George W. Bush’s recent speech at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home highlights contrasting presidential legacies for advancing liberty in the world.
Ironically, President Bush sought to don the Jefferson mantle by claiming that, “We honor Jefferson’s legacy by aiding the rise of liberty in lands that do not know the blessings of freedom. And on this Fourth of July, we pay tribute to the brave men and women who wear the uniform of the United States of America.”
Jefferson, the founder of the West Point Military Academy, would also honor American soldiers. But he would pause at using military force to “aid” freedom’s march.
Aspirations to see liberty prevail everywhere are as old as the American republic. Presidents have long cited Jefferson, author of America’s Declaration of Independence, as a guide:
Jefferson “abhorred war,” and only reluctantly countenanced war in self-defense. Jefferson would turn over in his grave to hear that his beloved country had justified “a war of choice” and occupation in the name of promoting democracy.
Bush’s rendition of Jefferson includes a telling misquote of an 1826 letter about the Declaration. Therein, Jefferson reflects: “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, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.”
BUSH’S SPEECHWRITERS left out a critical caveat. After the words “burst the chains” Jefferson continued “under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves.” This omission matters because the full quote reflects Jefferson’s long-held doubts about democracy taking root elsewhere.
Unlike Bush, Jefferson believed that before democracy can flourish, citizens and their culture must be receptive to democratic principles, including the rule of law and respect for minority rights.
Also unlike Bush, Jefferson recognized that transitions from authoritarian to democratic governments can be difficult and painful. Amidst the French revolution, Jefferson advised Lafayette in 1790 not to expect transition “from despotism to liberty in a feather-bed.”
Jefferson understood that tyranny can be imposed, democracy cannot. Democracy comes from within; it must be chosen.
To encourage democratic choices, Jefferson offers timeless ideas that future presidents should consider anew:
FIRST, JEFFERSON commends the power of example. In 1801, he wrote that “a just and solid republican government here will be a standing monument and example for the aim and imitation of people of other countries.”
For true Jeffersonians, advancing American values abroad begins with defending them at home. For starters, Jefferson’s writings speak eloquently to protecting Habeas Corpus and to the “humane” treatment of prisoners of war.
Second, Jefferson counsels the use of information to promote democracy. As he wrote in 1810, “No one more sincerely wishes the spread of information among mankind than I do, and none has greater confidence in its supporting free and good government.”
As in the Declaration of Independence’s opening sentence, America ought again to have “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Dialogue with the world should be encouraged, not avoided. Respect for those beyond our borders engenders respect for America.
Third, Jefferson advocates education as the most important instrument for undermining cultures of dictatorship. As Jefferson wrote in 1816, “Enlighten the public generally, and tyranny and oppression of mind and body will vanish like the evil spirit at the dawn of day.” To such ends, he founded the University of Virginia.
Last, the original purpose of Jefferson’s July 4th Declaration speaks volumes. More than a listing of grievances and abstract principles, it was crafted to declare independence — to proclaim America’s determination before a “candid world” to govern itself.
As the world granted America that liberty to choose its own path, so too “The Sage of Monticello” would see wisdom in America granting other countries the same freedom.
R. K. Ramazani is Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia and the co-editor of “The Future of Liberal Democracy: Thomas Jefferson and the Contemporary World.” W. Scott Harrop is a recent Jefferson Fellow at Monticello’s Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. Contact Ramazani at firstname.lastname@example.org or Harrop at email@example.com.
Irancove @ July 11, 2008