Jefferson’s Monticello, Reflections on Our Democracy

I wrote this on my 55th birthday, November 21, 2001.  We had just finished work in Serbia and Kosovo and were home.  We had been expats for the better part of 8 years.  We had no idea what we would do next, but we came home to a different America.  We had watched the World Trade Center Towers collapse on CNN from Kosovo. We had worked with independent media in Serbia, Albania and Slovakia.  Our re-entry to the States was a road trip across country, from New Jersey to Bellingham, Washington and the ferry that took us home to Alaska.

Several weeks ago we stood on a mountaintop in the Blue Ridge of Virginia.  We were at Jefferson’s home in Monticello.  I wanted to go there to be close, in some physical way, to the ideals that have driven us over the past twelve years, since the collapse of the wall.  Jefferson, the author of our basic document of freedom, thought that his most important contribution to public life was his authorship of the Virginia statutes on religious freedom.  For Jefferson, religious toleration was not enough.  He believed in disestablishment, in a wall of separation between church and state.  Jefferson’s opponents argued that cutting state support of churches would kill them.  Jefferson argued that people would contribute and volunteer to keep them.  They would work not only to maintain worship but church outreach charities.  He was right more than he could have reasoned.  His legacy is America’s volunteer spirit and generosity, our very civil society.

But Jefferson was not the only one who was right in those founding days of our republic.  Adams and Hamilton disagreed mightily with Jefferson on basic issues of government.  The genius of George Washington was that he got Jefferson and Hamilton to serve in the same cabinet, forcing them to test their ideas against each other, tempering each other, guaranteeing that there be no “winner take all.”  This is our legacy.  To preserve it is our duty.

On our first trip to Albania an old man posed a question.  Victor Dosti had been in Enver Hoxha’s prisons for 40 years.  There he read smuggled copies of the writings of Jefferson and some of the Federalist Papers.  He was a student of the American Revolution.  He asked Suzi who was right, Jefferson or Hamilton.   Her answer was “both.”

“How could that be?  They hated each other.”

But they were both necessary for the development of our democracy.  The play of their ideas against each other is what made America the vital place it is.  The process of informed debate was the important thing.  Teaching this was the great joy of our work in Europe.  The debate continues today.  Until a country learns that lesson it cannot be democratic.  If we forget it we will lose our greatest treasure.

And looking back at this from 2013 I fear that we may be in danger of losing that treasure.

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