Tag archives: Thomas Jefferson

Common Core: “A Little Rebellion Now and Then”

by Robert Morrison

June 18, 2014

One of the factors that led to Congressman Eric Cantor’s recent defeat was his failure to recognize the threat posed by Common Core State Standards. His victorious opponent, David Brat, trumpeted his opposition to Common Core. And Brat struck a responsive chord among the voters of Virginia’s Seventh District. We could certainly call the first defeat in over a century of either party’s House Majority Leader “a little rebellion.”

It’s fitting that this little rebellion would get traction in the Old Dominion. It was Virginia’s own Thomas Jefferson who took a fairly relaxed view of Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts in 1786. Jefferson was then serving as our minister to France, but almost alone among the Founding Fathers, Mr. Jefferson did not take alarm at the uprising. “I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing. The tree of liberty must be watered by the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

The entire episode of the grassroots rebellion against Common Core is an example of that spark that Thomas Jefferson never wanted to see quenched in us. “It is in the manners and spirit of the people,” he would write, “that a republic is preserved in vigor.” We don’t have to agree with Jefferson’s dismissive attitude toward Shays’s Rebellion. I don’t. And neither did George Washington or James Madison. Madison would become Jefferson’s most faithful ally and advocate.

We can look at Common Core as the ultimate expression of elite opinion about American education. Americans in this view need to be led, fed, directed, managed, cajoled, cosseted, and coerced—all for their own good. Instead of education reform welling up from the grassroots, it would be better, in the view of Common Core adherents, for the necessary changes to come from the top down. Grasstops will tell the grassroots what they need to know.

The Washington Post recently let the Common Core cat out of the elitist bag by publishing a front-page expose headlined “How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Common Core Revolution.” The story is red meat for the opponents of Common Core. It is replete with insider deals and hurry-up, get on board, this train is leaving the station hustle. The Common Core “revolution” so called has never been field tested, never been submitted to public debate, never fully explained, never honestly presented. It’s been a shell game from Day One.

And Common Core resisters have kicked up a fuss from Day Two. I want here to salute these Sons and Daughters (mostly Daughters, frankly) of Liberty. These are the grassroots activists who know what is going on in their local school districts. They know the Constitution and the laws. And they care about their children and, in many cases, their grandchildren. It was easy for sophisticated liberals to dismiss such folks generations ago as “little old ladies in tennis shoes.” Well, now those little old ladies are wearing combat boots.

First to feel the heat (if they didn’t entirely see the light) was the Republican National Committee. Despite the fact that some leading GOP Governors had fallen for the Common Core siren song, the RNC pulled back and passed an anti-Common Core resolution. That helped to legitimize opposition to Common Core.

Here, one is reminded of the French popular leader who sits happily smoking his Gauloise at a Paris sidewalk café. Seeing a massive demonstration headed for the National Assembly, he jumps up. “Those are my people, he says, I have to find out where they are going so I can lead them!”

For whatever reasons, the Republican Party will almost certainly see resolutions offered at its next Platform-writing session to condemn Common Core—and particularly to condemn the stealthy and dishonest way that it has been “pulled off.” States are perfectly free to reject Common Core, we are endlessly told. But if they do, they have no escape from that other terrible idea: No Child Left Behind. The Obama administration has cleverly contrived to let your state get off the rack of NCLB only by signing up for the Iron Maiden of Common Core. Then, the federal bureaucrats will generously let your state spend its own money.

When I served in the Reagan administration, I was given two weeks of “orientation” by Dr. Ed at the federal education department.  Dr. Ed had his Ed.D from Harvard and was a most intelligent, learned, and devoted public servant. He was also thoroughly liberal. Dr. Ed took me to each of the ten assistant secretaryships. Each day for those two weeks, Dr. Ed would assure me that the federal department spends “only 7% of the total education budget.” Just 7%, he repeated like a mantra. Dr. Ed was too diplomatic to say that surely I now understood that what Mrs. Schlafly and all those little old ladies in tennis shoes were saying about our beneficent federal department could not possibly be true.

I reflected on Dr. Ed’s wise counsel. But I recalled my dad’s wartime visits to India. He taught me how the mahouts train elephants there. It takes the mahout about two weeks to break the elephant to the master’s will. Up, down, backward and forward, left and right, the elephant in those two weeks is put through his paces. The mahout only weighs 7% of what the elephant weighs. But the mahout has a stick that he jams behind the elephant’s ear. And the elephant soon learns to do the master’s bidding.

That, Dr. Ed, is how the federal education department works.

And Thomas Jefferson’s great lieutenant, the “magnificent little Madison,” put the dangers in perspective when he wrote:

I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”

As a veteran of the federal education department and a recovering bureaucrat, I am proud of America’s little rebellion against Common Core. Bill Gates almost pulled it off. But the Washington Post let everyone know how corrupting the influence of this powerful man has been. If you bribe the Governor of Virginia, you can get indicted. And the governor can get indicted. You are considered corrupt. But if you lavish money on all the governors to entice them to do your will, you are counted a philanthropist.

What the little rebellion over Common Core proves is that here, the people still rule. And it is heartening to see America rising.

Dawn over the Jefferson Memorial

by Robert Morrison

April 15, 2014

Well, she did it again this year. My dear wife of 425 months decided to add one more item to an already full schedule on Palm Sunday.

Let’s go by and see the Cherry Blossoms,” she piped up. I groaned. Not this Sunday. There will be millions of people there. We’ll get stuck in traffic, just like we did last year. Can’t we go some other time?

Of course, that’s part of the great appeal of the Cherry Blossoms in Washington. They come when they come. And it’s hard to predict how long they will last. Even a brief thunderstorm can put an end to them.

But, this Palm Sunday was already looking very full. First, I had to visit a friend in jail. (Yes, we do that kind of thing.) Then, we were slated to attend worship services with friends at their Northern Virginia church. After that, we were slated to go to Sunday brunch. I was afraid we’d get stuck in one of those can’t go ahead, can’t go back congested affairs around the Jefferson Memorial and the Tidal Basin. We’d be locked in and it would throw off the whole day’s schedule.

Let’s go early, my bride countered. Very early. So we did. The sun was just rising over the Capitol as we entered Washington. The stately dome with its Statue of Freedom was bathed in a pink glow. I pass the Capitol Dome twice a day every day I drive in to work. I never stop marveling at its ever-changing classical beauty.

This day, I tried to envision a huge banner draped across the length of the western portico of the massive structure. At just about this time of year, April, 1865, the Commissioner of Public Buildings, Benjamin Brown French, had written a message to celebrate the victory of the Union army at Appomattox. French chose the words from Psalm 118: 23:

This is the Lord’s Doing; It is marvelous in our Eyes.

Around the grounds on Capitol Hill were many lovely trees just budding out. Beautiful. Wouldn’t they do?

Not quite. On we drove down Constitution Avenue. We passed the newly restored Washington Monument. The scaffolding that has surrounded that majestic obelisk is finally down. The monument is scheduled to open again for visitors on May 12th after nearly three years of repairs. The earthquake damage of August 23, 2011, threatened to permanently close this popular tourist attraction, but an excellent job of restoration has been done.

I’ll be especially eager to walk down the stairs to the 555-foot monument and report on the many tributes to our Founding Father inscribed there. Simply to take that descent is to learn a lot about our country’s history. And, of course, there’s the simple fact that the aluminum pyramid that tops the monument has an inscription—Laus Deo—on its east front. Because the law proscribes any other building from surpassing the Washington Monument in height, the first rays of the sun will always strike those words: Praise the Lord.

Finally, we come to the Jefferson Memorial. The dawn is breaking and the Cherry Blossoms are at their peak. It is truly a sight to behold.

So I dutifully get in line with ten thousand other beholders. Even at dawn, the crowds are dense. Forget about parking. The Park Service is not interested in having you park. So we look for a place to let my wife jump out to take pictures. I’m planning to make a circuit and pick her up again. And then, seeing gridlock ahead, we decide against it.

Then, she reminds me what day this is. It’s April 13th. Why, it’s Mr. Jefferson’s birthday! That’s a rare treat. And we are here at his memorial 271 years later.

Inside that classical dome, are inscribed his words that first inspired me to take up a cause our Supreme Court had rejected:

The God Who Gave Us Life Gave Us Liberty at the Same Time.

The best part is we made it to visit our inmate friend in jail and to worship with our friends on Palm Sunday. (We made it to the brunch, too.) Next year, we vow, we’ll come earlier still. We’ll park at the office and walk over.

I’m hooked. I confess I cannot resist the pleas of my loving wife. She is right. This beauty must be seen and savored.

Religious Freedom Day: January 16, 1786

by Robert Morrison

January 16, 2014

Today’s commemoration of Religious Freedom Day is important because of what a state legislature did in the early republic. This day in 1786 saw the final passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The bill had worldwide influence. From that time to this, it represents the height of Enlightenment thinking on the crucial role of religious liberty as the solid foundation of a free state.

Thomas Jefferson had first introduced the bill in the Virginia General Assembly in 1779. But the Commonwealth of Virginia was then in the throes of the War of Independence, and British invaders were threatening the state. Action was delayed on this measure until 1785 when Jefferson’s friend and closest political ally, James Madison, skillfully moved the measure through the legislature.

Reporting by letter to Mr. Jefferson, who was by this time America’s Minister to France, Madison said — in his quaint eighteenth century spelling — that it would “add to the lustre of our country.” Jefferson fully agreed and delightedly had the Statute translated into French for full distribution on the continent of Europe. The influence of this document spread far and wide.

Jefferson had offered this bill as a way of establishing religious freedom. We need better to appreciate what was meant by that word. In every civilized country during the time of Jefferson and Madison, parliaments and royal courts established the country’s religion. The “established” Church of England was the only church legally recognized throughout the British Empire and the only one supported by taxes. The best that dissenter Protestants, Catholics, and Jews could hope for in England was toleration.

Toleration meant that you could practice your religion, mostly in private, without harassment from royal authorities. Public celebration of the Catholic Mass was illegal in England. Catholics, Jews, and dissenting Protestants were ineligible to vote, to hold office, or even to serve as a commissioned officer in the Army or the Royal Navy. A religious test was required. Those who were unwilling to pledge even a nominal allegiance to the King’s Church of England were disqualified.

France, our ally in the Revolution, was no better. There, the Catholic Church was established and Protestants and Jews had no civil rights. Holland was perhaps the most enlightened country in Europe, but even for the liberal Dutch, toleration was the guiding principle.

When the great patriot George Mason drafted Virginia’s Declaration of Rights during the Revolution, he first included in it language supporting the broadest “toleration” for all religions. Young James Madison, in his modest and self-effacing way, had persuaded Mason instead to use the phrase “free exercise of religion.” It was Mason’s document that Jefferson used as a reference in writing the American Declaration of Independence.

Madison had no stronger ally in the fight for the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom than Elder John Leland, a leader of the Old Dominion’s Baptists. These evangelical Protestants had been brutally mistreated under the colonial government of Virginia. Their refusal to tell Church of England clerics where they would preach and to whom they would preach landed a number of Baptist preachers in jail.

In establishing religious freedom for the first time anywhere in the world, the Virginia Statute said that our worship of our Creator was a matter between us and our God. It said we had a duty to worship but the manner and means of that worship were a recognized right of conscience. It freed citizens from paying taxes to support churches they did not attend and doctrines they did not believe. None of the peoples’ rights as citizens would be infringed because of their membership in a particular church body, synagogue, or other “religious society.”

Finally, the Virginia Statute stated in emphatic terms that it recognized the power of succeeding legislatures to amend or repeal portions of the Statute. The authors nonetheless asserted that should any part of the Virginia Statute be diluted or repealed, it would be a violation of a fundamental human right.

The importance of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom cannot be overestimated. Its spirit breathes in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — also a handiwork of James Madison. In the nineteenth century, millions of European immigrants would be drawn to our shores in the knowledge that in America, their faith would be respected and their right to free exercise of religion protected.

Here lies Thomas Jefferson, author of the American Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia,” reads the epitaph on the Founder’s grave marker. He wrote it himself. Modestly, he added no word about two terms as president, or a long string of offices and titles conferred upon him. Those were gifts of the people to me, he explained, but these were my gifts to them.

Today, America’s religious freedom is in the gravest danger since 1786. The HHS Mandate will force millions of us to aid in the destruction of the inalienable right to life. It violates our consciences and threatens our free exercise of religion.

Our own State Department, forgetting the legacy of two of our ablest Secretaries of State — Jefferson and Madison — has pressured constitution writers in Iraq and Afghanistan to establish Islamist states in which the rights of religious minorities are nowhere respected nor are their lives secure. No wonder our efforts in those strife-torn countries have come to naught.

There’s nothing new under the sun,” said President Harry Truman, “just history we haven’t learned yet.” His words should serve as a warning and a spur to his successor in the White House and the diplomats at State. Even if they have not learned our history, we must remember it.

Jefferson Underrated?

by Robert Morrison

August 16, 2013

My college friend sent me this article from the New York Times on the death from lung cancer of the eminent historian, Pauline Maier. Her passing is indeed a loss. I’m only one of thousands of readers who highly praise her study of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Her title for that valuable work was American Scripture

The Times’ headline announcing Prof. Maier’s (MAY-erz) passing is one of the strangest I’ve seen—historian who described Jefferson as ‘Overrated’… With that, and even acknowledging Prof. Maier’s stature, I take sharp issue.

We are so indebted to Thomas Jefferson we hardly know where to begin. For example, if you live in one of the states west of the Appalachians, you have never had a concern about your home state having lesser standing than one of the Original Thirteen. Your religious and civil liberties are the same as those Americans who hail from the Atlantic Seaboard.

We can say that now. It was by no means obvious in the eighteenth century—or in the seventeen centuries prior to 1776. In the course of human events, colonies were founded by Mother Countries. It would not have been out of line, therefore, if Illinois (and some thirty-six other “daughters” of the Original Thirteen) had been treated as colonies of the new American republic.

That the new states carved out of virgin territories in the west would be regarded as fully equal to the Original Thirteen is an amazing innovation in human history. Thomas Jefferson was a persistent driver of the idea that territories become fully equal states.

It is one of the things that makes America exceptional. It is why we became “an Empire for Liberty.” But we take it for granted.

Another example: Look at the news from Britain this summer: A royal baby was born in London. There’s a new law that says had Prince George been Princess Alexandra, this child would still be first in line to inherit the throne.

But why should the first-born inherit everything? Primogeniture. We hardly know the word. And that’s because Thomas Jefferson the reviser of Virginia’s laws abolished Primogeniture. And his example was carried across the country.

One of the reasons I think some of our best scholars view Jefferson as “overrated” may be because they underrate religious freedom. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was introduced by Jefferson in Richmond in 1779 and carried through to final passage by his closest friend, James Madison, in 1786.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was and is a model for the world. Look at this morning’s headlines from Cairo, from Damascus, from Baghdad. Because these Muslim lands do not respect religious freedom, they are forever convulsed in “sectarian strife.” It’s as if Mideast Turmoil has been painted on our TV screens.

Our State Department did not share with Iraq or Afghanistan America’s own experience from Jefferson and Madison. Instead, we encouraged them to write constitutions that established Islamist states. And the violence we see is the inevitable result of that failure. The State Department treats religious freedom rather as the star on top of the Christmas tree—instead as the vital root system that is required for the tree to live.

I am especially indebted to Jefferson for an understanding of the right to life. His draft of the Declaration makes clear we are “Created equal” and “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

For forty years, the elites in the United States have been denying the right to life. Roe v. Wade is based on the infamous lie that we do not know, can not know, when human life begins. Of course, we have known all along. That is why they must engage in “semantic gymnastics” to deceive people about the truth.

The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government,” Jefferson wrote. And how do life and liberty relate? “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.”

Underrating Jefferson is part of the ongoing liberal project. If they can de-legitimize the Founding, they can persuade people to go along with their project of “fundamentally transforming” America.

The Founding Fathers were not gods. Nor were they even, pace Mr. Jefferson, “an assembly of demi-gods.” But they were determined to place this country, under God, on a firm foundation.

The Obama administration is trying to transform America with Obamacare, intentionally driving making us over into a socialist republic But they cannot even make their own machine work. That is why they have to grant innumerable waivers and delays. Some of the groups that most eagerly sought the re-election of this administration are the first to seek an escape—from Obamacare.

Abraham Lincoln did not underrate Jefferson. Nor did Lincoln undervalue the Declaration of Independence. Alerted to a credible assassination plot in February, 1861, the President-elect nonetheless insisted on appearing at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on George Washington’s Birthday. He raised an American flag on that site and exclaimed, with uncharacteristic emotion:

I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. (Great cheering.) I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here and adopted that Declaration of Independence… It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. (Great applause.) It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. (Cheers.) This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.

Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world if I can help to save it. If it can’t be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But, if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle–I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it (Applause)…I have said nothing but what I am willing to live by, and, in the pleasure of Almighty God, die by.

Lincoln’s passion, the cause for which he was willing to die, should animate us. And it should persuade us not to underrate those Jeffersonian principles throughout our lives.

President Endorses Intelligent Design!

by Robert Morrison

April 8, 2013

In a letter of this date, a two-term President of the United States, writing to his predecessor, wrote this:

…the Theist, pointing to the heavens above, and to the earth beneath, and to the waters under the earth, asked if these did not proclaim a first cause, possessing intelligence and power; power in the production, and intelligence in the design, and constant preservation of the system; urged the palpable existence of final causes, that the eye was made to see, and the ear to hear, and not that we see because we have eyes, and hear because we have ears…

Well, as you will readily discern, dear reader, this is not President Obama’s or President George W. Bush’s accustomed style of writing.

This letter, dated April 8, 1816, was penned by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and addressed to his reconciled friend, John Adams. It’s worth parsing the eighteenth century language because it’s a keen insight into the minds of our Founding Fathers.

In this letter, the former president, Thomas Jefferson, one of the leading scientific minds of his day, rejects the atheism of some of the French philosophes with whom he shared so many ideas. He ascribes to the Creator “power in the production, intelligence in the design, and constant preservation of the system…”

Jefferson’s ideas of Intelligent Design were put to a court test in Dover, Pennsylvania, in 2005. The federal judge in that case came down hard against any students in the public schools learning what Jefferson actually believed about origins of our universe. The judge found Mr. Jefferson’s reasoning a form of religious indoctrination that was wholly unconstitutional.

Today, liberals routinely cite Jefferson’s “Letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptists as their source for all church-state jurisprudence. No matter that they have completely twistified (Jefferson’s own word) what he thought and what he wrote.

Noted author Eric Metaxas shows where such twistifying leads. It leads to a doctrine of religious freedom that is narrowly construed to permit “freedom of worship” and which at the same time comes down hard on “free exercise.” The First Amendment doesn’t just guarantee freedom of worship. It is broader than that.

Here’s a portion of Eric Metaxas’s recent speech at CPAC:

Let me begin with my hometown, Danbury, CT. Some of you know that Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptists in [1802], in which he uses the phrase “separation of church and state” — and in case there is anyone who doesn’t know it, the sense in which Jefferson uses that phrase is actually the opposite of how it’s generally thought of today. Today we often hear that it means that the state needs to be protected from religion, and that religion should have no place in government or society.

Jefferson and the Founders thought the opposite. They knew that the State was always tempted to take over everything — including the religious side of people’s lives. So they put a protection in the Constitution that the government could not favor any religion over another… and could not prohibit the free exercise of religion.

They wanted churches and religions to be protected from the government — from Leviathan. Why? Because they knew that what people believed and their freedom to live out and practice one’s most deeply held beliefs was at the very heart of this radical and fragile experiment they had just launched into the world.

Okay, so where are the threats to Religious Freedom in America today? Well, for one thing, understand we are not talking about Freedom of Worship. In a speech 18 months ago, Hillary Clinton replaced the phrase Freedom of Religion with Freedom of Worship — and my hero and friend Chuck Colson noticed and was disturbed by it. Why? Because these are radically different things. They have Freedom of Worship in China. But what exactly is Freedom of Worship?

In my book Bonhoeffer I talk about a meeting between Bonhoeffer’s friend, the Rev. Martin Niemoller, who early on in the Third Reich was one of those fooled by Hitler. And in that meeting he says something to Hitler about how he, Niemoller, cares about Germany and Third Reich — and Hitler cuts him off and says “I built the Third Reich. You just worry about your sermons!”

There in a few words you have the idea of Freedom of Worship. Freedom of Worship says you can have your little strange rituals and say whatever you like in your little religious buildings for an hour or two on Sundays, but once you leave that building you will bow to the secular orthodoxy of the state! We will tell you what to think on the big and important questions. Questions like when life begins and who gets to decide when to end it and what marriage is… And if you don’t like it, tough luck! That’s Freedom of Worship and that have that in China and they had it in Germany in Bonhoeffer’s day…

Freedom of Worship is limited to the four walls of your church or synagogue. It creates the “naked public square” that the late Richard John Neuhaus warned about. It crushes civil society and puts everything under the power of the all-encompassing State.

In 2010, in celebration of the Fourth of July, the National Archives breathlessly informed us they had found an early draft of the Declaration of Independence. In that rough draft, Thomas Jefferson scratched out the word Subjects and replaced it with Citizens. The archivists were right to point to the significance of this change of language. It was the first time we Americans thought of ourselves as Citizens of a republic and not Subjects of a king.

Citizens govern themselves. Subjects have to obey Mandates from a distant HHS. Citizens have a right to free exercise of religion. Subjects are granted mere freedom of worship by the overawing power of the State.

Is it the Fourth?

by Robert Morrison

July 4, 2012

I recall finishing David McCulloughs excellent John Adams onJuly 4, 2001. A great thunderstorm broke overAnnapolis that afternoon. The violent wind and rain, thunder and lightning were the perfect accompaniment to the storm that attended the greatAdamss departure, July 4, 1826.

In a powerful coda to his life, he died on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. No one did more to bring about American Independence that this blunt-spoken man fromMassachusetts. Lawyer, patriot, Member of Congress, and diplomat, John Adams was born to lead and men naturally turned to him, even when they didnt especially like him. Men generally respect hard work and no one worked harder than John Adams. In the Continental Congress, he served on scores of committees, including the essential committee that dealt with the Army and the Navy. (Today, those who say the repeal of the misnamed Dont ask/Dont tell policy overturned the law Bill Clinton signed in 1993 are wrong. The ban actually dates from John Adamss rules for the Army and Navy, written in 1775. Adamss ban was older than the country.)

John Adams was such a selfless fighter for Independencethat he nominated Col. George Washington to be Commander-in-Chief of the Army, thereby putting off a key Massachusetts ally, John Hancock. As President of Congress, Hancock coveted the command for himself. But Hancock joined the other delegates in electing Washington unanimously. Adams also selected the tall, lanky young Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, to draft the Declaration of Independence. His reasoning, as he later recorded it, was typical of bluff, honest John Adams:

  1. That [Jefferson] was a Virginian and I a Massachusettensian. 2. That he was a southern Man and I a northern one. 3. That I had become so obnoxious for my early and constant Zeal in promoting [Independence] that any [draft] of mine would undergo more severe Scrutiny and Criticism in Congress than one of his composition. 4thly and lastly that would be reason enough if there were no other, I had a great Opinion of the Elegance of his pen and none at all of my own….

How can we not love this man? There, he shows us his candid heart. He proves to us that he has no elegance in his pen. Massachusettensian? Good grief! Thank you, John, for tapping Mr. Jefferson for this historic task.

John Adams a diplomat? He was a disaster in Paris. The French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, couldnt stand the man. Adams worked through the nights as Benjamin Franklin partied. The aged sage engaged in witty repartee with Frances leading philosophes (and in naughty badinage with some of Paris leading ladies). It reflects badly on blunt John that he became resentful of the great Dr. Franklin. Franklin, in turn, parried John Adamss complaints to Congress. He deemed his younger New England compatriot a good man, a wise man, in all an honest man. He generously conceded Adamss patriotism. But in some things in some ways, absolutely out of his mind.

Fortunately for us, Adams was driven from France to Holland. There, he negotiated a wonderful treaty with the Dutch that provided what we would today call a bridge loan, a vitally needed one. It was doubtless a great achievement. But when Adams wrote to Congress claiming to be the Washington of diplomacy, the delegates all laughed heartily at his expense.

When David McCullough gave a presentation on his book here at the National Press Club, I pressed him on Adams and the Titles Crisis. As the first Vice President of the United States, John Adams took up a full six weeks of the time of the first Senate meeting in New York with long and wearisome lectures on the importance of giving highfalutin titles to our elected officials. Adams wanted Washington to have the title His High Mightiness, President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties. George Washington wanted no such thing. And for advocating it, Adams made himself look ridiculous. Jefferson was appalled. His old revolutionary colleague must have become deranged during his years as our minister to Great Britain. Behind his back, Adams got a title he didnt want: His Rotundity.

McCullough smoothly and wittily waved me away. Well, you know, Adams was a flinty New Englander. He knew everyone wants to be noticed. And he figured titles were a cheap way of giving politicians distinction. The urbane McCullough brushed off my question and got a good laugh doing so.

But it points out the problem with Honest John. Today, everyone quotes the Founders. And we should. The Federalist Papers are cited daily (most recently in the dissents from John Roberts egregious decision in NFIB v. Sebelius). Nobody cites John Adamss Discourses on Davila. In those long, turgid commentaries, Adams gives vent to his suspicions of the people.

While we hail John Adamss 1780 Massachusetts Constitutionand we shouldwe must note that it has a radical defect: the people of the Bay State cannot amend that splendid document without getting permission from state legislators. And that is the reason weve never had a referendum on true marriage in Massachusetts!

Having said all this, why still honor Adams? Because he was the Colossus of Independence. He worked without ceasing for the freedom of our country. He and his cousin Samuel were shrewd enough to maneuver around the anti-Independence Pennsylvania delegates to the Second Continental Congress. Their Massachusetts machine even reached out to German-speaking Pennsylvania farmers with Der Alarm, a newsletter pushing for election of a pro-Independence slate of delegates. Without their constant labors within Congress and without, its doubtful all of Jeffersons fine words and Washingtons noble sacrifices would have achieved the political result of Independence.

When a delegation approached the 90-year old Adamsfor a blessing and a quote on the eve of that 50th Anniversary Independence Day, the great patriot could only croak: Independence Forever!

Its all he had to say. On that Glorious Fourth, the last day of his life, Adams said: Thomas Jefferson still survives. Four hundred miles away, Thomas Jefferson at 83 also lay dying. He had asked his family Is it the Fourth? When told it was, he gave up the ghost.

When these two great Founders died on the same day, there was of course no Breaking News to flash the word instantly. It took some weeks before the whole nation knew. Modern historians are inclined to say that some Americans at that time saw the hand of Providence in the deaths of the two great Founders on the Nations Fiftieth Birthday. Yes, and some of us still do.

Two Hours with Mr. Jefferson

by Robert Morrison

March 16, 2012

Historical interpreter Bill Barker returned to Annapolis last week for what he said was Mr. Jeffersons fifth visit to Marylands capital. The real Thomas Jefferson only came through four times. But in two hours, Barkers Mr. Jefferson character had us almost believing wed enjoyed the stimulating conversation of our former president. The role requires extensive study of the vast volume of writings about Thomas Jefferson and Bill Barker has mastered, it seems, all of it.

Without notes, without any props, or prompting, this Mr. Jefferson invited eight hundred Marylanders in the Key Auditorium of St. Johns College to imagine they lived in the world of 1812. It was a time when most humans traveled by foot—your own God-given two legs—at three miles per hour. The wealthy could afford horsesand they averaged four miles per hour.

Mr. Jefferson held forth on politics, his own eras and by sly inferences, our own. His election as president was not an easy thing in 1800. Under the Constitution as it was originally framed, the Electoral College selected the candidate receiving the highest number of Electoral Votes as president and the man with the second highest number as vice president. Provided, of course, that the presidential winner received a majority of the Electoral Votes cast.

In 1796, the first contested presidential election, the one to succeed the unanimously chosen George Washington, John Adams narrowly edged out Thomas Jefferson. They served, unevenly yoked, for four years.

In 1800, Jeffersons republican party was such a disciplined machine that it produced a tie in the Electoral College. President John Adams was defeated, that much was sure. Who would succeed him? Would it be Thomas Jefferson or his presumed running mate, Aaron Burr of New York. Burr could easily have settled the matter by stepping aside and urging his backers to stay with Jefferson. He didnt.

Our Jefferson character at the Key Auditorium related how the election of 1800 was then thrown into the House of Representatives. There, it required thirty-six ballots before Jefferson emerged victorious. Aaron Burr, for his finagling, earned the lasting distrust of all Jeffersonians.

Bill Barker spoke of this 1800 election and said that some at the time had suggested sending the contest to the Judiciary for decision. His audience roared with laughter as he asked, with a knowing aside: Who could ever come up with such an absurd notion?

I suspected then that our audience was filled with folks still sore at the outcome of Bush v. Gore in the U.S. Supreme Court. And I had to agree with Jefferson that the U.S. House of Representativesthat body closest to the peoplewould be the appropriate place to resolve such a contest. If only we could have gotten the election of 2000 to the House.

The question-and-answer period provided some new insights into the historical Thomas Jefferson. For example, I had not known that Jefferson recommended Benjamin Banneker to the builders of the new District of Columbia for employment. The reason this was significant is that Jefferson was taken to task in a polite but firm way by the inventor Banneker, a free black man, for some of his writings in his Notes on Virginia. In the only book he ever published, Thomas Jefferson advanced ideas of inferiority of black people to whites in some things. If some people today think white men cant jump, many whites then thought black men couldnt compute. Bannekers almanac and numerous inventions proved them wrong. Jefferson, to his credit, accepted Benjamin Bannekers rebuke with grace and even sent copies of the Banneker almanac on to his friends among the French scientific community.

Before we yell racist at Jefferson, we need to recall that some famous French philosophes thought all Americansblack, white, and Indianwere inferior, and even of smaller stature. Jefferson in Paris had refuted that notion by inviting the Americans at his dinner table to standall of the men were over six feet talland then asking their French guests to stand; each of the Frenchmen was considerably shorter.

A predictable question in this navy town was about Jeffersons decision as president to beach most of the fleet. He didnt back down, saying that he opposed standing armies and navies and thought they might even lead to builders of ships and arms combining to influence government. Imagine that: A military-industrial complex warned against one hundred fifty years before President Eisenhowers Farewell Address.

Mr. Jefferson did claim credit for sending the U.S. Navy and Marines against the Barbary Pirates. He was unwilling to pay tribute to these Muslim kidnapers and hostage takers.

But as soon as our Marines had taken the fight to the shores of Tripoli, and won, Jefferson brought them home again. He was not willing to engage in nation-building in Muslim lands. Thats worth considering. Might that prove too costly?

When we lived at the Naval Academy fourteen years ago, Bill Barker was a guest in our home overnight on New Years Eve. I remember teasing himslightly, for he is never really out of charactersaying he had every one of Mr. Jeffersons mannerisms and traits mastered except one.

Somewhat taken aback, Bill Barker asked what that was. You have a sense of humor, I replied. Thats because in fifty years of studying Jefferson, I had never read a joke attributed to the Sage of Monticello. Now, I think I was wrong. Because Mr. Jefferson never wrote anything funny does not mean he did not share witty asides in conversation, or that he did not fully appreciate wit in others. That counts as humor, too.

Bravo, Mr. Jefferson!



  • Jeffersons republicans were to become todays Democratic Party. Todays Republican Party can trace its lineage to Jeffersons opponents, the Federalists. Confusing enough?

Im Pro-Life Because…

by Robert Morrison

January 20, 2011

Im pro-life because Thomas Jefferson was. Whats that, you say? Jefferson never spoke about abortion. Of course not. Surgical abortion was so dangerous prior until about 1800 that it killed the mother as well as the unborn child. But Jefferson was assuredly pro-life.

The care of human life and happiness is the first and only legitimate object of good government, he wrote when he was president. They had a balanced budget then, because the president had his priorities straight. In 1774, young Jefferson had written the god who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time. That was his ringing phrase in the Summary View of the Rights of British America. God gives us life; God gives us liberty. Pretty clear. Later, of course, Jefferson would give us his best lines: …all men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Under the misrule of Roe v. Wade, 52 million Americans have been denied their inalienable right to life. It is, as it has been from the beginning, wholly illegitimate. Jefferson thought there should be more Americans, not fewer. When he purchased the Louisiana Territory, he said there would be room enough on those fruited plains for Americans to the hundredth generation.

Im pro-life because Benjamin Franklin was. Well, if you were the tenth son of your father, youd probably be pro-life, too. Franklin, we know, was not always chaste. He had a child out of wedlock. And he immediately brought him into the family circle, where he raised his son as his own. When that son also had a son out of wedlock, Benjamin loved and cherished this grandson and kept him close to his heart. I dont recommend this as a way of enlarging a family, but it is surely a pro-life sentiment to love and guide your flesh and blood. Franklin, too, welcomed more Americans. In 1762, before we were even a nation, he calculated what our population might be one hundred twenty years thence.

He predicted that America would be home to 162 million people in 1882. The U.S. Census of 1880 showed Old Ben to have been off by less than one percent! When Dr. Franklin served in Paris, he rode out in his carriage to see the first manned ascent in a hot-air balloon. Fashionable French women fainted to see the balloon rise high above Versailles. (Well, maybe it was those tight corsets or those heavy hairpieces.) Four hundred thousand Frenchmen had come out to see the great event. Someone in the crowd was skeptical, however. They asked Dr. Franklin of what practical use the manned balloon was. With a twinkle in his eye, the most practical man in the world replied: Of what practical use is a newborn baby? Now, thats pro-life!

Im pro-life because George Washington was. He spoke often of his hopes for America, for millions yet unborn. He noted, in words that were not included in his First Inaugural, but which revealed his heart, that he and Martha had not been blessed with children.

One of Washingtons successors seems to think of childrenat least those born out of wedlock as Franklins son and grandson wereas punishments. Washington knew that children are a blessing from the Lord, and said so. Washington looked West, as Jefferson did, so that America could have room to expand, room to become the haven for the oppressed of many lands. No one comes to America to do away with their unborn children.

In signing the Constitution, Washington joined with the childless James Madison in seeking the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. Now, just who might these men have been thinking about if they did not have children of their own? Us. They thought of us as their posterity. Pro-lifers care about our posterity. We welcome every child in life and work to see them protected in law.

Im pro-life because Lincoln was. He rejoiced that Americas population was growingeven in the dreadful days of civil war and slaughterLincoln welcomed the swelling chorus of the Union. He had put the slavery issue in this context: Nothing stamped in the divine image was sent into the world to be trod upon. FRC welcomed President Obama to Washington with those words and this most civil and respectful question: Are not unborn children so stamped?

Im pro-life because Ronald Reagan, my great chief, was pro-life. In fact, Reagan was the first president to use the term pro-life. He wasnt just anti-abortion, as the liberal media constantly said. He understood that being pro-life inspired us to oppose abortion and euthanasiaas well as standing up to an evil empire that killed to keep itself in power.

It was Reagan who said abortion is a great wound in the soul of America.

And, yes, Im pro-life because, more than any of these, Jesus is pro-life: I came that they might have life and have it abundantly. His Word tells us therefore choose life.

Do we need a better reason?

Why Jefferson Matters

by Robert Morrison

April 13, 2010

Actor, historical interpreter Bill Barker says its the question he gets at every audience. Barker, of Colonial Williamsburg, plays the role of Thomas Jefferson. The question, of course, is: Didnt Jefferson have children by his slave, Sally Hemings? The answer, in all likelihood, is that some Jefferson sired children by Sally.

Despite the calumnies of two hundred years, it has never been proven against Thomas Jefferson. The 2001 Final Report of the Scholars Commission on the Jefferson-Hemings Matter notes that the DNA testing done in 1998 pointed the finger at Thomas Jefferson no more than it did at any of the other roughly two dozen known male descendants of Jeffersons grandfather present in Virginia at the time.

But, as Mark Twain said, a lie can travel `round the world before truth gets its pants on. Its most unfortunate when today, even Judge Andrew Napolitano takes it as a given that Jefferson was a hypocrite and may even have been a rapist. How could she give consent, the judge asks. The Scholars Commission was composed of recognized historians, political scientists, and lawyers. The 15-member panel concludedwith but one dissentthat Thomas Jefferson was not guilty. Youd think that Judge Napolitano would consider such a verdict from such a distinguished panel before doubting Thomas.

Who cares? All of those spoken of in this story are long dead. What difference does it make? A lot. The story of Jeffersons supposed affair with Sally Hemings gained new life at the very time that William Jefferson Clinton was facing impeachment by the House of Representatives. Clinton had become involved in a sex scandal with a 21-year old intern. Many writers and talkers at the time greeted the news with relish. It was as if they could now say: See, they all do it. Well, no they dont.

The only other Presidents who were seriously suspected of adulterous liaisons while they occupied the highest office were Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. FDR was known to have discreetly visited with his former mistress, Lucy Rutherford, during the last year of his life. But it is by no means certain that it was an adulterous relationship at that point. Roosevelts congestive heart failure, his rapidly declining health suggest otherwise. Thats a pretty small number out of forty-four Chief Executives.

The reason why this story is so damaging is that it is a part of the project of contemporary liberalism to denigrate the Founders and what they founded. They held slaves. They denied women the vote. Therefore, we are constantly told, we dont need to pay any attention to what they thought. Our Constitution needs to be a living document, a thing of putty in their hands, they argue.

On slaveholding, why do we think it wrong? In the eighteenth century, most nations in the world held slaves. The horrific Atlantic Slave Trade was deplored by all, but slaveholding itself was defended by many respectable thinkers.

Thomas Jefferson was not among them. He cried out against slavery and the execrable traffic of the Slave Trade. He did more than that. He worked against slavery.

He placed a denunciation of King for protecting the Slave Trade in the Declaration of Independence. It was taken out. Not because the other Signers approved the Slave Trade, but because they recognized their own involvement with it.

Still, Jefferson gave us the ringing phrase All men are Created Equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Everyone knew then that a nation so conceived and so dedicated could not forever countenance human bondage. Abolitionists quoted Jeffersons words from the start. The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time, was another of Jeffersons immortal phrases.

Jefferson, as a member of the Congress, advanced bills to prevent slavery from spreading beyond the Appalachians. One of those bills failed by just one vote. Jefferson cried out in anguish Heaven itself was silent in that awful moment. At least, he could claim some credit for stopping slavery in the territory north of the Ohio River. The Old Northwest Ordinance was one of the greatest accomplishments of the United States under the Articles of Confederation.

As President, Jefferson appealed to Congress to end the Atlantic Slave Trade. He asked Congress to act in 1806, letting the law come into effect on January 1, 1808, the first opportunity afforded under a compromise in the original Constitution. He didnt have to do it. The Constitution said no law could be passed before that date. It did not say such a law must be passed. But President Jefferson pleaded for its passage. In doing so, he used the strongest anti-slavery language of any President prior to Abraham Lincoln.

We all honor Britains great Evangelical anti-Slavery leader, William Wilberforce. And we should. But Wilberforces epochal effort to ban the Atlantic Slave Trade would have come to nothing if President Jefferson had not acted for the United States. Think of two blades of a scissors. How bad was the Atlantic Slave Trade? Horrific. Human beings were crowdedsometimes 600 to 800 to a ship. Naked, chained, fed barely enough to keep them alive, the slaves would be thrown overboard if their ship was approached by a Royal Navy squadron bent on enforcing the ban. Wilberforce once showed fashionable Londoners a slave ship. Six hundred souls departed West Africa. Only two hundred were still alive after a seven-week journey to the British West Indies. The worst Southern plantation in 250 years of unrequited toil never produced such inhuman horrors.

Writing those immortal words to inspire liberty-loving reformers and banning the Atlantic Slave Trade ought to have gained Jefferson gratitude. But he failed to free his own slaves. Unlike Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, he died in debt and was unable to reach their moral heights by providing a powerful example for liberty.

When I took seven different classes of interns to Monticello, I would always stand on Mr. Jeffersons lawn and disagree with the great George Will. Will had written that Thomas Jefferson lived as a free man ought to live. He meant, of course, Jefferson was constantly thinking, constantly writing, constantly creating. No, I told those young students: John Adams lived as free man ought to live. He never freed his slaves because he never owned any.

Still, on Jeffersons birthday we should reflect on what his legacy is. Freedom from monarchy and aristocracy, republican institutions, religious liberty, education open to talented students regardless of their social standing or economic meansall of these are but part of what Thomas Jefferson bequeathed to us. Do we deny the great phrase he employedthe right to life? Endowed by our Creator?

Ever wonder why a man born in Hawaii has just as much right to run for President as a man or woman born in the original Thirteen States? Its because Jefferson led the way in treating new territories as fully equal states, not as colonies. By contrast, only in 1982 was Canada permitted to write her own laws without getting a sign-off from Mother England. Today, when we seem to be giving billions in foreign aid to Muslim-dominated states, supposedly to enlist them in a war on terror, its worth remembering that President Jefferson fought Muslim hostage-takers rather than continue paying tribute to them.

No wonder that Frederick Douglass quoted Jefferson regularly in his own great crusade against slavery. Or that Abraham Lincoln was willing to say:

All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

What did these great men, these champions of freedom, born in Jeffersons own time, know about him that too many today have forgotten? I thank God for the life of Thomas Jefferson.

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