The 'bold and doubtful' experiment

Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
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By Steve Browne

One-hundred-eighty-six years ago last week, Thomas Jefferson lay dying in his home at Montecello.

Fifty years before, 56 of the most prominent men in the 13 colonies of British North America signed a document written by Jefferson, though heavily modified in committee, most notably by the striking of a paragraph condemning slavery.

The 50th anniversary of the nation Jefferson helped to found, whose soul he helped to define, was at hand.

Jefferson is known to us mostly through his correspondence. He was a prodigious letter writer, thousands in any given year.

In his last letter, to Roger Weightman and dated June 24, 1826, Jefferson said, "I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made."

What did Jefferson think of his country as he lay dying? His term as its third president had ended 17 years before. During that term he seized an unexpected opportunity and doubled the size of the country overnight with the Louisiana Purchase. A decision he said, "stretched the Constitution till it cracked."

Jefferson prosecuted America's first foreign war, against the Barbary States based in what is now Libya. For centuries the Barbary corsairs had plundered Europe's shipping and raided its coasts, carrying millions of its people into slavery in North Africa.

But what Jefferson will be forever associated with are these words:

"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, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Today we forget how revolutionary these words were. How they denied, destroyed, the legitimacy of any government not founded on a strict observance of the rights of man. We forget how these words terrified the ruling classes of the Old World, and how much they inspired its people.

Some saw the flaws of our beginnings. Samuel Johnson observed with scorn, "Why is it we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?"

Jefferson was keenly aware of the contradiction and foresaw the terrible cost of resolving it. But he knew it would be resolved, that once the rights of man were boldly stated, they would ultimately triumph.

"...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."

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826. His last words were, "Is it the fourth yet?"

Bio: Steve Browne is an award-winning reporter and columnist who entered journalism by accident while living and working in Eastern Europe from 1991 to 2004. He is the author of two books for English students: "Word Pictures: English as it is REALLY Used," published in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and Novosibirsk, Russia, and "English Linguistic Humor: Puns, Play on Words, Spoonerisms, and Shaggy Dog Stories." In 1997 he was elected an Honorary Member of the Yugoslav Movement for the Protection of Human Rights. He is currently living in his native Midwest, which he considers "the most interesting foreign country I have ever lived in."