Some of Thomas Jefferson’s most famous words begin with “When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…”
In that document, the timeless Declaration of Independence, a new experiment was begun, one which brought hundreds of years of philosophy into a coherent political system; that experiment is still happening today, right before our very eyes. The result of that experiment is still in the works.
You see, the United States of America was a completely new idea, a nation built on ideas rather than one of solely ethnicity or religious beliefs. Somehow, the American Founders made a system of government that generally respected each person’s way of life, and maximized freedom for all who desired such a way of life.
Those ideas were clear in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and in the last words that Jefferson ever wrote.
The Washington Post discussed an interesting piece of history, one that many have overlooked, as Jefferson’s more famous writings eclipse this small but profound letter. 50 years after the Declaration was signed, there remained but a handful of original signers of the Declaration. Jefferson was one of those survivors, along with friend-turned-enemy (and later reconciled) John Adams.
During his last few days, Jefferson was invited to a special celebration for the 50th anniversary of the United States’ founding. At this time, Jefferson was at an extreme low point; Monticello was poorly managed for many years, and he was in danger of losing the estate (though his family attempted to shield that fact from him). The various efforts to save Monticello had come up short; he was running out of time both for his life, and for Monticello’s.
Then along came this invitation from the Mayor of Washington, who wished to host a celebration of 50 years of independence as a nation. Unfortunately for Jefferson, his rapidly deteriorating health prevented him from being able to travel to the nation’s capitol.
He penned a response letter, the last public letter he ever wrote. It is dated June 24, 1826, and in the letter he informed the Mayor that he had to decline, and that it pained him to do so. But ever the philosopher, Jefferson could not help but look back on the past 50 years, and philosophize.
Though riddled with strange punctuation and capitalization, the meaning is clear; Jefferson’s words are bound to make one seriously think about what we are celebrating this Independence Day.
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. 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 & security of self-government. that form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.
Jefferson rejoiced that so many decades after the fight for independence, Americans still respected and appreciated the work that was done and the sacrifices that were made. He also noted an even broader development, one that went further than just the American fight for independence (emphasis added to drive the point home):
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.
That last clause right there is it: we commemorate this day to cherish the liberties that were won through long years of war with the greatest empire in the world. That’s nothing to shrug off. Even 241 years later, we should never consider casting that aside.
The American Revolution acted as a beacon for peoples across the world, that liberty is something we can achieve. But the United States is a rare exception in the long history of attempted uprisings. Countless times, uprisings in the name of freedom have been put down, only to be replaced with an even worse monster.
Somehow, the American colonies bucked that trend, and a new nation was brought forth, conceived in liberty.
To provide a concluding corollary to Jefferson’s final words, I invite each of us to consider thoughts from John Adams on our independence; for we are the posterity to whom he is writing:
Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good Use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.
On this Independence Day, let us still not forget those sacrifices made. Though we do not know must how much they did sacrifice, let us make every effort to appreciate what was done for this nation’s future so long ago, and work as hard as we can to preserve what freedoms we do have left.