On Saturday I went with a group of exchange students to Monticello, which was the home of Thomas Jefferson (for those of you not too hot on your American history, he was the third US President, one of the founding fathers, Governor of Virginia, US Ambassador to France, wrote the Declaration of Independence, founded the University of Virginia, helped write the Constitution, was obsessed with science and invention, spoke seven languages, taught himself architecture, basically was an all-around overachiever, and around these parts he’s Kind Of A Big Deal). We had a tour of the house he designed himself and then wandered around the grounds, taking pictures, writing with quills, and checking out the slave quarters (they try not to make too big a deal of this part) and TJ’s grave. He’s a very important figure in American history and so it was interesting to find out more about him, and the grounds and countryside are lovely. However, I suppose growing up in England and getting
dragged around taken to lots of historical National Trust houses, a smallish 200-year-old house doesn’t seem massively impressive, but it is still a lovely place and I understand that Americans don’t have a lot of places like this. Plus, I quite like Thomas Jefferson. He was all about the freedom of the mind and was a man of science rather than religion. He founded UVa to be a beacon of human enlightenment and learning, and made the Rotunda, which was a library, the centrepiece of Grounds, rather than a chapel, as was the norm at universities of the time. Here are a few of my favourite quotes by him:
[On UVa] “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
“Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to ; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”
“If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.”
“And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerve in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors.” (This one is not exactly emblazoned around everywhere of course; many Americans like to think of him as a committed Christian.)
Having played such a major role in the founding of the country, I wonder what he would think of America today. I’m sure he’d be very impressed by how UVa is doing. However, from his quotes, I have a feeling he’d be very disappointed with a lot else. This is why America is so fascinating: founded with some of the very best ideologies, values and kinds of establishments one could hope for in a civilisation (“The dawn of reason and freedom of thought”? What could be better?); essentially the chance to create the perfect nation from scratch, free from the messy political, royal and religious histories that other Western countries had, and in 200 years somehow straying so far from those ideals. Americans may disagree, after all, the word of the Constitution is still revered almost (not quite!) as highly as the word of the Bible. But looking at those last two quotes above in the context of everything I have come across and studied about America today… it hasn’t worked out exactly as planned. Sorry, TJ.
Deep and philosophical love,