Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Jeffersonian Lesson

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:36 AM |  

I’m only a little over a week late, but Mark Yost’s December 7 Pioneer Press column “A Republic, if you can keep it” surfaced to the top of the “to blog” pile this morning -- cream always rises to the top.

Yost leads with the irony of Sen. Robert Byrd’s insertion of a provision that would require schools to set aside Sept. 17 to teach the Constitution into a massive federal spending bill. He notes --
It shouldn't surprise anyone that some people think we need a federal law to teach the Constitution. Academic intellectuals have made it their mission to take the remarkable achievements of a small band of 18th-century Enlightenment men and denigrate them with what passes for 20th-century mores.
The effort began in earnest, Yost states, with the 1913 publication of Charles Beard’s “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States,” and subsequently has evolved into the academic premise that the Founders drafted the Constitution to secure their own personal wealth. He writes --
Primed with Beard's treatise, history students have been encouraged by an increasingly radicalized academy to pursue doctoral dissertations that not only delegitimize the Founders, but also question the very foundation of our noble experiment in self-government. The net result is a history faculty that firmly believes that the life accomplishments of Jefferson and Washington can be summed up in one word: "slaveholder."
I find the notion of writing the Founders off, especially Jefferson, for being slaveholders as intellectually limiting. So to is the notion that Jefferson’s owning slaves is justified by the rationale “that it was okay in the context of the times.” That is also an intellectually limiting notion. Both the accusation and the response stem from asking the wrong question.

How could a man who penned one of the great statements on the equality of all men, the Declaration of Independence, enslave other men in bondage? That’s the usual question, and it yields only two possible answers: Either Jefferson was the self-interested hypocrite the “enlightened” academics claim he was, or morality is relative to the times in which we live and Jefferson gets a pass. Not much common ground there, nor much room to grow intellectually.

Now let’s change the order of the question: How could a man that was raised in a slave-owning society and owed his personal wealth to slavery pen one of the great statements on the equality of all men? See a difference?

The later question opens our intellectual horizons. It initiates a search for meaning, not a debate over “facts” (was or was not Jefferson a hypocrite) that can never be fully ascertained. It forces us to think large like a Jefferson, who answered the question for us.

That all men are created equal, he wrote, is a “self-evident” truth. Even to a slaveholder. Morality is not relative is the real Jeffersonian lesson. Interpretation may be contextual, but interpretation is always flawed in that it is incomplete. The search for moral Truth is dynamic, a constant process of thrusting what one believes into the breach of doubt, testing one’s beliefs against relentless reality. The refuge of moral relativism is a gathering of cowards.

It may take time, it may have to wait for a man with Jefferson’s vision, but in the end, self-evident Truth trumps partisan positioning. Perhaps many of the issues we struggle with today -- race, abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage -- might be more approachable if different, less limiting questions were questions were asked. It’s something to think about.

And like teaching the Constitution, we don’t need government to tell us how to do it.