Jefferson, Paul Jennewein bas relief in U.S. House chamber
Jefferson’s birthday sneaked up on me this year. There is the constant tension between doing the Things that Keep the Wolf from the Door and following all the things we should follow; wolves have been on my mind more lately (notice the drop off in posts).
So all I had was a warning post last week, and the post yesterday wishing Tom a happy natal anniversary day. Hey it’s not my job.
But what about the rest of you? What about the president, Congress, public officials, educators and others everywhere?
Here is what I found of celebrations of Jefferson’s birthday:
Architectural Record reported that the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture was won by Zaha Hadid.
The Daily Progress of Charlottesville, Virginia, Jefferson’s home town, reported that Alan Greenspan won the first Thomas Jefferson Medal in Citizen Leadership.
In the last paragraph of the story about Greenspan, The Daily Progress also noted that the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Law was awarded to Anne-Marie Slaughter.
The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression issued 16 “Jefferson Muzzle” awards to people who damaged free expression. The story I found was from the UPI wire, UPI now being owned by the Unification Church and probably sort of a muzzle itself. The story listed only one of 16 awardees.
In Washington, D.C., Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez noted the 200th anniversary of the science agencies that became the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in a speech at the Jefferson Memorial. Jefferson had created the first science agency, the Survey of the Coast, during his presidency, in 1807.
President Bush declared April 13 “Thomas Jefferson Day,” on April 11. If any news agency picked up that press release, I’ve not been able to find it.
That’s about it for celebration. That’s not a lot. It’s not enough.
We can and should do better than that. In The Philadelphia Inquirer, education scholar Peter Gibbon of Boston University suggests we can and should honor Jefferson more overtly, despite Jefferson’s own refusal of letting the citizens of Boston make his birthday a holiday:
Jefferson was more than an eloquent espouser of democratic ideology, more than a patient and realistic secretary of state, and more than a president who doubled the size of America with the Louisiana Purchase. He was a scientist who analyzed climate change, studied mastodon bones, and championed small-pox inoculation; a farmer who invented a moldboard plough and brought fruit trees and upland rice to America; a lawyer who helped make Virginia laws more humane; and an architect who designed Monticello and the University of Virginia.
Only education, Jefferson believed, could end tyranny and preserve democratic values. Thus, he advocated universal primary education, colleges open to merit, and curriculum separate from theology. His thousands of books eventually became the beginning of the Library of Congress. Devoted to reason, he loved beauty, playing his violin, and marveling at the flowers and fruits of the Virginia countryside. In love with knowledge, he placed a higher priority on virtue.
Jefferson cultivated friends, treasured his wife (who died after only 10 years of marriage), and watched after his children. In 1804, Maria, his 26-year-old daughter, died. Against a background of war, political combat, and personal suffering, Jefferson struggled to retain his optimism.
Our celebration of Jefferson’s birthday today is more complicated than the adoration of Boston citizens in 1803. Now, we acknowledge a guilty, conflicted slaveholder who did not transcend his time, a tough politician who orchestrated attacks on his opponents and carefully shaped his reputation for posterity. We see a second presidential term marred by a misconceived embargo that backfired and caused an economic crisis. Still, we might also see a sweet-tempered, affectionate human being – a diplomat, architect, and idealist who believed in religious tolerance, rebuked tyrants, promoted civil rights, and wrote the words that justify the creation of America.
Some Americans are unhappy with Jefferson’s legacy. As with all real humans who achieve some level of hero-worship, some people are unhappy to discover that others who do heroic things are not heroic in all aspects of their lives. They need to get over it.
We should do more to celebrate Thomas Jefferson and his legacy. April 13 is a good day for such celebrations.
This is not a call for a hero cult, nor especially a religious-style cult. Honoring Jefferson honors his better nature, his calls for freedom for everyone, his calls for ending slavery (even if he did not free his own slaves), his call for universal education in order to make a republic work well and righteously, his calls for intellectual freedom, his celebration of the Common Man as an ideal, his work for libraries and learning, his work for good and beautiful architecture, his love of science, etc., etc., etc.
Honoring Jefferson honors America, and calls us to do better ourselves in working for a higher good. We should do that.