This week in April commemorates two monumental—literally, since both look down from Rushmore—American statesmen.
Wednesday marked the day Thomas Jefferson’s light first graced the world, and yesterday was the solemn reminder of the date when Abraham Lincoln’s was tragically and prematurely extinguished. Both had lives that shaped the nation and the world. Both lived in defining times, and both left a legacy of words in letters, speeches and declarations that are foundational to our democratic republic.
Jefferson visualized the dream of self-government in the U.S., and eloquently put forth its ideals, principles and requirements. Lincoln personified and epitomized it, and gave his life for the cause of preserving it intact.
Only one could ever know of the other (Honest Abe was 17 when Jefferson died in 1826) and Lincoln never underestimated the Sage of Monticello’s brilliance.
In an April 1859 letter to Massachusetts Republicans, he characterized Jefferson as “the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times …
“The principles of Jefferson,” Lincoln wrote, “are the definitions and axioms of free society.”
Jefferson, even though he authored the document proclaiming American freedom through self-government, lived much of his life as a colonial subject. Lincoln was born an American citizen and knew firsthand the truest meaning of liberty, as experienced on the western frontier in Kentucky and Indiana.
Both recognized America’s enduring uniqueness—Jefferson first in theory and Lincoln later in full reality.
Indeed, in Lincoln’s most famous speech, he characterized the U.S. as such when he said “… that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Nearly 90 years after the United States declared independence, no nation had achieved self-government at a level to match America’s. Even now, another century-and-a-half since the Gettysburg Address, no other country has replicated the genius of our founders in like degree.
Yet there are those today who seek to tarnish our heritage by revising historical people and events using today’s context as a measuring stick.
Our founders were racists, revisionists say. Name a country that wasn’t racist in 1760, reason says. It was a time of world hierarchies based on and defined by racial distinctions.
Ditto for most of the civilized world in 1870. Our 15th Amendment led many other nations by decades on writing color-blind suffrage into a national charter. Legislative racial restrictions remained in place in many European colonies until the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The founding fathers were also chauvinists, revisionists say. All nations were sexist at the time, reason reminds. It would be more than 100 years after our own Constitution that New Zealand would become the first self-governing colony to give all women the right to vote in—but not stand for—parliamentary elections.
The United States granted women full equal suffrage ahead of Sweden, Italy, Great Britain, Spain, France and Belgium. We were 51 years ahead of Switzerland on the issue. Government-sponsored sexism still persists in many countries today.
It’s bad enough that revisionists want to apply 21st century standards to 18th century leaders and situations, but revisionism’s greatest peril is that it maligns the very thing that is the differentiator for our republic: the American citizens’ character.
Countless other countries have copied our constitution’s language and structure, only to fail at replicating our republican success. In a document that begins with “We the people” the critical factor is, in fact, the people.
Americans fresh from revolution and constitutional ratification embraced freedom with a core understanding that liberty was the opposite of reliance on government and its inherently oppressive nature. Self-government and self-sufficiency were symbiotic and proved catalytic for national prosperity.
Obviously there are people, events and instances in our history that warrant shame, condemnation and repudiation. That is true of all nations. What is not true of all others is the record of remarkable, world-changing self-government as devised and practiced in the United States.
Jefferson said it best: “Before the establishment of the American states, nothing was known to history but the man of the old world, crowded within limits either small or overcharged, and steeped in the vices which that situation generates,” he wrote to John Adams in 1813.
“A government adapted to such men would be one thing; but a very different one that for the man of these states … Every one [here], by his property, or by his satisfactory situation, is interested in the support of law and order.”
Revisionists don’t realize that in their smear campaign to rewrite history, their soily edits often blot out the very character necessities self-government requires.
If attitude is everything, as heard in adages from psychologists, educators and parents, sour revisionism curdles the character not only of its historical targets–but also of today’s generations challenged with meeting the obligations of self-government.
Self-government is hard enough for the well-educated and well-equipped; it may be impossible for the mis-educated and mis-equipped.