A Higher Purpose Served
Recently, I visited Washington, D.C., for the first time in my life. I had a few hours free, and set out walking. I toured around the Mall and stopped in to see a smattering of Smithsonian exhibits. I visited the Capital. I looked into Abraham Lincoln's eyes. What a magnificent city!
The highlight was the Library of Congress. It is the world's largest library. Books of all languages are represented. A Gutenburg Bible is on display. I read passages from George Washington's handwritten journals.
When I walked into the great hall, I was overcome with emotion É tears poured down my cheeks. Giant pillars support the room. The names of the world's greatest thinkers, artists and scientists are carved into marble and spelled out in mosaic on the walls and ceiling. And, of course, in the main library itself, the books are stacked to heaven. The Library of Congress is a temple, built to honor history, reason and imagination.
During the war of 1812, England still sought dominance over the fledgling United States. British troops burned down the newly created congressional collection of books, destroying all 3,000 volumes.
Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his personal library to the U.S. government, indicating that he would take what money the government could offer. He sold his 10,000 book collection for $23,950 - half of its worth.
Jefferson's collection is the cornerstone of today's library, whose primary function is to provide reason and resource for our country's lawmakers. The library also acts as the guardian of creative thought and expression, as it houses the U.S. Copyright offices. And most importantly, it is the encyclopedia of human thought.
For each January issue, PM editors present the columnists with a topic. This time, I am to write about my hero. Well, I have many. This column will highlight one, but certainly not diminish the love and admiration I have for the others.
Definition Of A HeroHero n. 1. A man distinguished for exceptional courage, fortitude or bold enterprise. 2. One idealized for superior qualities or deeds of any kind.
Thomas Jefferson is my hero because in 1814 he had 10,000 books.
Many of my heroes reached hero status because they started with nothing and made something of themselves. Thomas Jefferson doesn't qualify along those lines. He was born into a wealthy family. He was privileged and educated. He wasn't motivated by hunger or oppression. That's why I find his accomplishments remarkable.
As a member of the gentry, Jefferson could have endlessly pursued the leisure activities of the rich and bored. In a letter to one of his grandsons he wrote, "Well, which of these kinds of reputation should I prefer - that of a horsejockey, a foxhunter and orator, or the honest advocate of my country's rights?"
As a young man, he sought and learned from the great thinkers of his time - one in particular was George Wythe. Under Wythe's tutelage, Jefferson assumed his teacher's devotion to liberty and his impeccable manners.
After five years, he emerged as a lawyer and a community leader. Though he never became an accomplished speaker, Jefferson developed a reputation for his vast knowledge and his writing.
He joined the American Revolution when he heard Patrick Henry deliver his speech against the Stamp Act in 1765. He became a correspondent of the new republic, and penned the letters and official documents that would lead this country to split from England.
In May 1776, a committee was formed to draft an announcement of separation. It consisted of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson. John Adams appointed Jefferson to do the actual writing. When Jefferson asked, "Why me?" Adams gave his reasons as follows:
"Reason first: You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. Reason third: You can write 10 times better than I can."
So while the others contributed, it was Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence. He began with these words:
"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 É"
It seems to me that Thomas Jefferson's achievements can only be explained by the presence of a higher power. His heroism is a result of his channeling a greater force than any one man could generate. History shows us that the natural course of revolution results in a form of government as despicable and abusive as the government it overthrew. But, with the Declaration of Independence and with the adoption of the Constitution, a new model was forged based on freedom and the competence of men to rule themselves.
Jefferson and his compatriots drafted the greatest government this world has ever known. I believe it was an inspired series of events.
Leaving A LegacyJefferson closed the Declaration of Independence with, "And, for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."
Conscious of his mortality and desire to leave a legacy, he listed three significant achievements to be recorded on his tombstone. One was the Declaration of Independence. The second was his Statute for Religious Freedom.
Surely, his hand was moved by a higher power as he wrote words that would tear away at the fabric of which his life was made. He helped ban the importation of slaves. Later, in his discourses on slavery, he would justify and struggle with his reasons for keeping slaves.
He ended primogeniture, the practice of leaving the wealth of one generation solely in the hands of the first-born son, though that is how he inherited his wealth. He was intent on "forming a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of ancient or future aristocracy, and a foundation laid for a government truly republican."
The third accomplishment listed on his tombstone was the creation of the University of Virginia. In regards to education, his thoughts, behaviors and words were in complete agreement. His command of the English language was extraordinary. He also learned French, Greek, Italian and Spanish. His personal education included philosophy, science, ethics, music, weather, mathematics, paleontology, surveying, art, architecture, medicine, agriculture, law, religion and government. He believed that education of all people was the only way to maintain their hard-earned liberty.
These accomplishments have been summarized like this: Freedom from Britain, freedom of conscience and freedom maintained through education. Not bad for a single lifetime.
Still Not PerfectIt is hard to reconcile Jefferson's love of freedom with the fact that he was a slave owner. And his greatest achievement as president, the Louisiana Purchase, contributed to the ultimate destruction of the Native American nations.
Clearly, Jefferson was a man conflicted, if not downright hypocritical, when he declared all men equal. But he sought truth above all else. I like to think that, had he lived longer, or in a subsequent life, he would come to the logical conclusion that all men means all men.
Thomas Jefferson is my hero, in spite of his shortcomings, and in some ways, because of them. There is no room on my hero list for a cautious, faultless person. A hero without faults is not a man, but a god.
Shortly before his death, he wrote in a letter, "All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind [have] not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them, by the grace of God."
He died on July 4th, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and he left behind his collection of 10,000 books.
That alone would have qualified him for hero status in my book. Imagine what it must've taken to collect that many books at that time in history.
My lack of achievement screams loudly in the presence of Jefferson's lengthy list. But that is what heroes are for - to inspire. What one man, with the help of divine providence, can create! Someday, will I have accomplished something worthy of recounting on my tombstone? I better get busy. Knowing what is possible obliges me to contribute something significant. I pray to God to use me for a higher purpose.
To Thomas Jefferson, and to all my heroes, thanks for setting the bar.
Oh, and one more thing É this January 2000, expect the St. Louis Rams to defeat the Jacksonville Jags 24-10.