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The following is the text from keynote speaker Eric S. Petersen's presentation at "The Vision of Thomas Jefferson" program held at the United Nations. Sponsored by the UNSRC Society of Writers. Co-presenter Willard Sterne Randall's speech will be available on the UNSRC Society of Writers website soon.
United Nations SRC Society of Writers presents
“The Vision of Thomas Jefferson”
Eric Petersen and Willard Sterne Randall
7:00 pm in Conference Room 4
United Nations, New York, NY
(Eric Petersen’s segment)
Eric Petersen: Thank you, Will, so much for that beautiful and incisive portrait of the extraordinary life of service and vision of the great and the good Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson was the happiest of men. He said, “The Giver of life gave it for happiness and not for wretchedness.” Everywhere he went, he sang or hummed happily to himself. The fiddle, or the violin, was his instrument, and he was quite accomplished. As a collegian, he played in the governor’s weekly ensembles at the palace in Colonial Williamsburg. And in his sunset years, the music of his grandchildren filled the parlor of his home at Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson said the sun never caught him in bed for fifty years. He loved nature and nature’s God. He delighted in the culture of the earth and in every bud that opened. He loved being outdoors. He spent every possible moment outside, regardless of the weather. Even when he was inside, he was conscious of the beauty, the flow, the power and the peace of nature. He once wrote “there is not a sprig of grass that shoots uninteresting to me, nor anything that moves.”
Thomas Jefferson’s life and vision were special gifts to America and to the world. He had a brilliant mind, a vast heart, an illumining soul. Thomas Jefferson was a seer-a dreamer of a better life for us all. His vision, the vision that Will described so beautifully, is at the heart of what Americans treasure about their country, and indeed, what the world admires about America. It is a vision, of course, of freedom, the rights of man, self-government, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. I like best the way Thomas Jefferson put it in one of his early drafts of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and unalienable rights; and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
What did Thomas Jefferson mean by the pursuit of happiness? How do you actually pursue it? He wrote this: “Happiness is the aim of life, virtue is the foundation of happiness, and utility is the test of virtue.” It is an interesting blend of the ideal and the practical. Thomas Jefferson is saying that happiness rests on a moral or a spiritual foundation, much more so than on a material foundation. He said, “The glow of one warm thought is to me worth more than money.” And how do you know if a particular thought, word or deed is virtuous? It has to actually work to produce happiness. He said, “If the wise be the happy man, he must be virtuous also, for without virtue, happiness cannot be.”
To Thomas Jefferson, happiness began with physical fitness. He said, “Without health there is no happiness.” Attention to health then, should take the place of every other object. He advised people to take a great deal of exercise, and on foot. He wrote “Of all exercises, walking is best. I have known many great walkers, and heard particular accounts of many more, and I have never known or heard of one who was not healthy and long-lived.” And so, what is Thomas Jefferson’s recipe for good health? It is, simple diet, exercise, and the open air, be its state what it will.
Thomas Jefferson was a great proponent of civility. He was a very gracious man-a real gentleman. One traveler described the experience of meeting Thomas Jefferson as being like experiencing light from an inexhaustible solar fountain and wrote that Thomas Jefferson astonished every mind that he met.
Thomas Jefferson believed that political differences should not lead to personal animosity. He said he never saw an instance of one of two disputants convincing each other by argument. He observed that it was one of the things that made Dr. Franklin the most amiable of men in society, never to contradict anybody. If he were urged to announce an opinion, he did so by asking questions, as if for information, or perhaps to suggest doubts.
I would like to turn now to the themes of Light and Liberty, the two ideals that are at the heart of Thomas Jefferson’s vision. Let’s start with liberty, the great cause that never had a better friend or more ardent champion in the long run of human history. What is liberty? According to Thomas Jefferson, liberty is freedom from coercion. As he put in a famous inscription now at the Jefferson Memorial, “I have sworn on the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
What are these forms of tyranny? Well, it is individual over individual, religion over government, government over religion, government over the individual. It is nation over nation, majority over minority. It is even generation over generation. That is why Thomas Jefferson fought so hard to include a bill of rights in the U.S. Constitution, to be included immediately after it was adopted, because he felt it was necessary to protect for all time the fundamental rights of man: freedom of speech; freedom of assembly; freedom of religion; freedom from arbitrary governmental arrest and imprisonment; the right to trial by jury; and so forth. The basic rights of man.
Thomas Jefferson even felt strongly about what we might call today ‘intergenerational tyranny.’ He said, “We shall all consider ourselves unauthorized to saddle posterity with our debts, and morally obligated to pay them ourselves within what may be deemed to be the period of a generation.” So, Thomas Jefferson’s voice calls out to us to renounce all temptation to coerce, to dominate, to interfere, to force.
What is the source of our rights? What is the source of our liberties? Thomas Jefferson had no doubt there was a divine source of our rights and of our liberties. He put it this way in his famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: “Almighty God hath created the mind free and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain, by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint.” So coercion is wrong because it violates fundamental human rights. And it is un-virtuous because it simply does not work to produce happiness.
Thomas Jefferson asks this question: “Is uniformity attainable? Can I coerce you to think like I want you to think, or act like I want you to act?” And he answers his own question this way: “Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned, and yet, we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity.” And so we may ask with Thomas Jefferson is coercion, exercised to try to obtain a perceived virtue, virtuous?
Lets turn now to light, the other of Thomas Jefferson’s dual ideals. Thomas Jefferson said, “Light and liberty go together.” No light, no liberty. What is light? According to Thomas Jefferson, light is freedom from ignorance. “If a nation expects to be both ignorant and free” he wrote, “in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
What is ignorance? According to Thomas Jefferson, it is an excessive focus on what divides us and what separates us, rather than on what unites us and what we have in common. It is a lack of interest or awareness in the world around us, in the people around us, in our history, in basic information about the way the world works. In its worst form, ignorance is tribalism, barbarity, cruelty, violence.
How do you overcome ignorance? As Will described: it is through education; through learning (Thomas Jefferson called it ‘science’); through the diffusion of knowledge. One of the bills that Thomas Jefferson wrote in his vast legislative outpouring in Virginia, after he wrote the Declaration of Independence, was a bill called “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” It provided simply for public education-education at the public expense-for children in the first, second and third grades. It was a radical ideal. No such thing existed at the time, and it did not pass for decades.
Thomas Jefferson expressed the link between light and liberty in another famous inscription at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. “Enlighten the people generally and tyranny and oppression of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”
What is light on a societal scale? According to Thomas Jefferson, it is the spirit of reason, of candor, of moderation, respect, tolerance, mild laws readily obeyed, and most fundamentally, it is valuing self-government-valuing self-government above all other blessings.
So, you can look around the world today, and ask does this nation in the Middle East or in Africa, or that nation in Eurasia have enough light to attain and sustain liberty? You can ask that question. And even here in the United States, does this country have enough light to sustain its liberties, when half of the country does not even vote? Does this country have people who value self-government above all other blessings?
For those who do vote in this election season, Thomas Jefferson had some questions that he thought should be asked about candidates for public office (and do not worry, they are non-partisan). Here they are:
Is he (or she) honest?
Is he capable?
Is he faithful to the Constitution?
Is he a friend of peace?
Is he a friend of economy in the public expense?
Thomas Jefferson was a fiercely independent thinker. He was a seeker of truth. He said, “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” He constantly encouraged young people to develop their own personal life philosophy-a code of life. He believed in enlightened human reason. He said, “Every man’s reason should be his own oracle.”
Thomas Jefferson believed in the existence in the human conscience, as well. He felt that there was a benign Creator, and that benign Creator intended man to live in society. Society simply would not work if each individual did not have a conscience to allow him to tell right from wrong, good from bad. He called the conscience the “faithful inner monitor” and he said, “Conscience is the only sure clue which will lead a man free and clear of all doubts and inconsistencies.” He said everyone should mind their own business, and believed in a philosophy of live and let live, of being true to yourself. He said, “I never told my religion, nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, or wished to change another’s creed.”
One of the principles with which Thomas Jefferson is most closely identified is the principle of the separation of church and state. He believed that the combined power of civil government and organized religion had produced some of the worst excesses in human history. And for that stand, a stand in favor of a “wall of separation”, as he put it, between church and state, he was pilloried when he ran for president in 1800 by the Federalist opposition and the Congregationalist establishment as a fanatic and as an atheist. They thought he was a fanatic for advocating democracy, in the way Will described, and an atheist for his opposition to the combination of church and state. He had written sentiments like this: “It does me no injury if my neighbor believes there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
But in fact, Thomas Jefferson had a deep, personal, spiritual faith. His faith was the faith of the heart as well as the mind. It was intuitive as well as rational. He believed in a Maker, a Creator, a source of our rights to life and liberty, and so forth. He reserved the term ‘sacred’ generally only to describe the rights of man, because he felt the rights of man were God-given, sacred rights.
Thomas Jefferson believed in the existence of souls-souls of individuals, and souls of nations. He once referred to the Declaration of Independence as an expression of the American mind. And he also called it “the genuine effusion of the soul of our country at that time.” Thomas Jefferson believed that there is a hereafter and when we go to the hereafter, we will meet our Maker and our Maker will ask us what we did for Him, here on Earth. This is the way he put it, so eloquently: “Faith and works will show their worth by their weight in the scales of eternal justice before God’s tribunal.”
Thomas Jefferson had clear ideas on the subject of good government. He felt that government had only two legitimate objects-the equal rights of man and the happiness of every individual. How do you attain good government? According to Thomas Jefferson, you take power and you fracture it, shatter it and scatter it to as many pieces as possible. You have power exercised at the most local level of government that is practicable and consistent with reason. So here in the United States for example, we have fifty states, and thousands of county and local governments, each with three branches, and each legislative branch with two houses. You take power and you fracture it.
And why do you need to scatter, check and balance power in this fashion? According to Thomas Jefferson, “I do not agree that fourteen out of fifteen people are rogues; but I do believe that rogues would be uppermost.” In other words, self-interested people rather than disinterested people, as he called them, selfless people, would tend to seek a central power position in every nation. Were they to achieve that, whether through election, through military conquest, through family inheritance, or by whatever means, we needed to have a system of dispersion of power that would limit the ability of those rogues to do damage. I often say to my friends and colleagues that America is fortunate because America had Thomas Jefferson while so many other countries of the world unfortunately were saddled with Napoleon or Napoleon’s equal.
Thomas Jefferson had clear ideas also on the proper use of American power, of any national power. During his time, England and France, of course, were the world’s dueling great superpowers. America was the fragile plant of liberty that was constantly tossed about in the hurricanes of their eternal wars. He foresaw the rise of American power. He was usually on the receiving end of the assertions of foreign power. And he gives us this advice from the school of hard knocks: “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power and teach us that the less we use our power, the greater it shall be.” In other words, earning the esteem, friendship and respect of people around the world gains you more power than actually exercising excessive national power itself does.
Thomas Jefferson said that every man, and every body of men, possesses the right of self government: I govern myself, you govern yourself. My nation governs itself, your nation governs itself. Each country has to find its own way. It is their right. And he believed that “If there be one principle more deeply rooted in the American mind than any other, it is that we should have nothing to do with conquest.”
Thomas Jefferson had clear views as well on the subject of war and peace. When he sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark out on their famous voyage of discovery across the west he, was seeking to establish an empire for liberty, as Will described it. They carried with them large wooden crates. In the crates were heavy bronze medals, Jefferson’s Indian Peace Medals. On one side was the image of Thomas Jefferson that now appears on the American nickel, and the words ‘Thomas Jefferson, President of the US, 1803.’ Turn it over; there is a peace pipe on top of a tomahawk. There is a pair of hands, shaking hands, and the words ‘peace and friendship,’ reflecting Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy that peace and friendship with all mankind is our wisest policy.
Everyone, of course, opposes war. The only question is how deep the aversion really is. Thomas Jefferson’s aversion to war was very deep. He said, “I abhor war and view it as the greatest scourge of mankind. If nations were to go to war for every degree of injury, there would never be peace on earth.”
He saw three wars: the French and Indian war; the revolutionary war of American independence; and the war of 1812. He concluded that “War is as much a punishment to the punisher as it is to the sufferer.” He was not a pacifist, of course. The Declaration of Independence is a declaration of war as well as of rights and independence. As Will described, he sent the United States Marines over to attack the Barbary pirates that were marauding American shipping.
On the other hand, during his second term, the British, in their eternal wars with the French, attacked an American frigate called the Chesapeake. They boarded the ship and killed four American sailors. There was a hue and cry for war up and down the coast. He said later, “I was never so grateful to have the confidence of the people and my elective office as I was at the time of the Chesapeake incident, because I was able to use both for the prevention of war.”
Thomas Jefferson said, “Peace is our passion. The lamentable recourse of war should be reserved for actual injuries only and not for evils of the imagination.” He said, “The happiness of mankind is best promoted by the useful pursuits of peace.”
In Thomas Jefferson’s eyes, America was ‘the hallowed ark of human hope and happiness.’ America, in Jefferson’s heart, was ‘the sole depository of the sacred fire of liberty and self government which is destined to light up other regions of the world, should other regions of the world ever become susceptible to its benign influence.’ He said the ball of liberty is now so firmly in motion that it will roll around the world, and indeed it has, to a large extent. Yet, he was a patient man. He said, “The ground of liberty is to be gained by inches,” and, “Time alone sensibly wears down old habits.”
In my work with Thomas Jefferson in recent years, it has become clear to me that Thomas Jefferson is admired and appreciated as much, or more, around the world, as he is here in the United States. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for example, reading Thomas Jefferson’s wise words said that he hoped Jefferson’s wise words would again inspire people in the modern era “to dream great dreams and do good deeds.”
Mikhail Gorbachev, the great Mikhail Gorbachev, freer of hundreds of millions of people in Europe, freer of the world from the specter of nuclear holocaust and annihilation, the great Mikhail Gorbachev was a terrific admirer of Thomas Jefferson. This story was told to me by the president of Monticello, Dan Jordan. When Mikhail Gorbachev went to celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s 250th birthday anniversary in 1993 at the University of Virginia, he carried with him his political science textbook from 1951 when he was a college student in the Crimea. There were passages in there, believe it or not, from Thomas Jefferson’s writings. He proudly showed the notes in the margins where he had reacted to Thomas Jefferson’s thought. There were other notes in the margins, from the 60’s, 70’s 80’s, showing he was clearly going back to Thomas Jefferson’s wise thinking as he formulated his own philosophy of Glasnost and Perestroika-openness and restructuring, human rights, peace and freedom. Mikhail Gorbachev said that he hoped that Thomas Jefferson would again inspire the world, and if we had followed Thomas Jefferson’s lessons, the world might have avoided many tragedies.
Thomas Jefferson was a great voice of optimism, not only for America, but for the world as well. He said, “It is part of the American character to consider nothing as desperate, to meet and surmount every obstacle with resolution and contrivance.” He had great faith in the people, as Will indicated. He said independence could be trusted nowhere but with the people en masse. In one of his most famous expressions of optimism he said, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”
Thomas Jefferson knew that there would be bumps in the road of the progress of humanity. He said, “We, too, shall encounter follies, but if great they will be short, if long they will be light, and the vigor of the people will get the better of them.”
Thomas Jefferson was a staunch foe of fear. He said, “In order to procure tranquility, we must avoid fear and desire,” which he called the two principal diseases of the mind. He asked this question: “How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened?” In other words, don’t worry, be happy. His expression in the faith in the people and the future can be best summed up this way-something worth remembering in these difficult, international times: “The good sense of the people will direct the boat ultimately to its proper point.”
Will quoted Thomas Jefferson’s epitaph. Thomas Jefferson designed his own grave marker, and he is buried near his home on a hill there at Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia. He designed the grave marker and he wrote the epitaph, as he had designed and written so much in his own life, for his country and for the world. As Will said, it reads this way: “Here is buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom and the Father of the University of Virginia.” So, even from his resting place, Thomas Jefferson is calling out to us in silence and saying, stand for liberty against coercion, stand for light against ignorance.
In his later years, Thomas Jefferson received a letter from a stranger. He had received many letters from strangers during the course of his life and he said he could never refuse to answer a letter from anyone, known or not. The letter was from a gentleman who had a very young son. He asked Thomas Jefferson to provide some life wisdom for the young boy and he would give it to him when he grew up and was old enough to understand it. This is what Thomas Jefferson wrote (and wouldn’t it be nice if we could all receive advice like this from our parents or guardians): “Adore God; reverence and cherish your parents; love your neighbor as yourself and your country more than life. Be just, be true and murmur not at the ways of providence, and the life into which you have entered will be one of eternal and ineffable bliss.”
Looking back on his own life of tremendous creativity, achievements and public service, Thomas Jefferson had this to say; “I have done for my country, and for all mankind, all that I could do. I now resign my soul, without fear, to my God, my daughter to my country.
Before we turn to questions, I would like to close with one more gem from Thomas Jefferson’s sublime moral philosophy: “All this, my friend, is offered merely for your consideration and judgment, and without presuming what you alone are qualified to decide for yourself.”
That concludes my presentation. Thank you very much.