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Fireworks at Mount Rushmore. Photo by Chad Coppess/S.D. Tourism.
Fireworks at Mount Rushmore. Photo by Chad Coppess/S.D. Tourism.

Faults of Our Fathers

Jul 3, 2018

Note to my dad: don’t have a heart attack. I’m not about to expose your faults and foibles to the world. To do so would be a most deplorable violation of the commandment “Honor thy Father and thy Mother,” but there is another, utterly selfish reason for me not to air your dirty laundry. As Don Quixote observed,

If thy roof be made of glass,

It shows small wit to pick up stones

To pelt the people as they pass

I mean, rather, to find fault with fathers who can’t turn around and expose me as a lout and a bounder because they are safely dead. My targets today are the big “our fathers,” those who sent the Redcoats back to Bristol and brought forth a new nation, dedicated to the proposition that government should, to the greatest degree possible, leave men free to do whatever silly or noble thing pops into their heads. I mean to celebrate the Fourth of July by defaming our nation’s Founding Fathers — in particular my personal favorite, Thomas Jefferson.

Let me commence this character assassination by saying that Jefferson was a brilliant man. Young Thomas mastered Latin, Greek and French before he was 14, at which age I was laboring, without great enthusiasm, to be merely competent in English. Jefferson the man never lost his love of learning, either. He relished experimenting and learning new things all his life, from architecture to horticulture to paleontology.

Jefferson is, I would argue, the most remarkable individual America ever produced: five men, each taking only a share of his accomplishments, would all be noteworthy citizens. Legal scholar. Naturalist. Founder of the University of Virginia. Legislator. Governor. Ambassador. Secretary of State. Vice-president. President. Visionary.

With so much to his credit, I love that Jefferson counted among his most noteworthy contributions to the commonwealth those that others might consider quite ordinary. “There is no greater service a man can perform for his country than to introduce a useful plant into its cultivation,” he wrote. To that end, Jefferson turned his Monticello plantation into a laboratory for experimenting with crops from cotton to tomatoes, enriching the nation for generations to come.

On the Fourth of July we commemorate the signing of Jefferson’s masterpiece, the Declaration of Independence, the document that brought our country into being and defined America’s bedrock principle: “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.”

Most of us know the words, and that familiarity sometimes makes us forget how truly revolutionary those “self-evident” ideas once were. If Jefferson had done nothing else in his life than formulate that principle he would have contributed more than most to the betterment of mankind.

I promised at the outset that this would be about dirt, however, and so it shall be. Thomas Jefferson, one of freedom’s most eloquent spokesmen, was also a slave owner. He had the leisure to study and build and make history because he was a wealthy man, and he grew wealthy on the backbreaking labor of others: more than 600 men, women and children over the course of his lifetime. Jefferson was conscience-stricken over slavery and talked about abolishing it, but he must be judged a hypocrite on this score for he ultimately decided his comfortable life was more important than doing what he knew to be right.

Jefferson’s record in regard to the Indians was equally dismal. He wanted to sever all ties with England, but he never for a moment questioned whether he or any other plantation owner had a right to their land — which the English king had granted to the Virginia Colony’s founders with a swipe of his pen and nary a thought for the people who lived there. Jefferson thought a few Indians could be turned into farmers; the rest would have to be harried from their lands and banished across the Mississippi. If they resisted he feared it might be necessary to exterminate them — a prospect which troubled him, but not greatly.

So what’s my point? Just this. Jefferson’s accomplishments are remarkable, and his failings equally epic. The only difference between him and me is one of degree. On a scale of one to 10, if his life’s achievements set the standard at 10, mine rate about .00045. That’s just an estimate, of course, but you get the idea. My failings and transgressions, while many and varied, likewise don’t rise to the level of enslaving my fellow human beings or casually contemplating genocide.

My wish for our country on its birthday is that we all remember Jefferson and me. Mighty and lowly, left and right, none of us are without fault. We would do well to keep that in mind as we disagree.  

Editor’s Note: This column is revised from the July/August 2010 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.

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