Sunday July 4, 2010
Thomas Jefferson, until this year, was revered in American history textbooks as the Founding Father who wrote the Declaration of Independence. His document is the reason we celebrate the fourth of July as this country's independence day. This is a holiday to remind Americans about the history and significance of that document.
But earlier this year, religious conservative members of the Texas Board of Education decided to push for a revision of this history by downplaying Jefferson's influence in the founding of our nation because the notion of the "separation of church and state" has been traced to him. These religious rightists believe this country was founded as a Christian nation and decided to make their point by revising American history in their public school text books. The effect of this kind of revision of American history would be to celebrate the founding of this country as a religious event rather than the secular event it is.
One does not have to be an American history scholar to understand that the American Revolution was not fought as a religious war against anti-Christian forces or an Antichrist. It occurred as a reluctant solution to a struggle by colonists against an imperial British government. The leaders of the Revolution considered this rebellion a secular matter. Their goal was to establish the colonies as free and independent states concerned with matters of this world and the new land in which they existed, rather than establish a Christian nation.
As a matter of historical fact, America entered into the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797 which included in part the following statement: "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion " I wonder if the Texas Board would consider inserting this item in their textbooks?
The drafting of this treaty began during George Washington's presidency. The final draft was read in full in the Senate where it was approved unanimously and then signed by Washington's successor, President John Adams. The full text of the treaty was also published in three American newspapers in Philadelphia and New York. The American diplomat who authored this treaty was a close friend of Jefferson.
Jefferson made history with the help of John Adams and Ben Franklin in writing the Declaration of Independence to abolish British colonial rule. His document, as noted by Karen Armstrong in her book "The Battle For God," was an "Enlightenment" document, not a religious one. It was based on an 17th and 18th century political theory of philosophers like John Locke and others which was considered self-evident to Jefferson's generation. This political theory is at the heart of the document we celebrate today, namely, that individuals "are created equal" with rights to "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" to be secured by a government empowered by the consent of the governed.
Jefferson, according to American historian Gordon S. Wood, later explained that his purpose with this document was to firmly and plainly state self-evident, common sense principles with which sensible people would agree and which would justify the colonist's independence.
Jefferson's Declaration of Independence approved by Congress on July 4, 1776 was read in public just a few days later in Philadelphia to the ringing of bells and band music. The following year it was observed in the same city with an adjournment of the Continental Congress and celebrated with bonfires, the ringing of bells, fireworks and a parade. The celebration then spread nationally.
The Massachusetts legislature passed a resolution to celebrate the event in 1781 and Boston was reportedly the first municipality to do so in 1783. The celebration of this day in cities like Pittsfield with its big parade and fireworks display and similar celebrations in other parts of Berkshire County and throughout the nation differ little from the earlier celebrations that have been ongoing for 234 years. The Pittsfield Parade Committee and its volunteers not only put on a great entertainment spectacle they continue a great tradition to honor one of the key historic events of the birth of this nation. This is a day to memorialize the country's independence in breaking with the old order of governance and going forward with one based on new ideas.
It is fitting that such celebrations continue because the idea of human rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence is indeed timeless and self-evident. These rights expressed by Jefferson became an important part of the Constitution through the first 10 amendments (the Bill of Rights) and the 14th Amendment. They also served as a basis for reform movements elsewhere.
His memorable words have become immortal and shame on the Texas Board of Education for trying to downplay him and his document as important parts of American history.
Robert "Frank" Jakubowicz, a Pittsfield lawyer, is a regular Eagle contributor.