Sunday, June 28, 2009

Independence Now, Independence Forever

Written by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence stands as a timeless statement of human liberty, rights and equality. Adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, the signers of the Declaration pledged to it their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Jefferson said, “The Declaration of Independence... [is the] declaratory charter of our rights, and of the rights of man.”[1] The Declaration is America's first and foremost founding document. It sets forth our understanding of human rights based upon the principles of natural law, and the legitimate authority and purpose of government. The first three sentences constitute its most significant and oft-quoted words:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 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.

Upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams said (as quoted by Daniel Webster):

“But whatever may be our fate, be assured . . . that this Declaration will stand. It may cost treasure, and it may cost blood; but it will stand, and it will richly compensate for both. Through the thick and gloom of the present, I see the brightness of the future, as the sun in heaven. We shall make this a glorious, an immortal day. When we are in our graves, our children will honor it. They will celebrate it with thanksgiving, with festivity, with bonfires and illuminations. On its annual return they will shed tears, copious, gushing tears, not of subjection or of slavery, not of agony and distress, but of exultation, of gratitude, of joy. Sir, before God, I believe the hour is come. My judgment approves this measure, and my whole heart is in it. All that I have, and all that I am, and all that I hope, in this life, I am now ready here to stake upon it; and I leave off as I begun, that live or die, survive or perish, I am for the Declaration. It is my living sentiment, and by the blessing of God it shall be my dying sentiment, Independence, now, and Independence for ever!”[2]

May we remember the Declaration and its immortal words as we celebrate this Independence Day.
By: J. David Gowdy
[1] Jefferson to Samuel Adams Wells, 1819, ME 15:200.
[2] The Works of Daniel Webster, 4th ed. (Boston, 1851), 1:133–36.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Importance of Civic Education

Just outside of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia stands a statue of Thomas Jefferson, sculpted by Moses Ezekiel, and “presented to the people” on May 25, 1910. When I first visited the University in May 2004, as I admired this great work of art, I noticed the inscription on the upper base of the statue which reads: “TO PERPETUATE THE TEACHINGS AND EXAMPLES OF THE FOUNDERS OF THE REPUBLIC.” I was profoundly impressed with the spirit and significance of this statement. I reflected upon it much, recorded it in my journal, and later decided that this testimonial should serve as basis for the Charter of The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute.

As conveyed by the words of this inscription, it is incumbent upon each of us to study and ponder America's Founding Documents and the writings and lives of our Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson said: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”[1] He also stated: “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome direction, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”[2] The diffusion of knowledge and an enlightened citizenry are essential elements required to maintain liberty.

We may ask, have we studied and learned the principles of the Constitution in the tradition of the Founding Fathers? Are the Constitution and principles of liberty expounded by the Founding Fathers being taught in our schools? Has their history been diluted? Abraham Lincoln stated: “Let it [reverence for the laws and Constitution] be taught in schools, seminaries and in colleges; let it be written in primers, in spelling books and in almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, enforced in courts of justice. In short, let it become the political religion of the nation.”[3] In his Inaugural Address on April 30, 1789, as our nation’s first President under the newly adopted Constitution, George Washington said: “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”[4] Vigilance in learning and imparting liberty's knowledge is part of liberty's price.

By: J. David Gowdy
[1] Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, 1816. ME 14:384.
[2] Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820. ME 15:278.
[3] Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings: 1832-1858, Don Fehrenbacher, ed. (Library of America, New York, 1989), pp. 32-33.
[4] Saxe Commins, ed., Basic Writings of George Washington (Random House, New York, 1948), p. 560.