On the 4th of July, we looked back with justifiable pride on the founding of our nation. We called to mind the salient fact that we were born in the heat of battle and the blood of revolution. We cannot forget this reality.
But it’s a different time now, time to put aside the martial spirit. In fact, it’s absolutely necessary to forgo the warlike spirit if we are to bind up the nation’s wounds. It really is time to remember the better angels of our nature, the positive impulses that have formed us. It’s time to remember what one of our great leaders believed and said about this country.
We must know our own past if we are to survive the future.
To know our past we can look at Thomas Jefferson. Borrowing from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, our most famous Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, declared that “all men are created equal … ” We can learn from this in spite of the limited scope that Jefferson had in mind. In his usage, “men” is a stand-in for all people. But as a patriarchal slave-holder and obviously believing in what he thought was the most natural thing — white male supremacy — by “men” he could not have meant women and Black people.
Nevertheless, Jefferson’s words have had a much greater impact than the man himself. In the never-ending struggle for the full equality of women and minorities that has always marked our American journey, very often the words of the Founders, even if inspired and true, can be used to reveal our most profound contradictions.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream, that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights … ” Jefferson saw the political reality of American independence as a new dawn, but King knew that full independence for all Americans is not real yet, that his dream is still in the future.
We’re not there yet, even if we are making progress to the realization of what Jefferson may only have glimpsed.
However, in some respects Jefferson saw very clearly. His words on immigration ring true.
He believed in what some today would call “open borders.”
In other words, that an immigrant had only to arrive to become an American.
In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson states, “a foreigner of any nation, not in open war with us, becomes naturalized by removing to the state (one of the American states) to reside, and taking an oath of fidelity: and thereupon acquires every right of a native citizen.”
How different from the attitude of fear and loathing toward immigrants held today by so many of our citizens.
Consider wealth or the lack thereof. We live in a time of unprecedented income inequality. We haven’t seen such a wide gap between rich and poor in a long time.
Even the middle class, the bedrock of American society, is drastically shrinking. This has created a deep distrust of government because the struggling masses believe that the government and themselves are manipulated by the rich and powerful.
In a letter to a certain Edward Rutledge, Jefferson had this to say:”I love to see honest and honorable men at the helm, men who will not bend politics to their purses, nor pursue measures by which they may profit, and then profit by their measures.” Writing to James Madison, Jefferson says, “My walk led me into a train of reflections on that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country (France) and is to be observed all over Europe.”
Jefferson is warning against corruption and dishonesty and the accumulation of great wealth by a few individuals. Once that happens on a large scale in a society, abuses, dysfunction, chaos and oppression are the result.
This is as true in our time as it was in his time.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He teaches U.S. Southwest History and Culture and U.S. Military History.