“If you ever find yourself environed with difficulties and perplexing circumstances … do what is right … Though you can’t see, when you take one step, what will be next, yet follow truth, justice and plain dealing and never fear their leading you,” Thomas Jefferson in 1785 letter to nephew Peter Carr.
Thomas Jefferson is our poet of freedom. He wrote, in a Declaration of Independence that jolted the world 244 years ago, “"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”
And yet …
He owned slaves, even though he called slavery a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot.” He painted, with his words, a radiant America of equality and freedom, but his words defined his life as tragically hypocritical.
Cleveland Thompson has served 14 years as lead pastor for Emmanuel Baptist. He’s long pondered the contradiction that was — and is — Thomas Jefferson.
Thompson understands the temptation to condemn and dismiss Jefferson. He chooses a different view.
“He suffered from the same thing that we are still dealing with today,” Thompson says. “… All men are created equal, that is still the struggle that we are struggling with today. The struggle is living up to that statement.
"All men are created equal. I believe that, and we must recognize him for that. It was through him that I believe God got those words on the earth. God chose him to do that. So, I give Jefferson credit. He was the door of those words being presented to mankind.”
Jefferson’s life never soared to the level of his words. But America has never quite reached those heights, either.
“That is the failure and the sadness of it,” Thompson says. “… We now, in this time, are still not living up to those words so we can’t be too excessively critical on Thomas Jefferson.
“We, too, are failing to live up to those words.”
Clay Jenkinson, like Thompson, wrestles with Jefferson’s failure and our failure to live up to those words. Each Sunday at noon on KRCC, Jenkinson plays Jefferson on the nationally syndicated “Thomas Jefferson Hour.” His show is a wonderful, powerful mix of yesterday and today.
“He was fascinating and frustrating and bewildering and enigmatic and paradoxical,” Jenkinson says.
As part of his show each week, Jenkinson imagines how Jefferson would react to the America of 2020. He believes Jefferson would support the protest of our fiery American summer. Remember, Jefferson was a revolutionary who took enormous risks in defying England, the world power of 1776. Later, Jefferson supported the Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion. In both rebellions, American citizens were enraged by tax collection. Sound familiar?
“I think Jefferson would very much be a believer,” Jenkinson says of the American rebellion of 2020.
The current protests, Jenkinson says, serve as an “indication of something that is unfinished and terribly wrong in American life. People don’t protest for no reason. Something that is part of the American promise is not being met. It’s a barometric measure of what is still not finished in the American Dream."
Jefferson, Jenkinson says, understood “you can only get attention by raising the temperature of people in power.”
But, of course, there is a contradiction in Jefferson’s embrace of protest and revolution. He supported the powerless wreaking havoc in search of power … unless those powerless were African Americans.
He feared African Americans would rise and engage in a race battle, Jenkinson says. Jefferson wondered if a leader such as Spartacus, who led a bloody uprising of Roman slaves, would emerge among African Americans. He thought America was “sitting on a racial powder keg,” Jenkinson says.
Jefferson was a racist who remained stubbornly blind to the requirement of equality, but Jenkinson believes Jefferson would have grown with the country. Jefferson understood, deep in his heart, that African Americans were his equal, Jenkinson says. Jefferson knew the aspirations of African Americans could not, in Jenkinson’s words, “be separated from the aspirations of all Americans.”
Mixed in with Jefferson’s internal blemishes was a profound, uplifting optimism for his homeland. We require this optimism during our strange summer of virus, protest and confusion.
“We are always equal to what we undertake with resolution,” Jefferson wrote to his daughter Martha in 1787. “… It is part of the American character to consider nothing as desperate, to surmount every difficulty by resolution and contrivance.”
On this day in 1776, a flawed man wrote flawless words. “All men are created equal.” Jefferson composed American scripture and left us a challenge, a challenge he never met.
We still can.