Sunday, July 04, 2010

Dear Mr. Jefferson

Dear Mr. Jefferson,

I'm writing to you on July 4th, which is celebrated by Americans of today as having something to do with the Declaration of Independence.  You know this already, but most historians agree the actual Declaration was signed in August -- July 4th was the day when the final wording of the document was approved by Congress.

I'm writing this letter to just reflect a bit on this thing that is "The United States of America", 234 years after putting signature to document.  There's been a few changes since the days of the War for American Independence, or "the conflagration with Great Britain," as you might call it.  Speaking of which, one of my great-great-ancestors was running around at the time: you may have met!  Though because he was a Hessian mercenary hired by the British, I'm betting you wouldn't have been on the best of terms.

The circumstances that prompted this letter would only partially be understood by you.  One part is the obvious significance of the day.  The other part was relating to a part of a movie I read about on Twitter this morning while surfing the Internet.  Did you get anything out of that last sentence?  Probably not.  Suffice it to say that there was a story told when I was younger about jumping 25 years into the future.  And while it seemed that the future in the story contained unimagined wonders and massive advances in the daily routine of life, an examination of today (25 years from the story) presents a world that has many advances, but none of so great a scope as are related in the story.

Reflecting on that story got me thinking along the lines of literary devices I have seen used in other works.  I decided to write a letter to a historical figure, full in the knowledge that it would be read only by my contemporaries, but enjoying the chance to reflect through the lens of a previous era.  Having received many, many letters over the years, you, Mr. Jefferson, know that mine is not the first nor grandest sheet to pass your way.  But as it has always been when using the modern means of communication to contact those of significant worldly renown, the experience of writing to a figure of esteem is almost always more meaningful for the author than the subject.

We should all be lucky to know as much about our heroes as we know about you, Mr. Jefferson.  Specifically, we know not only the wonderful things (the founding documents, freedom of speech and religion, etc) but also the complicating factors. Writing as you did one of the greatest sentences in the English language --
"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."
-- you kept a plantation of slaves your entire life.  You adored the society and conversation of Abagail Adams, but decried women intellectuals and thought no reason for women to be involved in politics except to soothe their husbands returning from political debate.  And despite often being labeled as the true voice of the American Revolution, you spoke with a self-conscious lisp and shunned public speaking, delivering the State of the Union address in writing.

You'd be interested in the state of American politics, no doubt.  Whether or not that interest would be benign is something I cannot guess.  Your name is invoked like an avenging saint in political discussions.  You'd have had things to say about the recent discussion of religion and the Founding Father's place in the separation of church and state, that's for sure.

Something that I learned in preparation for this letter was that you would be appalled at the notion of "The Inviolate Constitution" being wielded like a cudgel in modern legal decisions.  It was your belief that the Constitution should of necessity alter with time.  "[N]o society can make a perpetual constitution or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation."  Certainly no idea of the Constitution as "holy writ" there!

It amazes me to think that in 1776, the Grand Canyon was unknown to Americans.  The area of Yellowstone.  I mean, the expedition of Lewis and Clark wasn't until 1804!  The great American wilderness lay to the west, but everyone was probably focused on the war with Britain, I'd imagine.  The entire world population was somewhere around 850 million -- amazing, considering the current population of India and China.

So many advances.  Virtually instantaneous visual communication is possible with people on the other side of the globe.  Humans have set foot on the moon, and flung pieces of machinery beyond the furthest planet (which wasn't discovered until 1846, if you were curious).  The Voyager 1 space probe is currently leaving the solar system at a speed of 3.6AU per year.  It may reach "interstellar" space in another four years or so.  In contrast, we're having a hard time fixing a leak just five thousand feet under the ocean.  Not all science moves at the same speed.

Were we to have the opportunity for a day, I'd have to arrange it so that we could spend the day touring Philidelphia, the house and grounds of Monticello, and a space shuttle launch.  Precious few of those left, I hear, so you'd better hurry up and make an appearance soon.

Conceived in a nation conceived in liberty,

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