Jefferson’s last letter

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(HOST) As we get ready to celebrate the Fourth of July, commentator Vic Henningsen reminds us of another anniversary.

(HENNINGSEN) One hundred and eighty years ago this morning, an old man sat down to finish what he was certain would be his last letter. He knew he’d be dead or dying as his words were read, but he was determined they be remembered.

Eighty-three-year-old Thomas Jefferson was declining an invitation to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He was too ill to attend the ceremony and, truth be known, he preferred communicating in writing. He hated public speaking. But he had words to commemorate the day. Here they are, quote:

“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.” End quote.

John Adams, who would also die on July 4th, 1826, was characteristically blunt in his message: “Independence Forever!” Asked to elaborate, he refused: “Not a word.” Adams regarded independence as the signal accomplishment of the Revolution.

Jefferson went further. To express his point, as was customary at the time, he borrowed the final words of an earlier revolutionary, the English patriot Richard Rumbold, who denounced the idea of mankind ridden by a favored few before his execution in 1685. It was typical of Jefferson thus to reach back as he looked forward. The Fourth was a crucial moment, but only a moment, in a continuing revolution of the human spirit he thought both inevitable and universal. Its importance, he suggested, was not so much the fact of American liberty, but the promise of human freedom everywhere.

Privately, Jefferson was desperately ill, deeply in debt, depressed by the knowledge that the world he had created at Monticello would not survive him. That world, of course, was supported by slaves he refused to free. But he ignored personal contradictions, however damning, to see a future hope. In his final public statement, Jefferson chose to sound again the chord of eternal revolution. What Americans had done, others would do. If the Declaration stood for anything, it stood for that.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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