My Fourth of July Conversation with Thomas Jefferson

Posted on 07/09/2012 at 5:16pm

A’Lelia Bundles with Thomas Jefferson re-enactor Steve Edenbo (Credit: Lauren V. Burke)

“As we listen to more voices, we’ll hear a greater harmony. At times we will hear a more complicated dissonance, too. The problem solves itself, however; for when we invite more sources of insight and information into our fold, we will simultaneously increase our ability to understand the conflicts both in our history as well as in our present.”  Steve Edenbo, Thomas Jefferson interpreter, July 8, 2012

One of the delights of the National Archives’s annual Fourth of July celebration is the chance to mingle with the Revolutionary War era re-enactors. Thomas Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin. Abigail Adams. Edward “Ned” Hector. John Adams.

Revolutionary War era re-enactors at the National Archives July 4, 2012 (NARA photo)

Each stays in character and is deeply immersed in the biographical knowledge of his or her character. They are so adept at making history come alive that it is easy to be transported to the 18th century. At the same time, we know that out of costume these actors are people equipped with 21st century sensibilities and the advantage of historical context.

Abigail Adams re-enactor Kim Hanley with A’Lelia Bundles (NATA photo)

When I was preparing my remarks for my Fourth of July keynote  at the National Archives this year, I knew I wanted to talk not just about the Founding Fathers, but about the Founding Mothers and Founding Citizens. I wanted to give voice to the people whose rights were not included in the original Declaration of Independence and to recognize the black soldiers who had served with the Continental Army. At the same time, I wanted to acknowledge the brilliance of the document and the committee members who composed it. I couldn’t ignore the contradictions of the times or of the 56 signers on issues of slavery, women’s rights and the treatment of Native Americans. And yet I wanted to claim my right to celebrate the holiday while also writing my ancestors and their contributions back into history.

Continental Army soldier Ned Hector (Noah Lewis) with Declaration signer descendant Laura W. Murphy, Maria Cole and Avis Thomas Lester.

I took as inspiration the words of  both Thomas Jefferson in 1776—“that all men are created equal”—and of Frederick Douglass in 1852—“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?”

At a breakfast hosted by the National Archives and the Foundation for the National Archives that morning, I spoke briefly with Steve Edenbo, the actor who interprets Thomas Jefferson. But given Jefferson’s complexities–his genius and his flaws–I wasn’t sure what  “Mr. Jefferson” would think of my speech. But the applause I received from Steve–as he remained in character and as I left the podium–let me know that he understood my message and my intent. My words were meant not to divide but to include, not to ignore but to acknowledge, not to gloss over but to illuminate. America, I was confident, after all these years was secure enough to ”handle the truth.”

Since then, Steve and I have become Facebook friends and started what I hope will be a continuing conversation about America and Americans.

Steve Edenbo as Thomas Jefferson

Steve was kind enough to post a link to my speech on his Facebook page. Here, in italics, is his very thoughtful and generous essay about this year’s National Archives celebration:   A’Lelia Bundles is the new Chair and President of the Board of Directors of the Foundation for the National Archives. When we spoke before, and then after her speech, she expressed some concern —or at least expectation— that I would be offended by her message. I was not. I think she shared a powerful, positive message, and I’m glad she’s in a position to expand the interpretive efforts of the Archives.

The raising of long-neglected souls to positions of prominence does not require the lowering of those already honored. Mr. Jefferson is remembered by monuments, statues, buildings, schools, libraries, bridges, roads, and perhaps even an airplane and a starship. He’s doing just fine and is quite secure in his place in the American pantheon of liberty, thank-you very much. It’s OK for us to look about and examine some of our less vaunted ancestors.

But what if our burgeoning attention to people and groups other than the usual founding suspects were to result in Jefferson’s fading into obscurity? What if our history text books filled with the stories of so wide a variety of non-Presidential Americans that all we could find space to tell about Jefferson would be that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Liberty, and the father of the University of Virginia? Jefferson would be perfectly content with that. I am not guessing or interpreting this. I know it is so, because Jefferson said so himself: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mtj.mtjbib024905  Perhaps if that came to be, Mr. Jefferson could finally say his nunc dimittas Domine, and his Manes —as he referred to his spirit— could finally rest.

And what then of me? My clientele would diminish precipitously in such a new reality. I suppose that I would have to find something else to do with my life. That would be just fine. I’d figure something out. That would be an absolutely terrific reason for me to find a new job.

But I don’t believe that’s going to happen. Respect is not a mountain peak, able to be enjoyed by only a precious few. Respect is a high plateau, and there’s room enough for everybody. That’s part of what “all men are created equal” means. I think that what we’re going to find, as we relax a little our desperate grip on the founding fathers and open our clenched fists to accept others, is that the luster and resonance of America’s struggle for human rights only increases in proportion to the increase of our perspective.

Few people can relate with men like Jefferson, Washington, & Hamilton. They seem untouchable and almost unbelievable. Our narrow focus on these men as quasi-deified beings often causes average people to recoil in awe or shame, or simply in the utter inability to identify with them. Sometimes people are overwhelmed by a greatness that they feel they cannot achieve, simply because they don’t have the I.Q. points, or the talent, or the luck. Conversely, this narrow focus also often causes people to recoil in a backlash of cynical founder bashing. This in turn provokes a counter-backlash, such as in David Barton’s new book on Jefferson, that is equally out of balance. The cycle never ends, and the result is cherry-picked, revisionist history on both sides of the liberal/conservative historical divide.

By expanding our vision of history to include unsung heroes, such as those mentioned by Ms. Bundles in her speech, we increase our chances of finding people in our history with whom we can truly relate. Obviously, history is not merely the search for the familiar. Yet when first getting to know someone, it helps to start with common ground before venturing into areas of difference. The same approach can be useful when trying to understand those who have come before us. This is especially true when attempting to inspire young students with an interest in history.

I’d like to thank Ms. Bundles for her brave words. I’d also like to wish her luck in guiding the National Archives through the creation of their new exhibit spaces, which will be dedicated to the subjects covered in her speech.

As we listen to more voices, we’ll hear a greater harmony. At times we will hear a more complicated dissonance, too. The problem solves itself, however; for when we invite more sources of insight and information into our fold, we will simultaneously increase our ability to understand the conflicts both in our history as well as in our present.

Will this approach overcrowd the study and celebration of our heritage, and thus jostle our founding fathers into some lost corner in the crowd? I’m really not worried. They’re tough. They’re resourceful. They earned their positions of prominence for solid reasons, and they wouldn’t have lasted this long if they were so delicate that they had to be handled with kid gloves. He may have taken a beating during the last decade or so, but Thomas Jefferson still lives in our honored memories. I’m confident that he’ll continue to do so, no matter how many less-renowned forefathers and foremothers we invite to join him there. The only numeric limit in “We The People” is the one that we choose.

To learn more about Steve Edenbo visit his website at http://www.yourthomasjefferson.com/ and listen to this WAMC interview

 

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