Eavesdropping on Thomas Jefferson and Walt Whitman on Independence Day
A July 4th Looking Back with a Hopeful Going Forward
Posted Jun 27, 2011
Thomas Jefferson and I share the same home town, Charlottesville, Virginia. On July 4th the forty-ninth annual Naturalization Ceremony welcoming new citizens to the United States will be held on the grounds of his home, Monticello. The speaker at this year's event, Coca-Cola Chairman of the Board and CEO Mushtar Kent, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Turkey, states that "I consider myself an ‘unabashed optimist' and learned this trait from America itself." What a celebration as the band plays, flags wave, and the shouts of the cheering crowd float across the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains. Why all the excitement about becoming a citizen of this country? Why choose this particular spot setting such a momentous occasion? What about the United States taught Kent that the glass is half full?
To commemorate Independence Day, I want to look at some of Jefferson's words, turning to Thomas Jefferson On Democracy, edited by Saul Padover. Though he did not write books, Jefferson penned some twenty-five thousand letters as well as a wide array of public papers and addresses, and Jeffersonian advocacy of democracy soars from the pages. Whenever he traveled abroad, he returned home with something akin to these words written to James Monroe: "How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy." Let's reflect on Jefferson's views then and hold them up to the light today. What "precious blessings" do we take for granted in this country? What is your response to the following Jeffersonian quotes that represent the heart of his belief in democracy? Are we living up to the democratic standards he sets forth below? Engage in good conversation over this holiday and thrive, as Jefferson did, on difference of opinion. Limiting myself to just one word, I'll briefly join your discussion. For fun, ask everyone in your group (of two or more!) do the same thing - just one word the first go round, then let the verbal fireworks commence.
From his First Inaugural in 1801: "Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?" (Hmm....)
To Elbridge Gerry, 1899: "I am for encouraging the progress of science in all its branches; and not for raising a hue and cry against the sacred name of philosophy." (Bravo!)
To S. Kercheval, 1816: "As new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed...institutions must change with the circumstances...and keep pace with the times." (Education?)
To James Madison: "One generation has no right to incur debts for another." (Yikes.)
To De Meunier, 1786: "In America...the poorest laborer stood on equal ground with the wealthiest millionaire." (True?)
Notes on Virginia, Query 17: "Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion." (Amen.)
To Colonel Wm. Duane, 1811: "Things may here and there go a little wrong.... But all will be right in the end, though not perhaps by the shortest means." (Onward.)
In January of 2010, I had the pure pleasure of hearing jazz pianist Fred Hersch at the Village Vanguard in New York City. Hersch's life story in itself serves as inspiration and cause for optimism, as does his collaboration with poet Walt Whitman on his 2005 album titled Leaves of Grass. Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry lend their voices to Whitman's celebration of humanity written in 1855 as Hersch and his ensemble tenderly interpret the poet instrumentally. Listen to the true symphony that moves silently upon Whitman's soul in "After the Dazzle of Day."
Happy Independence Day! And here's to getting it "right in the end."