Rockford, Illinois, USA
February 05
I'm a regular middle aged guy, living in a regular middle class neighborhood, in a regular middle-sized community in the middle of America. I am an expatriate Texan transplanted to the Midwest, and wondering how I got here, and where I'm headed.

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JULY 2, 2009 7:54AM

Thomas Jefferson and the Flames of Liberty

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I will be out of town most of the July 4 weekend.  Consequently, I am posting my July 4th essay early.  Posting on July 2 is not really inappropriate.  In fact, the Continental Congress voted to sever ties to England on the 2nd.  We celebrate independence on the 4th because that was the day the Declaration of Independence was formally adopted.  Whether you view the beginning of our nation as having occurred on the 2nd or the 4th, I wish all my readers a happy and safe Independence Day. 




Late in the summer of 1821, as Greece began to break free from 400 years of Ottoman Turkish rule, Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria all conspired against the Greeks to maintain the status quo.  In this post-Napoleonic Europe, the Great Powers of the Continent feared any revolutionary spirit that could threaten the anciens regimes that were restored in 1815 following a generation of revolution and turmoil.  Even the despotism and corruption of the Ottoman Empire were preferable to nationalistic aspirations for liberty.

Thomas Jefferson, now an old man living in retirement in his beloved Monticello, watched the reactionary events taking place across the Atlantic with disgust.  In one of his letters to his former rival and aged friend John Adams, he compared the actions of the Great Powers of Northern Europe to the Barbarians who destroyed classical civilization in the 5th century.  This time, however, the world could not descend into the darkness of despotism.  The spirit that was unleashed on July 4, 1776 was too strong.  Wrote Jefferson:


And should even the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them.  In short, the flames kindled on the 4th. of July 1776 have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble flames of despotism.  On the contrary, they will consume those engines and all who work them.


Nowadays, Jefferson’s idealism is often derided.  How could the man who wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” nevertheless own human beings as chattel?  Some say he betrayed his own Republicanism once he assumed the Presidency, suddenly converting to the Federalist’s preference for a strong Executive Branch.  Jefferson, it seems, is no longer “in”.

Still, Jefferson is one of my American heroes.  And the words he wrote just 5 years before his death contain more than naïve idealism.  They contain Truth.  To be sure, America’s involvement overseas has not been without blemish.  Far too often, our actions have hindered the spread of liberty rather than encourage it.  Our frequent support of petty dictators mirrors the actions of the reactionary powers of 1821.  Even if our actions don’t match our words, however, it is our words that move mountains.

In the summer of 1972, my teenaged sister visited the Soviet Union with a group of high school students.  While there, she met and befriended a Russian student her own age.  He was not concerned with America’s support for totalitarian regimes in South Vietnam or Latin America.  He asked my sister if she could send him a copy of the Declaration of Independence.  It was the words of freedom that interested him.

When Hungary opened its borders to the West in 1989, precipitating the fall of the Iron Curtain, its citizens were not thinking of the West’s failure to support their struggle for freedom in 1956.  Likewise, East Germans were not thinking of the failed Revolution of 1953 when they replaced the hammer and sickle with hammers and chisels to chip away at the Berlin Wall.  Vaclav Havel and his revolutionaries didn’t contemplate the West’s passivity when Russian tanks destroyed the hopes of millions during the Prague Spring.  These brave men and women were not concerned with our failures or inaction.  They were envious of our liberty, and wanted the same for themselves.

Jefferson’s “flames that were kindled on the 4th of July 1776” have been burning for more than two centuries, and are burning still all over the world. 

They burned 54 years ago in Montgomery Alabama, when an African-American woman named Rosa Parks decided to ride in the front of the city bus.

They burned south of the Rio Grande in the 1990’s, when the entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was deposed after 60 years of authoritarian rule.

They burned in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and I suspect those same flames are still smoldering in China, and will burst out once again.

They burn today in the streets of Teheran, where a young woman named Neda was recently martyred to keep the flame alive.

There have been times when America has played an active and positive role in fanning the flames of liberty.  Sadly, there have been times when America’s actions slowed the fire’s spread.  Most often our role has been passive, and probably rightly so.  Rarely do we need to inject ourselves directly into the struggles of others.  We can let the words of 1776 speak for themselves.  The flames of freedom that were ignited that year will not be suppressed.  The fire will spread regardless of what American does.  The liberty that we, as Americans, have enjoyed for 233 years has spread over much of the globe, and it is spreading still.  Call me naïve, or call me Jeffersonian, but I agree with the Sage of Monticello when he says that freedom will consume the engines of despotism.

Happy Fourth of July.



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Procopius - this is a terrific essay, showing that freedom will never die.

I rated this post in honor of all the men & women who have fought to keep the flames of freedom burning around the world.
Thanks Mr. Gaston. It's very easy to be cynical about little things like "freedom" and "liberty". But you know what? They really do exist, and they exist pretty effectively in this country. That's worth a once a year celebration!
Fabulous piece, Steve. For you, on the celebration of our independence:

"Freedom" from Shenandoah

Freedom ain't a state like Maine or Virginia
Freedom ain't across some county line
Freedom is a flame that burns within ya
Freedom's in the state of mind

(Chorus) Freedom, freedom,
Freedom, freedom
Freedom is a flame that burns within ya
Freedom's in the state of mind

Freedom ain't a boat that's leaving without ya
Freedom ain't a place ya float to find
Freedom's in the how ya think about ya
Freedom's in the state of mind


You can't get to freedom by riding on a train
The only way to freedom is right on through your brain

Freedom is a notion sweeping the nation
Freedom is the right of all mankind
Freedom is a body's imagination
Freedom is a state of mind

Freedom, freedom
Freedom, freedom
Freedom is a notion sweeping the nation
Freedom is a body's imagination
Freedom is a full-time occupation
Freedom's in the state of mind.
"Call me naïve, or call me Jeffersonian, but I agree with the Sage of Monticello when he says that freedom will consume the engines of despotism."
Indeed. America's greatest power has always been the power of its idea.
Really excellent piece on the beginnings of our independence that we should always hold so dearly, never relinquish it's vitality and keep fanning the flame!
what I have found most admirable about Jefferson in recent years, if I have the story fully sorted out, is that he had a life-long affair with a "slave" woman whom he honored, respected, and thereby made known that he loved. I'm not sure all the "moralizing" in retrospect is that fair given the economic conditions of the time. I also don't think it was every plantation owner who made their feelings toward their "slaves" known, but were abusive.
Excellent essay. Inability to attain an ideal does not invalidate the ideal. As mentioned at the end of the post I did today, individual human freedom is the most radical idea ever invented.
When I was about 22, a lady from Combined Insurance of America; owned by Clement Stone (who helped Richard Nixon into office and made his money selling insurance to poor people) came to our office to lecture on what made people successful in life. She said it was focus. She said "Just do one thing and do it well."

Smart ass Roger raised his hand and said, "What about Thomas Jefferson? He was into EVERYTHING. From astronomy to literature to science to philosophy to the ideas that build freedom itself."

She didn't know how to answer the question---so my smart ass status was confirmed once again.

Walk the warm, green grounds of the farm Monticello, smell the boxwood, feel the cool dark air in the kitchens below the house.
Yes, there were somethings he did not know about people that we know today. Yes he died broke. (Somehow that's comforting to me)

But his vision of freedom has a heartbeat and the flashing black eyes of an Iranian woman, a starving Kankakee man trying to figure out what's next, a boy on a park bench who just hitched here to Chicago from New Orleans because he heard their were jobs. Every single place mentioned by Procopius in this great essay.

The list of American heroes is long. If Jefferson is not at the top---he's pretty darn close.

Thanks for this Steve.
Bill, "Freedom's in the state of mind." I like that. Although I also like the fact that our freedom is protected by the laws of the land!

Pilgrim and McGarrett, the idea and the ideal are powerful, indeed.

Cathy, get out the fan!

Ben Sen, I was thinking along those exact same lines yesterday. Clearly, the relationship with Sally was not on equal terms, but it seems very plausible that love developed, or at least a common need that was fulfilled by their relationship. In the movie "Jefferson in Paris", it is Sally who first takes the initiative. It made me wonder if occasionally a young female slave may have used her sexuality as a way to gain some sort of upper hand with her master, and some advantage for her children born by him. Of course, that is not to diminish the fact that rape may have been the more common occurrence.

Roger, you must have really put a crimp in that poor woman's message. Thanks for pointing out that Jefferson was more than a politician and writer. He was a true Renaissance Man. In the later correspondence between him and Adams, Jefferson probably wrote fewer than half as many letters as Adams, mainly because he was so busy with his plantation and scientific experiments and getting the University of Virginia started. He never really retired.

I share your admiration of Jefferson and I agree with your assertion that the idea of freedom is an undying force. I think it is important to remember that, as you point out in the comments, we must protect that idea in the physical realm with legislation and institutions specifically for that purpose, or as you say, "by the laws of the land".

I think we should remain vigilant, perhaps even hypervigilant, as I think there are forces even here in our own nation working to suppress or restrict that idea of freedom. They work quietly behind the scenes, not always easy to recognize or sort out.

Jefferson was a seer, a man who saw a reality of what could be, in spite of what was. I think life is hard for individuals of that ilk.

Thanks for this post. Enjoy your weekend.

Thanks for this timely and great essay.

Jefferson has always been one of my heroes. I envy his idealism.

Have a great weekend!
From my reading, Jefferson was an abolitionist, but knew there wasn't enough political will at that time. I have heard the reason Jefferson didn't use Locke's "property" - substituting "pursuit of happiness" after life and liberty - was because slaves were considered property. I have also read other opinions that make it the safe assumption that nobody really knows why the substitution.

Jefferson is by far my favorite founder. He best represents the revolutionary thinking it took to make US happen.

A fine tribute, Procopius.
Rick, Thank you for your comment. I certainly agree that vigilance is required to protect what we have, and of course to improve on it. The threats to our liberty are far more insidious than something like a coup or such. I am far more concerned with stealth legislation that eats away our legal rights, and promotes the distribution of our assets to those who least need them. I suspect we're in total agreement there. Thanks for stopping by.

Kaysong, I prefer Jefferson's idealism to Hamilton's cynical scheming!

P.J., I've never thought of Jefferson as a closet abolitionist, maybe I need to study up on him in more depth. I believe he had the foresight to know that slavery's days were numbered and abolition was ultimately inevitable. I always admired Washington for stating in his will that his slaves were to be freed following his and Martha's death. I wish Jefferson had done the same.
Steve, I love your Jeffersonian ways! This was a fine essay. I think your post, "May 29, 1453" was one of my favorites of the year. Keep it up, and Happy 4th of July. Rated
Steve, you are right to point out that over the years there have been actions that seem contrary to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. My wife and sons have a connection to one of the signers, Phillip Livingston, since he was a younger brother of their direct ancestor, Robert Livingston, who was the Third Lord of Livingston Manor. With land granted to Livingstons by the King of England years earlier they could have become Loyalists, but they clearly saw the importance of breaking away from England. Have a Happy Fourth!!
Thank you for this "birthday gift" to all of us, Steve. Really just wonderful reminder of why we celebrate.
Ralph, thank you. I was thinking of the May 29 post as I wrote this. When the Greeks fought for independence in the 1820's, their inspiration was not Constantinople and the Greek Byzantine Empire, but Athens and classical civilization. That seemed appropriate to me as I wrote about our own nation's fight for liberty.

John, I'm impressed, but not surprised, at your connection to the founding fathers. Very cool!

Sally, thank you...I'm glad you found my little post!
Jefferson's rough draft of the Declaration, before it was amended by Congress, included this complaint -

he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.

Congress struck the entire passage.
As the country we were then in 1776 and now in 2009, I think we should be Patriotic. We should all be Patriotic and excepting of all people of America, as well as immigrants as well each day. But I will celebrate this year as this is my home.
Great piece Steve.
P.J., fascinating, thanks. One wonders how the man who wrote those words could own slaves. Jefferson collaborated with Adams and Franklin on the Declaration. Could those have been the words of one of them rather than Jefferson's? Just wondering out loud...

Blue, thank you, and yes, it is a day to dwell on the good that America has done, and the noble ideas of its founding.
Ah Procopius......the unrelenting power of great ideas.......Jefferson understood the consequences of his actions, and nonetheless found the words.........
Excellent piece! Rated.

Yet we continue to turn our freedoms over to our government.
Great essay. Idealism is something to revisit often. Keeps me from getting too cynical.
It's an abiding failure of this age to suppose that ideas can be no greater than the men that hold them. An instant's reflection shows that the opposite is true: a great idea is always and must always be greater than any man or indeed than any people. Thus the great idea of universal and inconquerable liberty lives on, long after its fallible, faltering author, Thomas Jefferson. And so does the incarnation of Jefferson's idea, America--fallible and faltering as well, but by the strength of that Idea, still free.
Interesting thoughts, but I do have huge issues with Jefferson. Washington freed his slaves upon his death. Not TJ. TJ was horrible with finances, selling his books to Congress after the Brits sacked it during the War of 1812 as one way to get out of debt. He was the first of the truly nasty, talk-out-both-sides-of-your-mouth pols who had agents sling mud against the prickly Adams.

No. I have real issues with the guy.
Hope you and your family are enjoying the 4th of July weekend. :)
Anyone with a whit of common sense agrees with Jeffersonian Ideals but to hold his idea of right or wrong as the end all be all of American morality or ethics seems pretty facetious. Native Americans were still burning people alive while he was helping to write the greatest treatise on the the rule of law since the Magna Carta. Why sully his image now?
Rated. Great essay, although I disagree with you on a few points.

You said: “To be sure, America’s involvement overseas has not been without blemish. Far too often, our actions have hindered the spread of liberty rather than encourage it. Our frequent support of petty dictators mirrors the actions of the reactionary powers of 1821. Even if our actions don’t match our words, however, it is our words that move mountains.”

“Sadly, there have been times when America’s actions slowed the fire’s spread. Most often our role has been passive, and probably rightly so. Rarely do we need to inject ourselves directly into the struggles of others.”

1st, unlike Jimmy Carter’s adherence to principle at any cost. Many leaders before and since were wise enough to see the difference between a really evil and manipulated democracy and a better and more benevolent dictator. Any social studies teacher will tell you the perfect, yet rarest, form of government is a benevolent dictator.

Iran is the perfect example of the failure of jimmy Carter’s presidency to understand that not supporting a “petty dictator” in Iran created a disaster.

Iran, under a “petty dictator” was the most pro-American country in the middle east for years. The infrastructure of our influence is still there. But now controlled by a “democratically elected” (yea sure) government.

2nd, Although I appreciate your piece, I am still a bit leery of your willingness to say things like “Far too often, our actions have hindered the spread of liberty rather than encouraged it.

“Far too often” that is a perspective that is proven wrong.

Stay in denial over Iraq. That is the only way you will be able to maintain your perspective. Otherwise you will have to face the truth. Iraq has been one of the most successful liberation campaigns in history, second only to Normandy. Keep your eye on history, it may surprise you.
I went back to do some digging, and found that passage was from Jefferson's personal draft, before amending.

Adams' draft let the passage stand unaltered.

There is some 'wiggle room' in: "every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce."

"Restrain" here seems most likely a political concession, one included to increase appeal by not being abolitionist in total, but, if adopted, would have set the course to abolition.

My best guess.

Note to GWool : Your description of Adams as "prickly" overstates the case by an 'L' and a 'Y'. He signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, two of the most shameful acts ever to soil our politics. Because my (great, several times) uncle was the main target of these acts, I take it as personally as someone 200 years removed can.

Adams? I have REAL issues with that guy.....
Philos, the petty dictators we have supported could be found in places like Greece, Vietnam, much of Latin America, Pakistan, and Iran (and others, of course). Had we left Iran alone in the 1950's, we probably would not have the kind of trouble with them that we have today. Obviously, I can't prove that, but it's my opinion. Even when viewed through the sens of the Cold War, the support of people like the Shah, the colonels of Greece, and the militarists of Central America besmirched what we claimed to stand for. Frankly, I doubt if that support did much to help us win the ideological battle with Soviet Communism, or prevent a hot war with the USSR.

Much of Jimmy Carter's failure as a president stems more from the disruption of oil supplies, caused by our support of the Shah and the resentment of the revolutionaries who overthrew him, not from Carter's support for human rights. I don't claim human rights should always be the foremost driver of policy. Nor do I claim we should proactively engage in a quest to spread democracy. I just think our actions should more closely mirror our words, and we usually don't need to fear when others want the same kind of liberties for themselves that we take for granted.
Mr. O'Rourke, thanks again for your contribution. Mr. Jefferson was indeed a man of complexity, contradiction, and genius.
Do you think we should not have influence in a region if the only friend we can find has ideological differences? I doubt you do. Should we not have supported Pakistan's President Musharraf, and supported the Anti-American Muslim clerics instead?

Although I agree that our actions should ALWAYS closely mirror our words, there are times when the world doesn’t even understand our desired protocol. When those times arise, it is our leaders responsibility to negotiate America’s best interests, with whomever those leaders are.

You have an un-provable opinion because you are projecting your current understanding of Jimmy Carter onto your understanding of the world stage 30+ years ago.

I do not know your age, but I was very politically aware when the Shah was deposed and the Ayatollah came out of exile. That event is what fueled the start of the war between Iran and Iraq, created the environment whereby we would support Saddam Hussien and was the beginning of the challenges we have today.

To suggest that it was a disruption of oil that was Jimmy Carters failure seems somewhat naïve. Even the current turmoil in Iraq is rooted in the disruption of oil.

It just seems like you are hesitant to really commit to a criticism, but then you criticize.

Where DO you stand?

Here is the truth, as tragic as it sounds, it is reality.

We don’t always get to pick the political, social, economic and moral integrity of those whom we support. There are times when we know as a country that we need to have an influence in a region and there are no clearly obvious choices as to whom we should pick as allies. But….we must have an influence. Thus, Viet Nam, Saddam Hussien and so on. A perfect example are the very Afghani “freedom fighters” we supported with training, weapons and funds to defeat the Soviets in the 70’s are the very same "Taliban" ones we are fighting now. Does that mean we should second guess our choice to support them 35 years ago? Of course not, it was s different stage back then.

To broad stroke our policy with disdain does nothing but tear at the fabric of our great nation. The truth exposes itself.

You said: “Frankly, I doubt if that support did much to help us win the ideological battle with Soviet Communism, or prevent a hot war with the USSR.”

Sorry, yes, supporting those small ideologically diverse countries with aid, military training and other types of support are exactly what won the cold war and prevented a hot war with the USSR.
Philos, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree. I stand by what I said with regard to the Shah. I was 22 years old during the Iran hostage crisis, and I do believe our support for the Shah's regime was the catalyst for the Islamic government's hostility toward America. I also think the degree of hostility they had toward us in 1980 was unjustified, and irrational. The catalyst for the hostage crisis was when we allowed the ill Shah entry into the United States for cancer treatment. In no way did that justify allowing a gang to occupy our embassy and hold our staff hostage for a year. But that event might not have happened at all if we had not covertly restored the Shah to power in the 1950's following a popular uprising against him then.

Of course, I would agree with you that we need to work with unsavory players on the world stage to protect our vital interests. So yes, cooperation with someone like Musharraf was necessary, just as cooperation with Stalin once was. But what I am referring to are the instances when we intervened in the affairs of countries to block the popular will of the people, like we did with our support for Pinochet, or the Shah in the 1950's, or the Greek junta. In those cases, and others, the regimes we supported were the antithesis of our ideals. I think the United States was, and is, strong enough -- militarily, economically, and ideologically -- to leave well enough alone and let those governments stand or fall on their own accord.

You believe our support for often unsavory regimes that opposed the USSR is what won the Cold War. I disagree. I think what won the Cold War was the strength of our economy, and the strength of our Jeffersonian ideals. I think Willy Brandt's open door policy with East Germany, something that our own government largely opposed, was the beginning of the end for USSR style Communism. I also think the USSR's attempt to match America's military strength despite its far weaker economic standing was the final nail in the coffin. But I don't think our support for repressive regimes in Central and South America, the Mideast, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere had much of an impact at all. Maybe there was some short-term gain in oil prices and such, but strategically, I don't think so.

So perhaps I'm naive. Maybe if we allowed Jefferson's flames of liberty to spread uncontrolled, the USSR would be the dominant super power in the world today. Maybe those democratically elected leftists in Chile, Greece, Iran, and so forth would have conspired with the USSR to bring America down. Frankly, I doubt it.
Okay, I'm not quite a year late to the party, but I wasn't here last year. I think it is only in the "Time/Warner" Fox version of things that Jefferson is out of favor, but then they've been working on discrediting everything and everyone truly decent. My point is - thank you for this post. It was a perfect read for this 4th of July Independence day, 2010. Let freedom ring.
Delia, thanks for coming...I let latecomers join the party, too!
Thank you for reminding us of the days we fanned the flame of liberty