On June 24, 1826, Thomas Jefferson, ill and dying, wrote to Roger Weightman, the Mayor of Washington, D.C., declining an invitation to attend the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.1 Here’s the full letter for those who are interested, but WC is writing to highlight two sentences, as we enter this troubled 241st year of independence. He regarded the Declaration of Inpedendence, which, after all, he mostly wrote, as
…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 & 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.
It turns out that Jefferson was too optimistic about his fellow citizens. “Monkish ignorance and superstition” is an apt summary of the thinking of climate science deniers, or those who think Donald Trump is anything but a self-indulgent con artist. And as for “unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion,” well, the Trump cabinet is built around principles of unreason as well hate, conspiracy theories and unethical conduct.
But the sentiments still echo, don’t they? A lot of us still aspire to the goals the Declaration espouses. Lost among all the red, white and blue bunting, NASCAR races, fireworks and jingoism, there’s still the sentiments echoing from Jefferson’s letter.
WC urges you to use the 4th of July week to work at restoring reason and informed opinion to the place Jefferson wanted them: the real “core values” of America.
- WC has seen this described as “Jefferson’s last letter.” It wasn’t. J. Jefferson Looney, who is compiling and editing Jefferson’s retirement papers, discovered that the former president wrote two more letters the day after this famous one. The very last — of which only a copy in someone else’s hand survives — was coordinating delivery of a shipment of wine from France. Even though he was likely bankrupt. Jefferson was such a wonderful collection of contradictions that he remains WC’s favorite president. ↩