Independence Day came and went without much mention of the man who made the date memorable. Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence were seldom mentioned on July 4, 2006. Instead, this year’s holiday morphed into a 4-day weekend that featured fireworks every night.
Boston’s extravaganza highlighted this year’s holiday-a pyrotechnics rendition of "shock and awe" choreographed to the orchestral strains of Aerosmith and the Boston Pops, and hosted by the feel-good psychologist of our times, Dr. Phil.
Though I missed it, National Public Radio’s "Morning Edition" correspondents read the Declaration of Independence. Bravo for them for preserving this tradition. At one time in our nation, the reading of Jefferson’s words inspired audiences much more so than a fireworks display could ever hope to.
Thomas Jefferson has fallen into disfavor in recent times because he was a slaveholder. Had the world produced a man of Jefferson’s intellect and accomplishment since his death in 1826, then I could understand society’s willingness to remove the man from his pedestal. But this world, now 6 billion strong, has yet to conceive anyone even close to matching the Sage of Monticello.
By my estimation, only six men in all of history can be compared to Thomas Jefferson-Sir Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, Socrates, Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Alexander the Great. In deference to readers of the "State Journal", I would also include the woman who invented breast feeding. Were it not for her, none of us would be here. But beyond this pantheon, even the most talented are just specialists in their respective fields.
Jefferson did more than just create the United States of America on parchment in 1776. His vision of America recognized that the nation needed to be larger than thirteen coastal colonies hemmed in by the Appalachians. Long before he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson had already planned the great expedition that his personal secretary, Capt. Meriwether Lewis, would make.
Jefferson doubled the size of our foundling country with the Louisiana Purchase. In doing so, he began the chain of events that would stretch our country from coast to coast and free us from meddling by European states.
Jefferson also projected American influence when he dispatched our navy to the Mediterranean. The Moslem states of North Africa had long terrorized sailing ships, stealing cargoes and imprisoning sailors of any country refusing to pay tribute. The Barbary Pirates were quelled in relatively short order. The pirates had taken an estimated 2,000,000 sailors into slavery and were known to work men to their deaths.
America, as we know it, a continent-wide nation able to project its power around the globe, happened only because of Jefferson’s vision.
In the late 18th century, smallpox was as common as heart disease is today, though its primary victims were infants and children. Thomas Jefferson made smallpox inoculation the nation’s first public health program. Using cowpox vaccine developed by Dr. Edward Jenner of England, Jefferson inoculated his family and the slaves on his staff. He also sent the vaccine with Lewis and Clark to offer its protection to the Indian tribes they would meet.
Jefferson corresponded with Jenner and opined that smallpox could be wiped out with widespread use of Jenner’s vaccine. Jefferson was proved correct, but not until 1980.
We know nothing about smallpox in 2006. We cannot imagine an unmapped, undiscovered Louisiana Purchase. We do know of Moslem hijackers, but would we have approved sending an untested navy to rout them from their hideouts? We say that slavery is wrong, but we never pass up bargain sales on goods made in foreign sweat shops.
It is fair to say that we have a poor perspective from which to judge this man, Thomas Jefferson. Especially so, if we are wont to negate his accomplishments solely because he was a Virginia slave owner.
A man of Thomas Jefferson’s letters will not be forgotten by history. I, for one, am glad that I had the time to read his biography before history necessarily forgets me. Believe it or not, his life story was much more inspiring than Dr. Phil’s fireworks show.