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What Would Jefferson Do?
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Number 2: Summer 2001

Liberty and the Fourth of July

It had been fifty years since the original thirteen United States declared their independence from Great Britain, and the city of Washington was planning a party. Among the invitees to the celebration to be held on July 4, 1826 were the surviving members of the Second Continental Congress and other Founding Fathers, including an 83 year-old Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. But Jefferson was too old and ill to travel to Washington, and instead wrote the organizers of the celebration a letter that would contain one of his more famous quotes -- one paraphrased in part from another source, but nonetheless purely Jeffersonian in tone and sentiment. This quote clearly indicates the significance that Jefferson assigned to the anniversary of American independence:

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 ... For ourselves, let the annual return of this day, forever refresh our recollections of these rights and an undiminished devotion to them.

This letter turned out to be Jefferson's last public statement. He died on the morning of July 4, 1826, at Monticello.

To Jefferson, Independence Day was a day of reflection upon our rights, and a renewal of our commitment to preserving them. Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers were far from perfect, but the act of breaking free not only from the British monarchy but from the very concept of monarchy required extraordinary courage, as each one knew the potential consequences of rebelling against the British Empire. The following is an example from a death sentence handed down by king George III to seven Irish rebels in 1802:

...[you] are to be hanged by the neck, but not until you are dead; for while you are still living your bodies are to be taken down, your bowels torn out and burned before your faces, your heads cut off, and your bodies divided each into four quarters, and your heads and quarters to be then at the king's disposal; and may the Almighty God have mercy on your souls.

The Founding Fathers -- almost all of whom were from the professional classes -- knew what would happen to them if they failed. They tried anyway, for liberty took precedence over their own comfort and safety.

Today we seem more inclined than ever to surrender our fundamental liberties for the sake of our own comfort and safety; yet we fail to realize that comfort and safety mean little in a society enslaved by tyranny. As a population, we no longer have any living memory of rash, widespread tyanny comparable to the "long train of abuses and usurpations" cited by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence; so we continue to accept the gradual advance of tyranny with little or no question. We still believe that we live in the most free nation in the world, and we are probably still correct in that belief; yet our freedom diminishes with each unchallenged warrrantless search, each "routine" violation of due process, each new innovation in surveillance technology.

As we celebrate this Independence Day, let us renew our commitment to preserving liberty in all its forms, even if it means that we must occasionally risk our safety, inconvenience ourselves, or make ourselves or others uncomfortable. It is a small price to pay to avoid the "long train of abuses and usurpations" we will face if we continue along the course that we are presently taking.

In liberty and pursuit of happiness,

Michael H. Burchett

What do you think?

"No one has a right to obstruct another exercising his faculties innocently for the relief of sensibilities made a part of his nature." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816.

More Jefferson Quotes

Suggested Readings:

Adrienne Koch & William Peden, eds. The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Modern Library, 1998).

David N. Mayer. The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson (University Press of Virginia, 1995).

Copyright 2001 Michael H. Burchett

Now available: "What Would Jefferson Do?" bumper sticker. 8.5'' x 2.25"; red, black, and blue on white background -- just like the heading at the top of this page. Send check or money order for $3.00 (shipping & handling included) to:

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