Castles in the Sand

When the waters rise, will our castles remain?

men signing the Declaration of Independence in a large room

My wife and I returned a few days ago from a trip to the east coast to visit friends and family and see some fascinating historic sites. Among those fascinating sites was a visit to Thomas Jefferson’s estate Monticello.

I was curious to see how Jefferson would be memorialized at his famous plantation home. Growing up in a right-wing conservative home, we were proud Christians and (possibly even prouder) Americans.

While no one would admit it (since to do so would be essentially confessing idolatry), we placed the Founding Fathers (must be capitalized) on pedestals along the apostles (who also do not belong on pedestals, but that’s a tangent for another day). We pointed to their references to God and the Almighty in their writings and their regular church attendance records (or, if they didn’t have regular church attendance records, we kind of ignored that) and that lofty language to praise their great Christian virtue.

These men weren’t human; they were something more (like, as I said before, the “heroes of the Bible”). That’s why they had monuments in their honor in our nation’s capital.

The problem with such glorification is it whitewashes flaws and installs blinders. When researchers began pursuing strings of evidence that Jefferson had several illegitimate children with one of his slaves, we cried foul and claimed that was liberal propaganda trying to undermine a great Christian man. I distinctly remember a specific example of this conversation. (As another side note: it’s curious that any time we were confronted with an inconvenient possible truth that didn’t align with our preconceived notions, it had to be a vicious liberal plot to undermine Christianity and our country. That’s another tangent for another day.)

After visiting Monticello, here is what I believe about Thomas Jefferson: he was a great man whose words set the stage for future democratic possibilities previously unrealized in the world. Before getting into the longest piece of that statement, let’s evaluate the first two words: great and man.

First of all, we often assume great only means good. It doesn’t. It means “unusual or considerable in degree, power, intensity, etc.” The reason I choose this word is because his impact was both unusual (unique) and considerable. In many ways, it was good. But it was not exclusively so.

That leads into the second word: he was a man. That seems like an obvious statement, but take it in the context of what I wrote above. We have a tendency as humans, and especially as Americans (and Christian Americans often take it to an even further extreme) to all but deify people we view as monumental to our history. It’s literally the reason we build monuments in their honor. (It also leads into a consideration of the Confederate monument issue, which is yet another tangent for another day.)

But Thomas Jefferson was not a monument. He was not a statue, or a god, or a flawless orator of the message of freedom. He was a man. That means that he, just like the rest of us, had many flaws, inconsistencies, and inconvenient truths. One thing I learned at Monticello is that, since he was obsessively detailed in everything, we have thousands of pages of records written with his own hand to prove that point.

A quick summary of the Monticello experience: it was fantastic. I highly recommend you visit if you have the opportunity. The house, which Jefferson designed, showcased all of his personality quirks in ways I’d never imagined. He had wine bottle dumbwaiters hidden in the sides of a fireplace, a mechanism that allowed him to unlock his bedroom door without getting out of bed, steep spiral stairs (rather than a grand staircase) to minimize space, a grand handmade clock with weights that went through the floor, and much more. Further, the way they handle the more complex issues was tasteful and thought-provoking. The “Slavery at Monticello Tour” is well worth the time.

One final statement that could lead to a tangent for another day: as both Americans and Christians, we have a very complicated relationship with “truth” that talks a big talk professing the value, power, and permanency of truth while simultaneously often brushing off inconvenient challenges (regardless of their proven accuracy) to our conception of truth. So it’s time we confront some proven and established truths about Thomas Jefferson and what they should mean for us today.

Thomas Jefferson was one of the most influential political minds in human history. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, including the immortal words that, though not legally established in our Constitution, form the backbone and philosophical basis for our country:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thomas Jefferson also never lived out his most famous words. Throughout his life, he owned more than 600 enslaved people. By the time of his death, he had only freed (using that term in its most generous context) 10. Every one that he freed was in some way related to the Hemings family, including his four children with Sally Hemings, whom he never acknowledged. Despite his actions in this regard, he wrote consistently opposing slavery. He called it a “moral depravity,” a “hideous blot,” and several other similarly harsh things.

Although he supported abolition, Jefferson also believe white people and black people could not peacefully live together. He considered black people to be “as incapable as children” and that they were racially inferior, which, by definition, is white supremacy. For more on these seemingly contradicting attitudes, visit the “Jefferson’s Attitudes Toward Slavery” page on the Monticello website.

We cannot simply ignore these truths about Jefferson, although for 200 years we’ve often chosen to do exactly that. We also can’t dismiss his contributions to both our country and many others across the globe who took his words and the American example and used them as a model. Instead, we must acknowledge complexity, shades of gray. In short, we must un-deify him and recognize him as a man.

The reason why this step is crucial is because it gives us direction for how to move forward. You see, a strong branch within conservative politics is originalism or textualism. This approach says we must view the Constitution based on what a reasonable person at the time of its adoption would understand it to mean. Like so many things in our world (and even in this post about Thomas Jefferson), our issue is when we get to one extreme or the other.

Our founding documents were written nearly 250 years ago, and that means the context of the time and even language were vastly different to what we have today. Because of that, it is vital to use a contextual lens to examine what a reasonable person would understand it to mean at the time.

For example, with the current focus on impeachment, the Constitution phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” has been radically misinterpreted to mean an actual federal crime. Unlike today, when the phrase is only used in the conversation about impeachment, in its time that phrase was very common and easily understood to mean, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 65, “the abuse or violation of some public trust.” And while today we hear the word “trust” and think about truth and honesty, the context of the time provides a more nuanced definition incorporating the placing of the good of the country above the good of yourself. Violating the public trust would mean a person in power within our government placing their own self-interest above the interest of the country as a whole.

That example, highly relevant to us right now, showcases the need to evaluate the text’s meaning based on what the founders meant at the time. We lose significant meaning if we try to adhere to the Constitution without doing so. However, the opposite extreme is just as damaging. Over 250 years, our country and the world around it have grown and developed in countless ways impossible for the founders to have imagined. Locking ourselves into the context allows us to ignore some of their more audacious words.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Those words were (and still are) audacious. Such a premise had never before been considered as a foundation for society. As such, each step of establishing a government of the people, by the people, for the people, was a step into the unknown. That’s why our country has been called the “American Experiment.”

Jefferson’s most impactful words did not align with his own life nor the culture of his time. But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss either him or his words. Instead, it means we should take those words as his stated ideal, the best of himself. He wrote them as the beginning point of a lengthy journey toward their fulfillment. He died long before they could realized, and, in fact, we’re still a long way from that point.

So instead of looking at his words as statements of America’s inherent greatness and taking a whitewashed view of his life to essentially deify him (and the other founders), let us take his words for what they really are: a challenge.

A challenge to be better than he was. A challenge to see our country through the lens of those immortal words and use them as our central guide as we navigate our course toward their achievement. A challenge to stay vigilant in acknowledging when and where our country has not achieved its stated core purpose. And a challenge to forever work to reach it.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thomas Jefferson and his fellow founders saw this as a worthy cause, one they believed in but would not see completely fulfilled. Rather than worshiping their contributions, let’s stand on their shoulders and work to bring about the dream they began. That would be the best way to honor them and bring about the greatness we profess for our country.

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