The Jeffersonian Impulse: Self-Reliance Amid 21st Century Dependence



I want to start with a story of something that happened today. It is a somewhat amusing story, but it was also just a little bit saddening for me personally.

I've been in a Jefferson mood lately. I'm currently working on a biography of him, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation by Merrill Peterson. I have also been listening to a podcast entitled The Thomas Jefferson Hour in which a humanities scholar, Clay Jenkinson, portrays Thomas Jefferson in a interview type format. It's a remarkable show, given Mr. Jenkinson's nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the man. Frequently they deal with current event issues, and will explain Thomas Jefferson's views on different subjects. For those not familiar with Jefferson, he is a strong believer in the rights of individuals, a small central government, and a dash of Enlightenment ideals thrown in for good measure. He was a humanist who loved nature with a passion, building his home of Monticello up high on a hill in the midst of a wilderness in Virginia. Many know of his owning of slaves, and his affair with Sally Hemings, but to let this overshadow his great service to this country would be a huge mistake. He was America's visionary, the writer of a Declaration that summed up better than any other document what we as human beings are entitled to...life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

So here is the story. Given my study of Jefferson, I decided to post a picture of Jefferson on my cork board in my cubicle at work today, sort of as a muse to look at and consider throughout the day. It is in fact the image you see above, a portrait of Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale from 1805 while he was still president. This image is absolutely captivating when considered closely...I felt as if Jefferson was watching me, looking directly at me, with a sort of half smile that hints at the fact that he might start speaking. It is Jefferson at his most rustic, wearing a fur coat and looking as if he just came in from the cold. So, the picture is up...and I am approached by two coworkers at various points in the day, who both ask me who that was in the picture. I tell them it's Thomas Jefferson. One of them asks if he was the guy that "had an affair with that slave". This sums up the general knowledge of Thomas Jefferson in my workplace...a guy who had an affair with that slave woman. I didn't know if I would laugh or cry.

Now granted, this is two people, and certainly can't be considered a significant sample size. But, at least according to Mr. Jenkinson, the popularity of Thomas Jefferson has decreased greatly in recent years...most of it due to his slave ownership and his relationship with Sally. Historians lambast him for this, and state that because of his hypocrisy of preaching freedom yet owning slaves, all of the positive things he did didn't really count. How quick we are to pass judgment on characters of history, without truly understanding the circumstances they lived in! I certainly cannot condone Mr. Jefferson's actions in owning slaves, and know quite plainly that it was an enormous blot upon his character. Slavery was as evil then as it is now...but can we simply dismiss Jefferson on account of this? I think not.

One of Jefferson's greatest principles was self-reliance. He didn't believe that any individual should be under the control of another person or entity, that the individual holds the greatest power in any society. Looking at life in 21st century America, this principle becomes almost laughable. We rely on public transportation to get where we need to go, public schools to teach us, big farms and corporations to provide us with food (much of which we do not know the source of), banks to handle our money, police forces and fire departments to protect us, government to tax us and therefore provide services to us...the list goes on and on. We would label many of these services as vital to living and functioning in a modern world. I would agree, for the most part. But let me point out where I disagree.

I disagree when the principles and opinions of others start to determine what you can and cannot do. This is completely antagonistic towards the kind of freedom Jefferson envisioned for America. Recently, I've been seeing many people in the news who have been attacked simply for holding a contrary view to what the government says is the best idea. The very essence of this country is the idea that contrary opinions are allowed and encouraged, yet there seems to be some who wish to stifle those alternative viewpoints. Why is this? In a free society, alternative views shouldn't be feared, they should be welcomed. If a particular group's view is better than the other, it will show itself to be the better idea in the minds of Americans. No idea is ever beyond debate. Voltaire is quoted as saying "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This should become our mantra.

It was a contrary opinion that set this wonderful country of ours in motion...that sacred thought that freedom was desirable enough to forcibly throw off the chains of oppression and tyranny. We do not answer to some massive governmental entity...that entity is supposed to answer to us, to serve us.

Here is a thought, which I shall simply throw out into the void. Why do we trust the government, and why do we need the government to do things for us? Surely the government has done some great things...the national park service is a prime example and one of my biggest praises for the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. But do we trust politicians, of either party, to accomplish things for the good of the nation as a whole? All of the promises, all of the empty campaign slogans, broken so often we lose count. Why do we allow practices like gerrymandering, in which members of Congress ensure their re-election by changing district lines to include their constituents only? There are members of Congress that have been in office 20+ years, swollen and encrusted in the luxuries of the office, deaf to the ears of ordinary citizens.

This is no attack on any particular party, or any particular individual. Both parties have their own villains, and both parties have essentially become "big government" parties. At the same time, there are genuine individuals within both parties who attempt to bridge the gaps and find common ground...which I applaud. If more people were able to forget party ideologies, listen respectfully to the other side, and organize solutions, we would certainly be that much better off. Unfortunately, not many seem to want to do that.

So I end with this question...what can you do to become more self-reliant and more independent? Even if you can't break out of the "American grid", perhaps you can take up a new practice, like growing some of your own food. You could spend more time in nature, rather than in an air conditioned environment. You could start thinking independently, thinking for YOURSELF, not simply digesting and regurgitating the talking points on the news. Look into things, do research, wrestle with the ideas....see what makes sense to you. Then find out what the other side thinks, and why. Find the good in their point of view, rather than always focusing on the bad. Stretch yourself. Above all, pay attention to what's happening in the world, and learn about the history of what has happened before in similar situations. The past is never the same as the present, but certain details might be. Keep an eye out for those details.

The scariest thing, the thing that frightens me most, is when individuals stop thinking for themselves. We cannot become complacent, the times we live in are too important for that. Apathy will be the death of us if we're not careful. I honestly don't care what your views are, and I'm not here right now to persuade you towards one view or the other. Just figure out what your views are, and why you have them, and if you SHOULD have them. Listen to the other side, and think for yourself...please.