unhesitatingly) to excellent seats. I do not exaggerate when I say that there were elderly nuns in the crowd who locked arms and surged forward like a Greek phalanx. People come from all over the world for this sacred occasion.

When we took our seats, about ten rows back from the protective fence, it had begun to drizzle. Just three hours to go! Then it began to rain. Then it began to rain hard. Then it began to rain cats and dogs. I had brought a couple of books in my backpack to occupy the long wait before the mass began, but they would have been ruined in minutes if I had pulled them out. By eight a.m. the crowd entirely filled the vastness of St. Peter's Square and spilled over blocks deep in every direction. Just two and a quarter hours to go! As far as I could tell there was roughly one umbrella for each hundred people at the Vatican. If ever there was a moment that called for a loaves and fishes miracle, this was it. The number of umbrellas did actually seem to increase over time, but it rained well more than an inch Easter morning, perhaps two, and no matter how many umbrellas interlocked to create a kind of ad hoc pilgrim's awning, that water had to go somewhere. The net effect was not to keep us any dryer than we would have been bareheaded, but to concentrate the flood into icy rivulets that suddenly ran off the umbrella ahead of you (or behind you) and down your back.

By the time the mass began at 10:15 a.m. we were as wet and cold as it was possible to be, sitting in cheap plastic chairs that had become shallow pools of rain water, trying to get a glimpse of the Pope, or anything at all for that matter, through the sea of brightly colored umbrellas. We were about as close to Pope Francis as it was possible to get, and yet we could neither see him nor even see the giant Jumbotron that televised the event. Most of the students had begun to shiver, sodden with rain, chilled by wind, with the temperature at about 40 degrees.

Nevertheless, almost everyone who had come to St. Peter's Square stayed—because it was Easter, because individuals had ventured, at great expense, from all over the planet to experience this moment, because (we all had to feel) what's a little discomfort in the face of Jesus' agonies? We stayed, too, because we were in the presence of Pope Francis, who has in his remarkable ministry struck an unusually strong chord with the peoples of the world. My group stayed also because Tom Schulzetenberg, the director of UMary's Rome program, had been given the high honor of reading a short text to almost a million pilgrims.

Hours later, once we had gotten out of our soggy clothes and showered for a very long time, we broke bread together back at the Rome campus. I had smuggled in jelly beans and chocolate eggs and Jello from Dakota. Jello, it turns out, doesn't perform very well outside of its home court. Here in Rome it was just a dark red slurry on our plates.

This was the Easter I will never forget.

St. Peter's and the Vatican, Rome. Giovanni Battista Piranesi. 1750. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Learning from My Students in the Inexhaustible City of Rome


Week three. This is my seventh or eighth trip to Rome, and my longest. I'm trying to stay one or two steps ahead of the students I am teaching here. They are seasoned cultural travelers by now, and they have learned a tremendous amount. There are days when I'm not sure what I have to teach them. Whenever they are otherwise occupied, I hop the bus (the dreaded 870) into the heart of Rome and wander about with maps, a guidebook, and my notebook and camera.

Tom Schulzetenberg, the U-Mary Rome program director, has mastered the city in his three years here. He's an invaluable guide. He's gone out of his way to make it possible for me to take the students to a number of places that are off the beaten track: the ancient port called Ostia Antica (Rome's Pompeii); the Non-Catholic Cemetery, where the English poets Keats and Shelley are buried; the emperor Hadrian's fabulous villa at Tivoli. Today, at our final lecture, I taught them the meaning of a number of Latin phrases that have made their way into English, including in loco parentis, "in the place of one's parents." Tom and his wife JoAnn have served in that capacity with real grace. As you know, U-Mary makes much of its capacity to create "servant leaders." I find it easier to recognize that quality than to describe it. Tom and JoAnn are the epitome of servant leaders—warm, generous, humble, thoughtful, careful, and firm--and they have sacrificed a great deal to live abroad on behalf of the liberal arts at UMary. If you think living in Rome is easy, just try it.

When I get home I'm going to burn my travel clothes, and rethink many of the rhythms of my life. The cars here are miniscule. If all the Ford F250s of Bismarck alone were loosed in the center of Rome, the traffic jam would paralyze the city for weeks. People here can park a Smart Car in a space we wouldn't attempt with a bicycle. I've walked between six and ten miles a day without even thinking about it, and while I walk the city I keep puzzling over why the Romans are so much fitter, leaner, and healthier than we are. Hmmm.

I wish we lived in a society that chose to send all college students for a semester or a year abroad. Many of the fundamental problems of American life would be solved if we had a universal Fulbright program. Foreign travel to a nation that doesn't speak English is the first important step towards global wisdom. We may be America—always the elephant in the room, and sometimes still the class act—but there are scores of countries that don't live as we do, do things in our way, consume at our Rabalaisian pace and volume, and yet they are perfectly civilized. Many of them, in fact, score higher on the happiness index than we do. To travel abroad is to realize that our way of doing things is not the only way, and not invariably the best way.

When we travel to other countries—as I keep telling my students—we are guests in another culture, and it is important that we pull back a little from our full "display" of our American brand of style, confidence, and expressiveness. We should never for a minute be ashamed of who we are and where we come from, but we should remember, too, that being an American (as opposed, say, to being Canadian or Norwegian) comes with a burden and a special responsibility. We are the richest, most powerful nation on earth (ever!), what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called "the indispensable country," and that automatically rubs others the wrong way at times.

Whenever I travel abroad, I am ashamed that I am essentially monolingual. Once, long ago, when I was married, my wife and I spent a week with one her college classmates, an extremely talented woman named Silka from Munich in Germany. She spoke four or five languages, including French, Russian, and flawless Oxford English, the Queen's English. Her husband had eight languages. We went out to dinner one night with her brother and sister-in-law. The sister-in-law, some kind of European slacker, spoke only German and English. So the dinner was conducted in English, as a favor to the "Americans." I asked for permission to pay and to settle the bill in my weak German. As I recall, I bungled my few sentences so badly that I wound up in a Turkish prison!

Traveling holds a mirror up to us. We are invited to gaze into that mirror, or at least glance at it when we observe how other humans go about their business, and how they respond to us in their midst. Whenever I travel I make resolutions that make New Year's look like a routine Thursday. Theodore Roosevelt, in addition to being one of the most active men who ever lived, and a career politician, once shocked a White House guest, from Poland, by giving her a sustained analysis of the history of Polish literature. In 1910 he lectured about German literature at German universities—in German. Like Jefferson, he was a true citizen of the world. I had a professor friend at UND who learned Russian merely for the pleasure of reading Tolstoy in the original. At this point in my life, I would settle for reading French, Swedish, German, Russian, and Italian literature in translation, but where's the discipline going to come from, and who will grant me the 27-hour day? 

A few days ago we went to St. Peter's Square to hear Pope Francis deliver a homily to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Right on time, he appeared at the appointed window. I watched him deliver his remarks through my binoculars, while the mass of people watched him on the Papal Jumbotron. He seemed joyful and genial and completely unself-important as he delivered his remarks and waved to the assembled multitude.

After Pope Francis had withdrawn and the crowd began to disperse, one of the students walked with me to the city center. Along the way, he suggested that we duck into one of the scores of nearly identical looking Baroque churches in Rome, the kind you might well just pass by on your way to lunch. He explained to me that this was the Church of the Gesu, the first Jesuit church to be built in Rome, dedicated in 1584. Inside he gave me a brief but really impressive commentary on the various features of the church, and the ways in which it epitomized the Counter-Reformation. Here was my student, a young citizen of the world (since September!) teaching his professor in a graceful and helpful way. A few days earlier, a new young friend, the son of one of my closest friends back home, told me that during Lent he and his fellow seminarians walk to a different church every day for 40 days for early morning Mass. I'd give anything to join those pilgrims.

Rome is truly inexhaustible; me, not so much. I'm now eager to get home, to sit with my mother in her spare Congregational church in Dickinson, to decorate a genuine Christmas tree, and to set up my new heroic spring reading schedule. This has been a bellissimo viaggio, which, so far, is the sum total of my Italian.

Veduta interna della Basilica di S. Pietro in Vaticano. 1748. Giovanni Battista Piranesi. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

All Hail Monsignor Shea for Creating the U-Mary Rome Campus


Week two. Recently I took the University of Mary students to the top of St. Peter's to the cupola. It was a day of rain in Rome, so the view from the top of the dome was not optimal, but we were, for goodness sake, standing at the apex of St. Peter's Basilica and looking out on one of the greatest cities of the world. Even through the drizzle we could see the Colosseum (80 AD) off in the distance, the Pantheon (126 AD), the Roman Forum (no date can mark all that it contains), and approximately a gazillion churches and basilicas, if I may use a technical term. It's overwhelming. I took scores of photos. Now they all look, as I surf back through them, like drizzly grayed-out photos taken from St. Peter's on a rainy day. With almost everything in life, you have to be there to experience its fullness.

All hail Monsignor James Shea, the president of the University of Mary, for establishing a Rome campus. I've had the opportunity to observe the 24 students who have spent this semester in Rome. About three-fifths of them are North Dakotans, the others mostly from Minnesota and South Dakota. One or two of them flew on an airplane for the first time to come to Rome.
One young woman had been working her family's grain harvest in northern Minnesota for 18 straight days before she flew. Her mother packed while she drove grain truck. Then, suddenly, they were here, halfway around the world, many of them getting their passports stamped for the first time, in a place where not very many of the local folks speak English, and where most of the assumptions and rhythms of daily life in the American Midwest break down fast.
Nor, when they arrived after 15 hard hours of travel, a day later than they set out, were they allowed to rest and unpack and regroup. No, they were taken immediately on a long day of jet-lagged touring around Rome to get some sense of the immensity of the adventure they have undertaken. If a liberal education is designed to take us out of our comfort zone without disabling us from preserving our core value system, Monsignor Shea's Rome campus is one of the supreme educational opportunities that begin in the faraway state of North Dakota.

It is said that on a very hot summer day in Iowa you can actually see the corn grow. Since Labor Day these students — the raw seed stock of North Dakota and Midwestern life — have grown in ways that will take your breath away. They are still kids, of course, college students, children of the heartland, full of laughter and the somewhat alarming exuberance of late adolescence. But they have undergone a cultural metamorphosis here that will mark them for life.
Some of them are nursing majors, or engineers, or business majors, but here in Rome they are all being baptized together in vast ocean of high culture. Rome is a humanities course on steroids: painting, sculpture, mosaic, architecture, music, history, literature, engineering, urban landscapes, sometimes all within the walls of a single structure.

Thanks to their experience here, they now know the difference between Renaissance and Baroque. They know why, when, and how Michelangelo was prevailed upon to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12). He did not think of himself as a painter, and then he painted a whole ceiling of stunning masterpieces.

They know why, and under what historical circumstances, he was brought back decades later (1536-41) to paint the Last Judgment on the wall above the altar in that chapel. They know how to talk about the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. They can discuss Gian Lorenzo Bernini's magnificent, uncanny, astounding "Ecstasy of Saint Theresa"without smirking.
They know now how to change buses, on the (to put it kindly) erratic Rome transit system, and wind up where they wish to be. They can order food without pointing at the menu. They attend Mass in Latin, Italian and English. They have tried food they would reject outright in Bowman, Bowbells, or even Bozeman, Mont.

They have broken their connection — for some an addiction — to television, for there is none at the U-Mary Rome campus, and the Internet is sufficiently dicey here to discourage incessant recourse to Facebook or email. And, perhaps most astonishing of all, they cannot use cell texts as their primary way of dealing with the rest of humanity.

Some of what they have learned, some of what they have become, will be hard to communicate back home. I have throughout my whole life found that transaction — trying to explain to others, even my closest friends and kin, why something was so meaningful, so important, so tender, so mysterious, so compelling, so destabilizing — a challenge, usually a matter of frustration.

So in the end the stories we tell repeatedly usually slip to that which is universally translatable: the time you ordered what you thought was X, and it turned out to be something that should never ever have found its way to a plate; the day you tried to find an angel food cake mix or sweet potatoes in a Roman grocery store; the day you left your wallet on the tram. These are important stories, the stuff of all travelers, delightful to tell, entertaining to hear.

But there will be other stories, too, harder to find words to express, and they are equally or more important. The young man from Wishek, a football player and business major, who stood in front of Michelangelo's David (Florence) and cried for the first time at the unbelievable beauty of what the human spirit can create at its best.

The young woman from Harvey who really understood for the first time the sacrifice of the cross when she saw an old Italian woman struggle to kneel on rheumatic knees at a Mass at St. John Lateran. The sense of helplessness one feels in the face of Raphael's staggering talent, or the feeling of shared humanism (confidence in the human project, kinship with a people who lived thousands of years ago) one feels for the Romans of Hadrian's time while craning one's neck towards the oculus of the Pantheon. Or the sadness of trying to gaze at Michelangelo's Pieta long enough until you have drunk it in completely, realizing that you can never bring enough to it to give it the loving attention that a piece of art that perfect deserves.

For the moment I want to concentrate on the students who are North Dakotans. I can see from watching them day after day, in study, in community, in laughter, and in recreation, that their lives in some important way will never be the same. They will return to the Great Plains deeper, fuller, a little more complicated, perhaps a little more restless than they were when they boarded that plane months ago.

As a mere Congregationalist, I cannot say for sure, but I think they will be better Catholic Christians for this experience. I think they will almost automatically become leaders at the University of Mary, in Bismarck, in North Dakota, and in America, thanks to this profound adventure. What a gift U-Mary has given them, and what a gift they are going to give back to the social fabric of North Dakota. Not one of them is cocky. Not one of them is, "Yeah, I can't wait to eat a real pizza!"

(Which, if you think about it…)

"Spaccato interno della Basilica di S. Paolo fuori delle Mura." Giovanni Battista Piranesi. c. 1751. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Joys and Sorrows of the Electronic Globe


I am spending Thanksgiving in Rome. I give thanks to the global internet for making it possible to write these words 5,185 miles away from the turkey my mother and daughter are cooking in Dickinson. The students I am teaching for the University of Mary are down the hall Skyping their families back home. We live in an age of technological miracles. How is it that humans can zip around the planet this way and communicate more or less effortlessly over vast distances? If our civility and peacefulness and generosity of spirit were equal to our technological wizardry, the world would now be approaching utopia. But while we give thanks for the abundance of our lives, radical Islamists are cutting the heads off people including American journalists, they regard as infidels. And we, admittedly, are killing Islamists we regard as evil doers with drone strikes and cruise missiles. As humans overcome space, the paradoxes of human nature become more biting. We can send video of stupid pet tricks to the far corners of the planet effortlessly, and free, but we cannot get water to dying people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Just as I wrote that last sentence, my computer "rang," and Skype announced that my daughter was video calling. And suddenly there she was, sitting at the kitchen table of the house I grew up in in Dickinson, not quite clear as a bell, but a hundred times more clear than when Neil Armstrong bounced down onto the surface of the moon. I could see her expressions as if I were sitting across that table from her. I could see, for example, that she got a good night of sleep in her first night in North Dakota. Good news for a busy college student at the end of a hard semester, and for her doting father who worries that she studies too hard.

We talked for 45 minutes, for free. For free! How is this even possible? If you had said to me when I was a junior in college (1975) that the day would come when you could talk free for most of an hour between Rome and North Dakota, I would have said, "Never gonna happen." If you had said that there would be video, too, free, I would have said, "You've been reading too much science fiction." But there she was, laughing, telling stories, talking about the chaos in Ferguson, Missouri, asking me about my flight to Rome, etc. Behind her I could see my mother bustling about the kitchen making her famous pumpkin chiffon pie for tomorrow (I wrote this on Thanksgiving eve). Mother is the epitome of domestic efficiency, and—if the truth be told—she is a kind of kitchen Nazi who does not welcome help when she is hard at cooking, baking, or clearing up. She was cracking eggs while my daughter was cracking jokes, and from time to time Mother would chime in from four or ten feet away with a wise crack of her own, or "refute" something my daughter was saying. They have the most amazing love for each other that I have ever seen between grandmother and granddaughter, but they are neither of them very sentimental in that love. They tease and jostle each other in a kind of running dialogue. When Mother said something particularly opinionated, I could actually see my daughter raise her eyebrows for her father's benefit. Fortunately, there is no recording of the video conference.

I was telling my daughter about a field trip I have planned for my students on Monday—to Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome where the River Tiber meets the Mediterranean. I told her one of the things I want these students to see is the place where St. Augustine's beloved mother Monica died. There is a famous passage about it in Augustine's Confessions. My daughter is a classics major—Latin and Greek—and so before I had really begun my description she was telling me where Monica was finally buried in Rome, and that in that church we could also find a painting by Caravaggio. So my 20-year-old daughter in the middle of the plains of western North Dakota was teaching her father, the teacher, half way around the world. 

So now as I write these words in the aftermath of that sweet conversation I feel bittersweet. On the one hand, I am so thankful that I was able to connect tonight (their today) with the two women who mean most to me. To see my mother separating egg yolks from egg whites, and waving her wooden spoon mock-menacingly at my daughter when she disputed some anecdote, while my child rolled her eyes and laughed with pure joy, was a great delight and comfort. It was almost as if I were in that kitchen. I could see the stairs up to the second floor. I could see the big kitchen window and the snow-strewn yard beyond, and that wonderful glaring white light of North Dakota on a cold crisp November day. I was with them in some genuine way, and it was infinitely more familiar and intimate than a long distance telephone call. And yet…

As I write the last of these words, I am overcome with sadness. Being away from them during my favorite holiday of the year (theirs too) was going to be hard, and I had worked up some pretty strong stoicism to get through this. In some sense it would have been easier to remain resolutely in this zip code than to peer in virtually on theirs. I wanted to hug my child. You know that hug that redeems everything in life. Even a four second hug can serve as a full top-off on love. There she was, tantalizingly close, full of youth and life and joy and love, eating the occasional barbecue potato chip, as if we were not engaged in spectacular form of techo-badminton. But she was also untouchable. It felt like one of those ghost stories in which something or someone is completely "real" until you reach out to hold them, but then your hand goes right on through the illusion. There is a story in Virgil's Latin epic the Aeneid (Book Two, I think) that works like this. If we were still Skyping, my daughter would now inform IM me the passage, with a slightly (and carefully) raised eyebrow that her father could have forgotten precisely where to locate the passage. So now I have decided to have my U Mary students read one of the twelve books of the Aeneid next week.

So here I am, sitting in an office on the Rome campus of the University of Mary. One by one the students have shuffled off to bed. The campus is quiet (it is only quiet when they sleep!). It is now technically Thanksgiving here in Italy, where Thanksgiving is not celebrated. But I'm not really here now, though the fingers that type these words are tired. I am across the world at that kitchen table in Dickinson, listening to the love contest between the two women who flank my heart, and contributing the occasional sentence. I can smell that pie.
And I am immensely thankful, in a way that I would not be if I were there, but with a wash of sadness like the vanilla mother is swirling through those beaten eggs.

Don't Throw Out the Rascals, Throw Out the System

This last week the U.S. Constitution reached its 217th birthday. When the Founding Fathers, 55 men, all prominent, completed their task in mid-September 1787 and emerged from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the great sage of the delegates, Benjamin Franklin, was asked what exactly they had produced behind closed doors. He replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." 

In almost every meaningful respect, we have lost it.

Lately I have been reading about the last days of the Roman republic (146-44 BCE). Rome's long career of military conquest beyond its rational and defensible borders had put unbearable strains on the ancient senate. Roman armies had ceased to be manned by sturdy citizen soldiers from the small farms of Italy. They were increasingly replaced by foreign mercenaries who fought for money rather than liberty. Meanwhile, a motley potpourri of refugees had poured into the city of Rome from all the provinces and occupied territories. Many of them did not speak Latin. Most of them did not give a fig about the Roman constitution. They were less interested in becoming true Roman citizens than having access to the increasingly large and expensive grain doles that Rome established to buy off crime and urban unrest. Power-hungry men like Julius Caesar and Pompey bribed and hustled their way to the top, amassed large personal armies with which to overawe each other and all virtuous opposition, and provided the masses with mindless but showy entertainments to take their minds off of all that they were losing. (Today, we call that Keeping Up with the Kardashians).

Rome had gotten too large and unwieldy to be held together any longer by its ancient republican constitution. Earnest patriots like Cicero and Cato did their best extend the life of the old system with strenuous orations about virtue, simplicity, the rule of law, and why the republic still mattered. But when the inhabitants of a nation cease to share a common spirit, a common sense of mutual affinity and mutual sacrifice, a common sense of national identity, it's only a matter of time before the whole enterprise collapses.

Eventually, Caesar's grand-nephew Octavius (Augustus), gathered the shattered Roman state together under his personal dictatorship, solemnly staged a few faux-republican rituals now and then to allow people to pretend they still governed themselves, and got unapologetically with the real business of Rome: world empire. I believe we are approaching that moment.

Benjamin Franklin's republic was designed for a different time (when a musket was a high-tech weapon and the Atlantic Ocean was a moat of almost infinite width), and—frankly—for a different people (a largely English-derived population of highly educated farmers and small tradesmen). Our Constitution was designed to move public affairs forward at a glacial pace—which made sense in a three mile-per-hour world where nothing much was at stake. The Founders could not possibly have imagined the zip and frenzy and lethality of the modern world—cruise missiles, Internet commerce, the internal combustion engine, nuclear warheads, skyscrapers, or the capacity of a government agency (the NSA) to listen to every utterance of every single citizen whenever it wishes, for good reason or bad, instantly and secretly.

Like it or not, the United States is not a quiet and isolationist backwater any more. We somehow became the world's sole superpower and cultural hegemon, wealthy beyond dreams, with more than 750 foreign military bases scattered all over the planet, and a breathtaking, boundless appetite for resources, especially carbon. And yet we continue to try to govern ourselves with a constitution written by agrarians and isolationists dressed in wigs and waistcoats, who just wanted to be left alone by their national government.

Look at our national paralysis. We cannot pass immigration reform. While we dither 10,000 illegal immigrants cross our borders every single day. We cannot find consensus on a national health care delivery system. We cannot establish a sane national energy policy. We cannot agree on national educational standards, but by all measures we are slipping behind other nations in literacy, math, science aptitude, and engineering. We cannot decide who takes us into war, the House of Representatives (as the Founding Fathers insisted), or the president, who increasingly rules by executive order, mostly because nature abhors a vacuum and a great nation must do something.

Meanwhile, the people are fed a steady diet of what the Romans called "bread and circuses." We spend more time debating the felonies of football players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson than we do the "high crimes and misdemeanors" of our public officers. I've watched some of the ESPN discourse about these crises in the NFL, and on the whole the discussions have been more thoughtful, civil, and nuanced than the political debates on Fox and MSNBC.

We need to take our lesson from the Romans, so that we do not suffer their fate. Here's what that would mean. Wisdom consists of calling things by their right names. We are no longer a republic, and we aren't in any meaningful sense a democracy. The evidence suggests that we are now a global consumerist empire, a worldwide military-petroleum resource complex, ruled behind the curtain by corporate interests whose principal loyalty is not to America, but to profit. Even before Citizens United (2012), moneyed "interests" had virtually unlimited access to members of Congress, and now their ability to choke the system with money is essentially infinite. Many members of Congress really do set out to be good public servants and to represent the will of their constituents, but they are so completely suffocated by privilege and surrounded by individuals of vast wealth and power and presumption, that they soon cease to have a meaningful link to average Americans. The Constitution we like to celebrate (every September 17) is a lovely relic, a sweet chapter in civics textbooks, but it now bears very little resemblance to the way we are actually governed.

Second, we need to step back and rewrite the Constitution to address the pace, and the technological and demographic conditions of our time. In other words, we need to jettison the mythology of America so that we can get back on track with the modern mission of America. Given our global reach and our colossal international power, given our insatiable material desires, and given how dangerous the 21st century is proving to be, we are going to need a more efficient national government with fewer of the checks and balances that hold up legislation. We are going to have to grant the president more power, because otherwise he is just going to have to take it. It's this simple: we can either rewrite the constitution to get on top of the actual dynamics of the way things are done, and thereby stay in control, or we can cling to the fiction of our "republic" and seek to restore it, while the actual work of our government is done in secret conclaves by people who have never been elected.  

I know I sound pessimistic, but I'm not. We are a very great nation, filled with of people of integrity and creativity and good will. We just need to take back our government from those who have hijacked it. We deserve better. If it ain't broke don't fix it, of course, but since it is clearly broken right to the core, we the people have to step up and renew America.

We need to become Jefferson's people again—with some updates.