A few weeks before the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in the midst of the administration of John Quincy Adams, one Roger Weightman invited Thomas Jefferson, along with two other surviving signatories of the declaration, to attend a celebration in Washington. Jefferson, now 83, was old, infirm, and possessed of one remaining ambition. Like his old colleague, rival, and friend John Adams, he hoped only to live until the 50th anniversary, as both of them barely managed to do before passing away. But Jefferson's mind was still sharp, and he took the opportunity of his reply to assess the significance of what he and his fellow signatories had done in 1776, fully conscious that they had taken a step forward for the whole world, and confident in the future.
Monticello, June 24, 1826
I will ask permission here to express the pleasure with which I should have met my ancient neighbors of the city of Washington and its vicinities, with whom I passed so many years of a pleasing social intercourse; an intercourse which so much relieved the anxieties of the public cares, and left impressions so deeply engraved in my affections, as never to be forgotten. With my regret that ill health forbids me the gratification of an acceptance, be pleased to receive for yourself, and those for whom you write, the assurance of my highest respect and friendly attachments.
Jefferson, who had given his own vast library to the government to help reconstitute the Library of Congress after the British had burned the capitol, reveals himself here as an archetypal man of his extraordinary times. An architect, musician, and amateur scientist himself, he specifically associated the doctrines of the equal rights of man and self-government with the advance of science. Superstition, he thought, was the only foundation of hierarchical government. Reason, science and democracy were bound to spread together. And even though Europe had turned its back on democracy in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, he remained confident--perhaps in part because of the overthrow of Spanish rule in Latin America--that the growing United States would remain a model for the peoples of the entire world. No racial or religious differences, he seemed to say, would stand in the way of progress indefinitely.
190 years have now passed, and for most of that long period, Jefferson's prophecies seemed to coming true. The great crisis of the mid-19th century--whose American face he had glimpsed six years earlier, when he characterized the debate over slavery in Missouri as "the knell of the Union" and lamented that younger generations would throw away the achievement of his own--led not only to a reaffirmation and extension of democracy in the United States, but to huge advances for self government in Italy, Britain, Germany and France. By 1910 or so there was not one nation in Europe that did not live under some kind of constitution. In the next thirty years, however, new political phenomena transformed the world again. Communism in the USSR and National Socialism in Germany both claimed to represent the highest expression of human reason, higher even than western democracy. The rights of man (and woman) lost ground in Europe during the interwar period and in 1940 disappeared from the European continent almost entirely. But in the United States, Franklin Roosevelt--who built the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin in Washington--turned the great crisis into an opportunity for a further extension of democracy and, like Jefferson, insisted that its principles should govern the whole world. In the wake of the Second World War, those principles were indeed extended to nearly all the former colonial territories in Africa and Asia. When the Europeans tried to hang on to their possessions with military force they were defeated.
I have written here and elsewhere many times about the changes that have undone much of the postwar order in the last 50 years, and will summarize them now. To begin with, our own democracy is now probably threatened as much as it has ever been by plutocracy, the danger that Jefferson foresaw. It is appropriate that the musical Hamilton should have been the theatrical event of our decade, since it is Hamilton's vision of a strong financial sector and a wealthy ruling class that seems for the moment to have triumphed over Jefferson's more egalitarian one. But more importantly, it seems to me, the momentum of the progress of science and reason has been halted--and in some parts of the world it has been reversed. As another great American thinker, Henry Adams, predicted at the turn of the last century, the world has rejected scientific conclusions contrary to established beliefs and interests. Even as the evidence of an impending climate catastrophe becomes overwhelming, the response remains inadequate. Thomas Piketty's great insight--that the natural outcome of capitalism is to promote inequality--has not really penetrated the mainstream. Austerity in public finance, which has never benefited the mass of the people,. is back in fashion in Europe. And the British public has just rejected one of the twentieth century's most striking expressions of the idea of reason in politics, the European Union.
Meanwhile, in much of the Muslim world, the idea of reason has been in full retreat for decades. Western ideas inspired the original revolts against tradition and tyranny in the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and elsewhere, and they were the basis, in one way or another, of the Ataturk regime in Turkey and even the Ba'athist dictatorships in Syria and Iraq. Now much of the Middle East is torn apart by a regional civil war between the Shi'ite and Sunni branches of Islam, and the United States government looks in vain for a significant faction that shares our values and interests. The ideas of the twentieth century are in retreat elsewhere as well. Israel, founded as an expression of modern nationalism, is now much more based upon ancient religious belief. The orthodox church is a pillar of Putin's rule in Russia. And tens of millions of Americans regard revealed religion, not the enlightenment, as the source of the most important truths. That above all, it seems to me, would make Jefferson shake his head in fear and disgust.
Jefferson made the classic mistake of so many of those who live through great historical change: he assumed that the beliefs of his age would simply continue to spread indefinitely. But the Enlightenment principles in which he believed represent only one aspect of human nature, and not necessarily the most powerful. Tocqueville, who was only a very young man in 1826, saw this far more clearly: he accepted democracy, by which he meant above all social and political equality, as the wave of the future, but he was as concerned by its weaknesses as he was inspired by its strengths. There are natural rhythms in human affairs which prevent any set of beliefs and institutions from achieving eternal supremacy. They include a tendency to oscillate between stronger and weaker forms of authority--as Roger Merriman, the historian who prepared young Americans for the Second World War at Harvard, taught his required history course--and the related tendency of generations of reject their parents' beliefs, regardless of their wisdom. These tendencies do often move humanity backward, but they also provide new generations with the chance to do heroic things and leave monuments behind for centuries to come--as Jefferson did.