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Mr. Jefferson Visits the Sesqui-Centennial

ISSUE:  Winter 1927

Philadelphia has been giving a party this summer, supposedly in honor of the event which made her famous. She does this at half-century intervals, and therefore the festival was due to be held, even if the more than thinly-veiled intimations of the “Dearborn Independent” that the whole thing is in reality a real-estate game and a Semitic plot for the exploitation of concessions, are to be accepted seriously. The plans dragged, however, from the beginning, and only with the departure from the city of a distinguished officer of marines, bent, apparently, on making bone-dry the moist but famous corps that won the war, was there even a promise of sunshine—a trifle humid, of course—for the occasion. To judge from press comment, the invited guests were never at all excited about the affair, and only Philadelphia took it seriously.

That is not the worst thing, however, from the standpoint of the hostess. Lots of people, particularly elderly ladies who are out of touch with modern tastes, give parties towards which a goodly portion of those invited are at best lukewarm. But these are degenerate days, and few hostesses bother. Yet what a tragedy, socially speaking, to find one’s self saddled with an uninvited guest of honor, so uncouth, not to say disreputable, as to make it impossible to introduce him to the other guests or even to mention his presence! The fact that he alone seemed to regard the party as of importance only added to the inconvenience of his presence.

Once upon a time he had been a welcome visitor—for a brief time an honored one—but that was long ago. Later he had accused her of being monotonous in appearance; he had been discovered to be “a moral monster,” and he had been given the cold shoulder, insulted, and given finally an icy stare, the cut direct. This ended, Philadelphia hoped, all social intercourse forever. And now, a century and a quarter later, he had come back brazenly, evidently considering himself the guest of honor of the occasion.

It must be admitted that the mistake was somewhat natural ; that in spite of past ill-feeling the author of the Declaration of Independence must so regard himself and, outside of Philadelphia, be so regarded. Apart from his connection with the event back of the celebration, it was for him an important anniversary, the centennial of an event quite momentous in his career, rivaling in its importance to him even the Declaration itself. And so, invited or uninvited, he felt obliged to be present at least in spirit. Besides, why were they having his gig there, if he was not expected?

Once there, he was kept securely locked up behind the scenes, his unexpected presence proving quite embarrassing to his unwilling hostess. She could not quite see how he got there. Possibly she was inclined to agree with “the greatest Secretary of the Treasury since Alexander Hamilton” in his original view that the sesqui-centennial is in honor of Calvin Coolidge’s fifty-fourth birthday. Why else should his head be on the memorial coin? True some people criticise that, one irreverent person remarking in my presence recently that while the coin was a gross offense against history, it was an even more unforgiveable one against art and aesthetics. But he did not come from Pennsylvania; only from Massachusetts.

Even if shut up in the back part of the house, his presence not alluded to, it is a good thing that Jefferson was there. A celebration of Coolidge’s birthday of course does not need him; it would be most tactless for him to attend.

But after all, there is more to the Fourth of July than Cool-idge’s birthday, and a celebration of the day, even a sesqui-centennial one, without Thomas Jefferson somewhere about the place would be far more absurd than the traditional, if hypothetical, rendition of a famous play in the absence of the Prince of Denmark.

But he has gone now, and doubtless Philadelphia has drawn several long sighs of relief. There is a widely prevalent rumor that he was put out as a dangerous person to have about; that there was no telling what dangerous suggestions he might make if he were allowed to stay on. He might even insist on the party’s running on till it was Sunday morning; with resulting scandal. He might do something even worse; there was no telling. Once before he had thrown a monkey-wrench into the works of a very beautiful machine, and it would not do, after a century and a quarter had been spent laboriously in rebuilding it, to have it all “momicked up” again by a person of clearly Bolshevistic inclinations. Indeed, his departure may have been by invitation of the State Department. It is inclined that way nowadays, and the Secretary hinted at Monticello recently that in his opinion Jefferson was a dangerous person. All of us know what he does in such cases, and so it is not improbable that Jefferson’s departure was in reality a deportation, concealed, however, from an unsympathetic and meddling press. Theodore Roosevelt confided to Lodge in 1917 that “Frank Kellogg needs a leader.” Maybe he has found one. Possibly, unlike his first predecessor in the State Department, he is willing to concede primacy to the Treasury.

No visitor to the United States is ever allowed to leave it without inquiry from anxious Americans as to his impressions; and so distinguished a personage could not be permitted to slip away without the question, “Mr. Jefferson, what do you think of the United States in 1926?”

Some dissentient may exclaim, “Jefferson has been dead a hundred years. What is his opinion worth?” That is apparently good Jeffersonian doctrine as I shall presently show, but it is based upon a fundamental misconception. Jefferson still survives and is very much alive. Some people would not hate him so much if he were really dead! Besides, haven’t we heard that he was at the party?

Seriously speaking, it is, under ordinary circumstances, a very dangerous assumption to attempt to say what would have happened under any different conditions from those which actually obtained. It is quite as dangerous—and impertinent as well—to decide what a great figure of the past —a Washington or a Lincoln—would think or say of contemporary events and movements. But one does not have to attempt this in the case of Jefferson. With striking clarity and with more than a modicum of emphasis, he has expressed himself in phrases which, like their author, still survive. His answers to the stock questions asked the departing visitor, therefore, are to be found in his profuse and frank comments upon his own times which apply with equal point to ours. And reading them we discover fairly completely—a thing not usually gleaned from such an interview—what he thinks of America in 1926.

The inevitable first question deals with his views on Prohibition. Ought the Volstead Act to be repealed or modified? Inquirers who, like most Americans, want not light wines and beer but “hard liquor,” are due a shock. Jefferson, advocate of personal liberty and product of a hard-drinking age, replies, “The prostration of body and mind which the cheapness of this liquor (whiskey) is spreading through the mass of our citizens, now calls the attention of the legislator. . . One of his important duties is as guardian of those who from causes susceptible of precise definition, cannot take care of themselves. Such are infants, maniacs, gamblers, drunkards. The last as much as the maniac requires restrictive measures to save him from the fatal infatuation under which he is now destroying his health, his morals, his family, and his usefuiness to society.” “Whiskey is the bane. Whiskey claims to itself alone the exclusive office of sot-making.” Clearly Mr. Jefferson is not very much upset over attempts to limit the manufacture and sale of whiskey, but only over the amount consumed. He did not touch spirits himself, and, while he ran a still at Monticello, he did not, like Washington, operate it for revenue, running off only about thirty gallons a year for the servants and others who might need it medicinally.

He offered more comfort to the real devotee and advocates of wine and beer. A maker of home brew, both ale and beer, he had them always on his table. Light wine he drank regularly and loudly extolled its good qualities. He bitterly opposed any restriction on its use, such as a tax, which he thought “a prohibition of its use to the middling class of our citizens and a condemnation of them to the poison of whiskey which is desolating their houses. No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes spirits as the common beverage. It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey.” Mr. Jefferson, however, uttered no words that could be construed as an endorsement of the operations of the Anti-Saloon League.

But what about enforcement? Is it so important as to warrant the abolition by consent of the Bill of Rights? With all his hatred of hard liquor, Mr. Jefferson could not view calmly the spectacle of officers of the law, without warrant or authority, but protected by the arm of the government, inaugurating a reign of terror on the highways, shooting down innocent persons, even women and children, because they might have liquor in their possessions. There is, of course, no doubt of his favoring the total destruction of whiskey, but the Bill of Rights is the ark of the covenant. His answer is crisp. “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain grounds.” “If we find it violating our dearest rights, the trial by jury, the freedom of the press, freedom of opinion, civil or religious, or opening on our peace of mind or personal safety the sluices of terrorism, . . . then indeed let us withdraw and call the nation to its tents.”

The agitation of certain so-called radical elements in the country for constitutional changes excited no alarm in Mr. Jefferson’s mind, in spite of his enthusiasm for the Constitution of the United States. “Some men,” he said, “look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them, like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. . . . I am certainly not an advocate of frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. . . . But I know, also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. Institutions must advance and keep pace with the times.” “Each generation is as independent of the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has, then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness.” After such a speech as this who could blame the Government for deporting him?

Come to think of it, parenthetically, it’s not wonderful that the Administration doesn’t like Jefferson; that Kellogg thinks him a dangerous Red, that Mellon, while he is Secretary of the Treasury, will not tolerate his likeness on a coin, that Coolidge discovers that he stole the Declaration of Independence from two unknown Puritan divines!

When his attention was called to the various attempts by self-constituted organizations of the purer in heart, such as the Watch and Ward Society, with the backing of the Post Office Department, to establish and maintain a censorship in the United States, he was less terse than that sturdy and somewhat profane successor of his, Grover Cleveland, who demolished a hostile organization, known as the “C. P. A.,” by the simple inquiry to a newspaper reporter, “What the hell is the ‘C. P. A.’?” Instead he remarked, “I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry, too, as an offense against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this, then, our freedom of religion? and are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? Is a priest to be our inquisitor, or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set us his reason as the rule for what we are to read, and what we must believe? It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not, and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason. If —’s book be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. But for God’s sake let us freely hear both sides if we choose.”

The anti-evolution agitation had, of course, not escaped his close and interested attention. He evinced, naturally, no surprise; it was an old story to him. What hopes he may once have cherished that his noble statute for Religious Freedom would usher in a new day were probably somewhat subdued before 1826, but he was none the less certain of the correctness of his views. “Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error.” “It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.” More elaborately, he thus expressed his views: “To suffer the civil magistrate to obtrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on the supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty. I cannot give up my guidance to the Magistrate because he knows no more the way to Heaven than I do, and is less concerned to direct me right than I am to go right. If a Magistrate commands me to bring my commodity to a public storehouse, I bring it because he can indemnify me if he erred, and thereby I lose it; but what indemnification can he give me for the Kingdom of Heaven? Believing that religion is solely a matter that lies between a man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith and his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declares that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”

He paid his respects briefly but forcibly to the prevalent intolerance of public opinion. “We ought with one heart and one hand to hew down the daring and dangerous efforts of those who would seduce the public opinion to substitute itself into that tyranny over religious faith which the laws have so justly abdicated,” and was as emphatic as on the day he wrote his ringing “I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

An evolutionist before the days of Darwin, a scientist of note in the scientific world of his day, Mr. Jefferson, apart from his religious interest in the controversy, could not fail to be deeply concerned at the scientific aspects of the matter. “I am for encouraging the progress of science in all its branches; and not for raising a hue and cry against the sacred name of philosophy; for awing the human mind by stories of raw-head and bloody-bones to a distrust of its own vision and to repose implicitly on that of others.”

Once before Mr. Jefferson came back to the United States after a long absence and was profoundly shocked at the changes in opinion which he found among those administering the government. The idealism of an earlier day was gone, liberalism was gone, liberty itself was a secondary consideration. Under the leadership of “the greatest Secretary of the Treasury before Andrew Mellon,” the chief business of Government was Business. He was shocked, but he was comparatively young and active, and he put on his fighting clothes and set out to destroy that Calvinistic (Coolidge, not John) conception of the function of government. He may not have destroyed it, but he damaged it pretty badly. He is older this year, more ripely experienced, and perhaps he is more convinced still of man’s perfectibility. Philosophically, he remarked, “A little patience and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people, recovering their true sight, restoring government to its true principles. . . . If the game runs sometimes against us at home, we must have patience till luck turns and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost.”

Philosophical as he was throughout the interview, when his attention was called to the fact that Fundamentalists of North Carolina, assembled to open a campaign for the passage of an anti-evolution law in that state, had quoted in their platform the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, as justification for their position, he terminated the interview somewhat suddenly. Perhaps he was discontented with “the dull neutralities of undecorated speech.” Perhaps he concluded that this time he had really better die. or philosophy restored, perhaps, he realized the hopelessness of those who seek to unscramble eggs, and recalled his words in 1801:

“What an effort of bigotry in politics and religion have we gone through! The barbarians really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times of vandalism, when ignorance put everything into the hands of power and priestcraft. All advances in science were proscribed as innovations. They pretended to praise and encourage education, but it was to be the education of our ancestors; we were to look backward not forward for improvement.”

And so, perhaps, when the State Department is organized differently, and some other hostess than Philadelphia is giving the party, he will come back again.


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