Address given on the 4th of July 2015, at the graveside of Thomas Jefferson 3rd President of the United States, Writer of the Declaration of Independence, Author of the Virginia Statues of Religious Freedom, and Founder of the University of Virginia.
Comments made prior to speech: I asked how many of those present at this ceremony, had also attended the naturalization ceremony, held earlier that morning. Every hand in the audience went up. I then explained the reason for my asking the question by saying that, if they had attended the earlier ceremony they had heard Judge Stevens talk on Jefferson's political conundrum over the issue of free speech vs. the actions of Constitutionally elected or appointed officers and the laws / policies they enacted. I further stated that, the judge's comments were the perfect prelude to my intended address because he had shown how political divisions had arose from the actions of Jefferson. Divisions which could have potentially destroyed the young American Constitutional Republic .
Text of the Address titled: “Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address and its relevance to current times”.
Past VASSAR Presidents Taylor and Williams, Regent Inman, fellow Compatriots, Daughters, friends, and guest,
Good morning to each of you as we once again gather at this hallowed place where lies Thomas Jefferson, who was perhaps the loudest voice for civil liberties and civil rights among our founding fathers.
I must confess that as the days rapidly passed by during June, I struggled to grasp an appropriate message for today's ceremony honoring the birth of our nation 239 years ago. In past years, I have spoken on topics ranging from Thomas Jefferson's legacy in public education to Jefferson's thoughts on the celebration of our independence, and I wanted this year's message to continue in a tradition of being useful and instructional to our current times and lives. Many idea's floated through my mind as, I researched the documents and personal correspondence of Mr. Jefferson, however nothing grabbed my full attention until, I read Jefferson's First Inaugural Address.
You see Mr. Jefferson was becoming President at a critical moment in our history. The address was given on march 4th 1801, about four months after the November General Election and following an extended period of voting by the House of Representatives, which was required to break an Electoral College tie between himself and Aaron Burr. To say the least Jefferson's campaign and election had been far from harmonious or unifying. The Campaign was one of the ugliest and vicious in American history and had stirred the passions of many.
So standing there on that March day, Thomas Jefferson on the occasion of his elevation to the Presidency had to show evidence of real leadership not partisanship. He would have to stress the need for unity and union between all factions and parties and to convince Americans that, every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. To underscore his point Jefferson said "the contest of opinion through which we have passed, the animation of discussions, and exertions has sometimes worn an aspect, which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and write what they think, but this [the election] being now decided by the voice of the nation and announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good." Jefferson wants the people to understand that while Americans can be passionate in pursuit of their political goals and the freedom of debate, which is not found in all nations, allows the expression of opinions; there will come a time when the votes will be counted and a decision made. Jefferson's purpose is to set the ground rules for the peaceful transition of power between differing political parties by saying the Constitutional process has been followed, the people have spoken, and the decision is made; so now we must follow the law Jefferson is very concerned with American unity, for he doubts that liberty can last without unity. The Greatness of Jefferson is clearly shown by his exceptional ability to grasp the key factor required for governing a pluralistic and economically diversified nation like America. Political religious, social, and economic positions will always be debated but they should never become obstacles to unity once our Constitutional principles and rules have lead to a decision. American stability and success can only be secured by observing the law.
Jefferson, the great radical voice, is setting limits. He is fearful that if political and religious intolerance was countenanced; it would infuriate the people, promote hate, breed violence, and extinguish liberty. In answer to political intolerance he says "We are all Federalist we are all Republicans," what Jefferson means is that, now as Americans we must unify under the law. Jefferson was concerned with the destructive force negative perceptions of the government would provoke. Yes free speech must be secured but in answer to those who would use that right to create disunity he says "If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or change its Republican form, let them stand as monuments of safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." Then again later in the address Jefferson adds this "would an honest patriot, in full tide of successful experiment abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm . . . I believe this . . . the strongest government on the face of the earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law. Jefferson understands, that there will always be some who would rather destroy the nation rather than observe the legitimate decisions made by the government through the Constitutional process. For human nature being what it is men will be determined to have things their way and according to their principles. However such imposition is not always going to secure the common good of all citizens. Mr. Jefferson, while confident in Americans, still reminds us that we must abide by a, in his words, sacred principle, that though the majority is in all cases to prevail, that which is rightful must also be reasonable. Laws must protect the equal rights of minorities, doing otherwise would be oppression.
The second un-unifying intolerance Mr. Jefferson was concerned with is religious intolerance. In a letter to Jeremiah Moor in 1800 Jefferson wrote, "The clergy by getting themselves by law into the machine of government have been a very formidable engine against civil and religious rights." Jefferson, having written the Virginia Statues of Religious Freedom which created separation of church and state, was aware that the imposition of religion and its tenets on government could severely limit civil and religious rights.
Jefferson was also aware that civic virtue required training in morality and values, which the church provided. Going forward to his Inaugural address in 1801 Jefferson says the following "enlightened by a benign religion, professed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating truth, honesty, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling providence, which by it dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter." In truth Jefferson sees religion as both a divisive and unifying force. His letter to Mr. Moor shows his concern for combining religion and government along with his belief that such a marriage would inevitably result in a loss of civil liberties, but in his Inaugural address he tempers his rhetoric while still maintaining his underlying message by using the word benign to describe religion and leaving all mention of governance out of the list of tasks the church, in his opinion, should accomplish.
Yes Jefferson found himself at the center of a rising storm at a moment in which Americans would have to accept changes in Governance and policy. That many would have strong feelings and diverging opinions was clearly understood. However Jefferson was ready to take on the challenges and Americans followed his lead, even while holding onto strong opinions. This was accomplished through Jefferson's firm stand for freedom of speech, without interference from the government, while reminding Americans that reason, unity and stability were required to maintain our freedoms.
To this point we have discovered how Jefferson dealt with the issues of diverse opinion, as he came to office in 1801. But what does that mean today.
Today as them America is a nation of diverse opinions and beliefs. There are deep divisions in our politics, culture, and understanding of religion. We as a people are in the midst of a great debate about the direction our nation will take in the Twenty-first Century. In 1801 Thomas Jefferson chose to be open to the opinions of all Americans, while working to limit the temptations of political and religious intolerance, allow the Constitutional process, upon which our great republic is founded to unfold, and affirm his faith in Americans to abide by the elections and laws that resulted
This week while working on this address, I had a conversation with a longtime friend who, I noticed had failed to give honor to the national flag during a meeting we were attending. He explained to me, that he was having trouble honoring the flag as he no longer felt it represented his beliefs. In that moment, my mind turned to the words of Jefferson's Inaugural and his message of American unity. My friend no longer felt unity with his nation and my heart sank. My friend had put his beliefs and opinions ahead of his nation and I was at a loss for words.
Jefferson was concerned for his nation and he believed that freedom would be lost and if Americans were not unified under the Constitutional process and obedient to the law, while working for change through the proper channels. Jefferson felt the resulting disunity would destroy the nation. An example of such disunion can be found in four year blood-bath of the American Civil War, during which time 750,000 Americans were killed by Americans.
In America we all have the right to disagree on policies, laws, and to express our opinions about the government. In his Inaugural address President Jefferson is instructing us to have patience and to respect the Great Nation and Government we have created here.
We the people must support the rule of law and the Constitutional process or risk the failure of our democratic experiment in self government. Are we up to the challenge? I hope so, for after all the Constitution is our charter of liberties and the law is a reflection of our collective not individual will.
Written and presented by Mark R. Day 7-4-15. Copyright by Mark R. Day 7-4-15, all rights reserved