July 10, 2010
That Magic MomentBy Elihu Perkins
Once, we could count on the wire services and news syndicates for the same thing when Independence Day rolled around. They would provide us any number of features giving positive, sometimes flag-waving accounts of the people important to the nation's founding.
It's not like that now. Every July 4, it seems the members of the journalism community compete feverishly to uncover some new, disillusioning blemish to rush into print about one of the Founders.
Lauren Sausser of the Associated Press won the appalling sweepstakes this year. Her target for takedown was Thomas Jefferson. He always makes a gratifying double score for today's ink-stained wretches because of his placement both on the nation's coinage and in a public shrine in the nation's capital.
Sausser's bosses at the wire service were also apparently pretty thrilled by what she wrote. This latest slur against the Sage of Monticello so excited the AP that it just couldn't hold its water. It opened the sluice gates a couple of days early. Apparently, the AP wanted to make sure its smear had the benefit of the full holiday weekend to soak deeply and thoroughly saturate the public consciousness.
As usual, when AP writers speak about a dead white male like Jefferson -- otherwise known as the scum of the earth; I think that definition's officially in the AP stylebook now -- the first thing that Sausser does is paint him as something he wasn't. The towering Enlightenment genius we all know is nowhere in her lede. Instead, Lauren Sausser follows the company line and thrusts an intellectual weakling at us.
According to her copy, the hard-charging boys and girls at the Library of Congress at last have smoked out and unmasked the real, quivering, jelly-like Jefferson. According to Sausser, the document preservationists there have determined that Jefferson had difficulty breaking with the mindset of being a monarchical subject.
It's then we get to the meat of the story. As many are aware, modern science, with computers, laser beams, and high-resolution digital whatnots, can now scan old parchments and pull from them everything seen and unseen. This includes things like fingerprints and emendations their authors believed gone forever.
In this case, the Library of Congress discovered that Jefferson, while working on an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, first described the individual members of the political body of Americans as "subjects." He then effaced that word, replacing it with the term "citizens."
Sausser tells us that the Library of Congress made the announcement on Friday. So the timing for this was the LOC's. But it's unfair to hang what turned into a July 4 disgrace on the librarians. They seemed joyful about what they had turned up. In a press release from the LOC, one of its scientists called the find "spine-tingling."
The librarians said that Jefferson apparently rubbed out the word while the ink was still wet on the page. "It shows the progress of his mind," Librarian of Congress James Billington said, quoted by AOL News. "This was a decisive moment. We recovered a magic moment that was otherwise lost to history."
So it is wrong to blame them for the smear that AP promoted. In rolling this out when they did, the librarians were just naïve. They didn't expect to be stabbed in the back by the press. For how did the press characterize the change Jefferson made?
Check the headline on the story. The familiar, denigrating mindset's there. The full headline reads, "Thomas Jefferson made slip in Declaration."
That's a long way from how the librarians saw it. Or the way any good American would. If anything, the discovery is just another indication of what a genius Thomas Jefferson was and how lucky we were to have him when we did.
Imagine the pressure he was under. There was the misery of that blistering hot summer in Philadelphia. There was the responsibility of trying to find the right words to explain to the world why England's American colonies had risen in armed revolt. There must also have been Jefferson's gnawing apprehension of knowing that by being a part of this, he was almost certainly putting his head in a noose if things went bad.
And yet, with all of that weighing on him, Thomas Jefferson was right there all the time, thinking. If what the Library of Congress tells us is correct, he knew -- he knew -- the moment that he wrote the accustomed word "subjects" that it was wrong, that it no longer fit what Americans were becoming.
No longer were they to be subjects to the whims of others, born to be their superiors, Jefferson knew. They each instead would be responsible for themselves. Further, their collective destiny from this moment was theirs to shape into whatever form it would become.
No, Americans were not subjects any longer, Jefferson realized. They were citizens because their lives would now be their own in a way perhaps unknown for all of human history.
Liberty was within their grasp.
Magic moment? Yeah, you could say that. For in less time than it took for a single word in a hot room to dry on a piece of paper, Thomas Jefferson apprehended the future for his country, and then illuminated it for the world, again with a single word.
That, my friends, is genius.
Magic moment? Absolutely. In changing that word, Jefferson began molding what would become that most wonderful of all new things: The American.
For from that moment in 1776 to this one, the blaze of that single flash of realization has formed us as a people. In the years since, that seemingly small change has gone into us and mixed and amalgamated in our blood and bone.
That spark from Thomas Jefferson has become the key assumption of our civic souls. It is now so much a part of us that we take it for granted. Often, we don't even know where it comes from. We just know it's there, inside us, always.
We are not subjects; we are citizens.
That's why those annoying tea parties aren't going away, no matter how much some would like for that to happen.
For that's what's at the bottom of them.
Many Americans have gotten this feeling that there are an awful lot of people around who would like very much for that longstanding situation that Jefferson put into play to change. They suspect that there are those who want nothing less than to demote them, that these forces want them to regress from being citizens and to become mere, abject subjects of their government.
Americans don't like it when people try that.
They don't like it because they are Americans.