It’s the Vision, Not Always the Man

Jefferson is my guiding star. Of the dozen or so historical characters I perform (and on any given day it is more like six or seven), Jefferson is the one who has most shaped my life. I aspire to be a Jeffersonian, which I think is the noblest role for an American. I find Theodore Roosevelt amusing and I’m drawn to his heroic character and the large menu of great adventures that racked up in 60 years, but I don’t really regard TR as the answer to America’s problems. I’d sell my soul to Mephistopheles to have been with Meriwether Lewis in Montana in June of 1805, when there were tens of millions of buffalo there, in a tense but creative association with wolves, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, elk, and grizzly bears. In short, I’d give anything to see Montana before we did what we have done to it—and it is still the most beautiful place in America.

But it is Jefferson who created the America we are when we are at our best. Lewis could not have done that. John Steinbeck could not have done that. Robert Oppenheimer could not have done that. John Wesley Powell was a Jeffersonian, but he did not have enough authority to do much more than work reforms around the edges.

If any one of you is thinking of scouring the image of Jefferson off of Mount Rushmore, I urge you to think again. Let’s admit his faults in a nutshell: He wasn’t as brave as George Washington during the war. He lived hopelessly beyond his means. He was a slaveholder and indeed a racist, and if the Sally Hemings story is true, you could argue, if you had a very sour soul, that that constitutes rape, since he owned her and she could not therefore confer consent even if she consented. He put into motion some of the dynamics of Indian removal. He was what used to be called a male chauvinist. He sometimes tried to undercut political adversaries to whom he was exquisitely polite in the public square, all the while pretending, with an aristocratic sigh, that he really just wanted to be puttering about in his garden.

I could spend a great deal of time addressing each of those charges and establishing that they are not as damning as they seem when piled up in this way out of context. But I cheerfully agree that Jefferson is a problematic figure in American history.

Think instead about what he envisioned for us. I can tell you, in advance, that I want to live in a Jeffersonian America. I do not particularly like living in Trumpland, or even Obamaland, for that matter. We have debased the American dream until it is a kind of joke: obscene accumulation of stuff, a gouty and diabetic over-rich diet, obesity, widespread ignorance, including profound cultural ignorance and indifference, an “I got mine, you go jump in the lake” notion of distributive justice, and an acceptance of violence so routinized that we now shrug off the school and mall shootings. Guns and liberty. Junk food. Junk TV.

In the briefest compass, here’s what Jefferson wanted. Whenever you agree that we have strayed from those lovely ideals, do one of those little mechanical “ehghhh!” sounds you hear on the game shows. He wanted a nation so well-educated that it could govern itself without formal government if necessary. He believed that we must have a vital daily engagement with nature to stay virtuous, independent, and happy. He believed that because we share more ideals than we disagree about that we should be especially respectful to our political opponents, and always seek to build a broad centrist coalition of well-meaning people. He believed that the principal of majority rule was a sacred thing, and that the losers should be generous and gracious to the winners, and help them along as much as possible. He believed that we should bow down to science and treat it like the Oracle at Delphi, conforming our behavior to what he called Nature’s God and Nature’s Law rather than try to bend them to our lust for power and profit. He believed we should enter into public debate only when we have the right tools: reason, civility, verifiable evidence, a headful of careful reading. He believed that war is almost always a very bad and counter-productive idea, and that disputes at all levels should be ratcheted down rather than ratcheted up. He believed that average people were up to the challenge of living self-reliant, thoughtful, useful, and productive lives. He believed a nation’s greatness is measured by its libraries, poetry, art, dance, universities, tasteful architecture, gardens, hospitality, and the art of conversation rather than by artillery pieces and global market shares. He believed that if we will educate ourselves liberally, and stay close to the earth, we can more often than not rise to our best selves. He believed that freedom is worth fighting for, if necessary, and that government should do whatever it can to get out of our way. He believed that life is not worth living without a very high level of mutual forbearance, tolerance, respect, and above all civility.

That’s the America I want to live in. It’s not that I don’t care that Jefferson was a slaveholder, because I do, but I don’t want to maroon Jefferson on that dreary island. I want to accept that he was an imperfect human being, without compliancy, and then return to his magnificent vision of America and ponder—this is almost all that I do now—how we can return to that Republic. It’s a long road back, and we may be beyond redemption as a nation, but I can tell you how it begins.

First, you turn off your devices, including your smart phone and your television. Second, you start walking every day. Third, you try gently to lead every conversation back to the center. Fourth, you resolve not to open your mouth unless you know what you are talking about. Fifth, you grow something.

Pretty soon you will be reading Homer in the original Greek—between marathons.

"Cherry trees around the Tidal Basin and Thomas Jefferson Memorial," public domain from the United States Department of Agriculture via Flickr. 22 March 2017.