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Phil-osophically Speaking - April 23, 2010

The Jeffersonian Legacy

If you ever by chance or design get down to Old Virginia, by Charlottesville, be sure to pass the stone-arch bridge to the base of the road that leads up to Monticello. There, through the gates of a graveyard, you will see a granite obelisk bearing these words:

Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and the father of the University of Virginia.

The epitaph, composed by Jefferson himself, is but a modest appraisal in light of his staggering accomplishments. He doesn’t even bother to mention that he was the third president of the U.S. It was, perhaps, the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, who best captured the remarkable and diverse gifts of his predecessor while giving a toast at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners in the arts and sciences. “I think,” said Kennedy, “that this is the most extraordinary collection of human talent that has ever dined at the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Such sentiments could not be relegated to sentimental hyperbole when speaking about this Renaissance man. Not only was Jefferson’s literary gift in the service of human liberty of a high order (“the principles of Jefferson,” Abraham Lincoln would say, “are the definitions and axioms of a free society”), he was also an accomplished statesman, lawyer, farmer, architect, musician, inventor, linguist, geographer, surveyor, botanist, and paleontologist. He delved deeply into Newtonian physics, sought to understand the origin of the rainbow and, along with Benjamin Franklin, was the best chess player in early America. He read Plato in Greek, Cicero in Latin, Montesquieu in French and Cervantes in Spanish. He even attempted, with middling success, to learn Gaelic so he could read the poet Ossian.

Jefferson’s nearly miraculous versatility is widely known and justly celebrated; what is less known is what our 41st president inelegantly referred to as the “vision thing.” Jefferson possessed the quality in abundance when he molded, chiseled and created the United States of America, as we know it today. I’m not referring to the original 13 states but the vast, unsettled West that lay in its future. A “Continental Empire of Liberty” was, for Jefferson, the geographical manifestation of the Latin phrase, ‘E Pluribus Unum’ — out of many, one.

A little background: The overwhelming reality about early America was the paucity of its population and the immensity of the land. After America won its independence, its population was clustered near the eastern seaboard, but a vanquished Great Britain had no choice but to give the newly formed Confederation all lands east of the Mississippi. The challenge of the young Republic was the future settlement and administration of these lands. As Americans fanned westward to settle new lands the prospect of the original 13 states becoming a colonial power seemed likely.

But fate intervened when Congress appointed Jefferson chairman of two committees to deal with the West. The reports of the committees, like the Declaration of Independence, were mostly written by him and it set down the general rules regarding the formation of territorial and state governments. A population of 5,000 was the first requisite to establish a territorial government (territories are not yet states which are granted full representation and voting rights) and 60,000 to apply for statehood. The goal, as Jefferson envisioned it, would be to create a union of free states, under one sovereign government, answerable to the people. Territories were subordinate to states, much like colonies, but this condition was a pit stop on the way to full statehood.

In order to establish and demarcate these territories a grid of the West was needed. Jefferson would himself map out 14 territories later to become states and would name 10 of them, under the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The ordinances provided for surveying the land into townships of 36 sections, each supporting four families on 160-acre plots or approximately 25 people per square mile.

Dividing these areas, establishing its boundaries, was a Herculean task. Surveying began with a compass, a theodolite and, most importantly, a heavy metal chain of 22 yards in length that was pegged out again and again. Ten chains made a furlong, 80 chains a mile and 480 chains constituted one side of a township. Tedious work, but that was not the half of it. Since the land was not flat and open but constituted mighty forests and rivers, mosquito infested swamps and towering mountain ranges it became necessary for the boundary-makers to cut corners as well as zigzag to square measurements off.  Similar techniques were later used when Jefferson, as president, would acquire the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon ultimately creating another 11 states.

The road to statehood, however, became a bumpy one as the slavery question so divided the North and South that the issue of whether a territory was entering the Union as a free state or a slave state became an issue of monumental importance. For this reason New Mexico and Arizona would remain territories for 60 years.

Nevertheless, the roadmap to statehood was enshrined as a Jeffersonian legacy and because of this America, unlike Great Britain, never became an Imperial power, at least for very long. Great Britain’s Empire, by contrast, looked like a cartographers conspiracy as a popular saying of the time was “that the sun never set on the Union Jack” meaning that England’s colonial possessions stretched literally around the globe.

When Spain was defeated in the Spanish American War, the Teller Amendment was passed to ensure that America would not annex the Spanish Empire’s former possessions. The Philippines, however, proved too tempting and it was here the U.S. had its one flirtation with Imperialism. President McKinley believed that leaving the Philippines to themselves would invite misrule. So the U.S., in an act of beneficence, would educate them, build hospitals, create a desperately needed sanitation system and build its entire infrastructure.

Taking control, however, was easier said than done. The Philippines consisted of 7,000 islands and U.S. intrusion, however well intentioned, fused rival ethnic groups together to wage guerilla warfare against the U.S. that over two brutal years cost the lives of 4,000 Americans and 200,000 Filipinos, demonstrating that where there is a cauldron of ethnic rivalries winning a war is much easier than nation building. Something the U.S. would relearn, bitterly, a century later in Iraq.

None of this would happen in the Great West of the North American Continent. The territories carved out would become bone of the bone and blood of the blood of the original 13 states though a few were created thousands of miles from the initial confederation and centuries away from the founding of the nation. There was, of course, the tragedy of the American Indian whose tribal states became a casualty of westward expansion. Nevertheless, Jefferson’s vision had truly produced an “Empire of Liberty.” When you fly over the Midwest and Great Plains you can still see Jefferson’s grid, those squares etched out in rectilinear fields and straight roads that was the blueprint of America’s future.

Thomas Jefferson had his weaknesses: he was a poor public speaker, he proved to be no soldier during the American Revolution and despite his lofty eloquence about human freedom he could never free his own slaves. But his literary power and prescience melded to forge an America that stands as one nation, indivisible, as opposed to the many, often loosely knit nations and principalities that make up South America, Europe and Africa. Monticello is Italian for “little mountain.” But if you are ever at Jefferson’s beloved home walk slowly to its summit, and you will begin to feel, imperceptibly at first, but growing in magnitude, the weight of this man’s monumental accomplishments, and you will know that on top of this little mountain you are standing on an Everest of American history.