Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Happy Fourth of July!

Every year, for the past 43 years, my parent's neighbors have gathered on the morning of the Fourth of July for a celebratory breakfast. Everyone dons their patriotic finest, brings food to share, and enjoys the companionship of their fellow Eastridgians (yeah, yeah, I'm making up words here). And nearly every one of those 43 years, my dad (who, along with my mom, started this tradition) stands and reminds everyone why they are gathered together on this day. This year he has graciously agreed to allow me to share his talk. Enjoy!

"There are three grand monuments to individual men in Washington D.C. One of those is The Washington Monument, another is the Lincoln Memorial, and the third is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. In the third one, a 19' bronze statue of Jefferson stands in the center of a classical, circular, domed colonnade. In the spring, standing as it does among the cherry blossoms, it may be the most beautiful place in the city.

Thomas Jefferson stands out in our history for several things. He was the third President of the U.S. and the first to break the grip on power of the Federalists, who believed that the government should always be in the hands of the rich, the possessors of a lot of property, and those who were "well-born." He wrote the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom, which guaranteed freedom of religion in Virginia to people of all religious faiths, including Christians of all denominations, Jews, Muslims, Hindus. And he authorized the doubling in size of the United States by buying the Louisiana Purchase.

But Jefferson stands above all the great American men and women, for whom there are not such grand monuments as those three above, for one thing above all others - the Declaration of Independence. It's that declaration, of course, that's the foundation of this breakfast tradition of ours. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress, having voted in favor of American separation from England on July 2, put its final touches on the explanation for that separation, passed it, and sent it out to the printers. On July 4, 1976 - 200 years later - the first edition of this breakfast took place next door, in my wife's and my back yard.

The first 4th of July breakfast -
my mom is standing
I'm interested this morning in the background of that Declaration. Near the end of his life, Jefferson explained his goal in writing it. He said that he'd intended "Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent...Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular or previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give that expression the proper tone and spirit call for by the occasion."

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, George Mason
And he certainly did not achieve originality of principle or sentiment. You Wouldn't have to browse with Google for very long to find the same arguments put forward in nearly the same words by the Frenchman Rousseau, the Englishman John Locke, Jefferson's contemporary George Mason, and others.

So if Jefferson borrowed freely from the ideas of others, why is his great work so revered as to put him in the center of that striking monument in our nation's capital? My argument to you is that he wrote those ideas more beautifully than the other guys. And, at the same time, in language that could be understood by many more than the rich, the well-born, and those with university educations.

Many of you know that the longest section of the Declaration is just a list of complaints against King George III of England: He has imposed "taxes upon us without our sent," he has deprived us "in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury," "He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people." And so on and so on.

Following the list of grievances, Jefferson wrote that the colonists had tried many times to settle these matters while still remaining good Englishmen themselves. But that had failed and so now the Americans were declaring "That these united Colonies are, and of Right out to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown..."

But the complaints and the pledge are really no more than a lawyer's argument. What makes Jefferson stand out, what earns him that beautiful monument is the second section, in which he lays out the philosophy of the thing, what it is that Americans believe that makes everything else valid in their minds. And, yes, he was not, as he wrote years later, "aiming at originality of principle or sentiment." He just set it all out more skillfully than had Rousseau, Locke, or anyone else.

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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government...

We're here this morning, of course, for the fellowship, the food, and the tradition. But were it not for those ringing words, we'd probably all be sitting right now in our respective homes, waiting for the picnics, the swimming, the boating, the family times, the fireworks, and whatever else we may have planning door the day. So thanks for yet one more thing Thomas Jefferson."  - Ed Kemble

1 comment:

  1. Happy Independence Day! Lovely speech. What an amazing tradation!