By: Andrew DiGiovanna, West Coast Field Coordinator at Young Americans for Liberty
“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote these words 219 years ago in a letter to fellow Founding Father Benjamin Rush, specifically calling out and opposing efforts to establish an official religion for the new nation.
Today these words are inscribed along the circular ceiling of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
I make it a point to visit that memorial every time I am in D.C.
Jefferson’s words have long shaped my beliefs as a student and a political activist. And the principles that Jefferson embedded into the Declaration of Independence are the same principles we fight for at Young Americans for Liberty (YAL).
Yet, there is a growing number of people who either completely misunderstand Jefferson or intentionally ignore historical facts.
Some claim Jefferson is a symbol of racism and slavery and want to tear down statues of our third president. However, few people know that he spent his political career trying to limit slavery. In 1807, President Jefferson signed into law the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves as a step towards abolishing slavery. He also privately endorsed a plan for gradual emancipation.
While he was deeply flawed as an individual (as we all are), he intentionally helped to lay a balanced foundation of pragmatism and idealism upon which a future, enlightened society could build.
So what is it about Jefferson’s principles that draw me to his writing and philosophy?
1. His belief in individual liberty was a pretty revolutionary idea, even among many of his peers.
Individual liberty is summed up by the right to life, liberty, and property. Jefferson extended this view to Native Americans and African Americans, which at the time was revolutionary. In fact, his first draft of the Declaration of Independence even condemned slavery, and pointed to King George III as having forced the slave trade upon the American colonies.
2. He promoted reason as an essential component for human thinking and philosophy, while also believing firmly in the existence of a Divine Creator.
People come to a greater sense of enlightenment by using reason to discern truths about the world around them. Furthermore, a nation without an appreciation for liberty as a gift from God would be at severe risk of losing it.
3. He recognized that disagreement of opinion was not a good enough reason to part ways with a friend.
Jefferson lived by this principle. After a decade of reciprocal aversion, he reconnected and rekindled a friendship with John Adams. That friendship lasted until their dying days. In our current day of great political division, this is a principle that we all would do well to remember and practice.
Unfortunately, not everyone follows this principle rooted in tolerance and civil discourse.
We’ve seen this firsthand: YAL representatives have been targeted, punished, and, in one case, even arrested on campus because some university officials don’t like their viewpoints. Thankfully, with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom, these individuals stood up and defended their constitutional rights on campus. Because of their courage, their campuses are now more tolerant and more open for civil discourse.
As we remember Tommy Jay’s birthday on April 13, I strongly urge us all to take a moment to appreciate Jefferson’s instrumental role in the founding and shaping of our nation; to reaffirm the principles he embraced; and to read up on the man, his achievements, and his contributions.
Like Jefferson, we must be firmly rooted in coherent principles, not just blind traditionalism, and take assertive action to promote those principles to which we hold.
If our cause is just, we shall prevail. And in this process, we should not allow disagreement to stand in the way of friendship and conversation.