On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the approval and signing of theDeclaration of Independence, the document’s author was an 83-year-old formergovernor, vice president and president. Yet, what Thomas Jefferson was mostknown for in 1826 was his role in crafting the founding vision of the UnitedStates.
This was the recognition that Jefferson welcomed. Indeed, when he diedon that 50th anniversary, he was buried on the grounds of his Monticelloestate beneath a stone that made no mention of the political offices he hadheld. Rather, it read:
HERE WAS BURIED THOMAS JEFFERSON
AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
Jefferson has little faith in presidents and their Cabinets. He was no greatfan of the Congress.
What he believed in were the ideals of the America experiment. He was proudto have shaped the documents that defined those ideals. And he wanted hislegacy to be that not of a holder of office, but of a champion of therevolutionary promise of liberation from the tyranny of warrior kings andtheir oppressions.
Today, there are those who attempt to remake Jefferson and the otherfounders as religious zealots, as essentially conservative men who happenedto have a slight squabble with King George III, or, worst of all, asimperialists who would want the United States to dominate the affairs ofother lands.
The founders were imperfect men, to be sure. Few were so radical, or sofar ahead of their times, as Tom Paine, the wisest of their number. But theywere, proudly and unquestionably, revolutionaries against the old order ofinherited monarchy, state churches, empires and the authority of the fewover the fate of the many.
We know this to be true of Jefferson because, as July 4, 1826, approached,he was invited to appear in Washington for a celebration of the Declarationof Independence. Age and infirmity prevented Jefferson from attending theevent, but he sent a message – his last political statement – which read:
May (July 4) be to the world, what I believe it will be — to some partssooner, to others later, but finally to all — the signal of arousing men toburst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition hadpersuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and securityof self-government. That form (of government) which we have substituted,restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom ofopinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The generalspread of the light of science has already laid open to every view thepalpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles ontheir backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride themlegitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. Forourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh ourrecollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
On this Fourth of July, we Americans would do well to embrace Jefferson’s last words and the Americanideals that, though battered by the current tyranny, will outlast the KingGeorge of the moment.