A Civics Lesson from Thomas Jefferson

November 25, 2019

Bill Barker.JPG

Thomas Jefferson, portrayed by Bill Barker of Monticello, speaks during a civics event at the U.S. Chamber Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Thomas Jefferson, portrayed by Bill Barker of Monticello, speaks during a civics event at the U.S. Chamber Foundation in Washington, D.C.
© Photo by Ian Wagreich / © U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation

On November 7, 2019, Monticello’s Thomas Jefferson joined the Chamber Foundation for a forum to discuss the state of civic knowledge, civic engagement, and civil discourse in America. This is an excerpt from his remarks to the audience. Want to listen to his full remarks?

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We are the first nation in the history of man founded upon principle, not upon the monarchy, royalty, nobility, aristocracy, landed gentry. That’s why we fought the war—to create a government of by and for whom? The people.

We sail through uncharted waters. When we came to create this remarkable nation, we soon began to realize we could no longer blame the British. And we reminded ourselves of a most extraordinary accomplishment, because as Great Britain and the rest of the world referred to us as a radical rebel in the hinterlands of North America, what did we show the rest of world, but in the diversity of our population, our greatest strength in the asylum of the oppressed of the ancient kingdoms of Europe, we were able to bring thirteen individual nations together. Remember that.
 
Each one of our former colonies, distant and disparate from one and the other. In the degree of religious opinion in one, versus a vast difference in another. In the degree of freeholders living in one versus the greater number of tenants living upon the freeholdings in another. We brought that together - E Pluribus Unum. Through the founding principle we must never forget as Americans, General Hamilton and I knew it well: compromise and resolution on behalf of the common good.

Perhaps you know that it only takes twenty minutes to read our Declaration of American Independence? Twenty minutes to familiarize yourselves and revisit what his Excellency General Washington referred to as “Our Promise.” And it will take you, perhaps little while longer, as I hear there are many more amendments to our constitution than the 12 that I have known, but imagine within an hour you may reacquaint yourself with the responsibility of citizenship that will help support and substantiate your hold of the reigns of our government as we drive on, through terror incognita, sail on through unchartered waters. Remembering where we’ve been to better understand where we are.

Now, I was not here when we engaged in our Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia that September 1787. And I was opposed to it, perhaps some of you know. I thought that our Articles of Confederation were a venerable fabric; they out not be tampered with. But it was the mighty Madison, the most luminous mind I’ve ever known, who sent me a draft of our Constitution in a letter he wrote, November 1787, and I wrote back to him, “Sir I am captivated by this!” It’s the smallest document of its kind in human history, the shortest collectively, creating a government to check its own power.

And the most influential and powerful of the three branches is which branch? Legislative. That branch elected by whom? The people. And with the most remarkable first line of any system of government in human history: We the People.
 
Well, I can understand that there may be concern about our future, just exactly how do we properly represent our citizen body? Well, here as I’ve arrived in Washington City, I gaze out amongst you and I cannot forget who has the vote and who has the voice in our government.

There’s still much work that needs to be done. Much work ahead of us. That is our responsibility. For a more direct representation of We the People, to secure in them what we all knew when we met in that statehouse in Philadelphia to vote on our Declaration of American Independence. When we met in the same building to vote on our Constitution of these United States. The responsibility of citizenship—how vital that is to our success. Dr. Franklin knew it well, though he left us early when he passed away in April of 1790, and I recall as we walked out of the statehouse in Philadelphia, now affectionately known as Independence Hall, several came up to him, wagging their finger, what have you men of property been engaging in there? What have you created? And he replied: a Republic if you can keep it.