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It’s the night before the inauguration, and like many Americans, the Urban Man has gone to dwell briefly in the 18th century. You remember the 18th Century: enlightenment, rationality, the belief in progress and common purpose—all things lately out of fashion.
I can’t be there in person—neither at the Inauguration nor the 18th century—but tonight I’ve managed to slip past security by projecting my spirit 3,000 miles across the country and allowing it to wander among the tall white columns of the Jefferson Memorial. Maybe you’ve been: A marble dome on a tiny peninsula in the tidal basin, just outside the D.C. buzz.
I close my eyes and I’m right there: standing alone on the brilliantly-lit steps and wearing a dapper scarf against the cold. Outside, the sky may be studded with helicopters, but inside Thomas Jefferson stands absurdly large, his 19-foot person bronzed and clear-eyed. He does not speak, but around the top of the dome someone has cut his words:
"I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
Once he wrote:
“We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
And at last the Urban Man realizes why he’s visiting the 18th century: not for specific solutions to our present crises, but for its vague promise of reasonableness. I don’t know about you, but in a world increasingly dominated by radical clerics and AM talk show hosts, I desperately want to believe that this 18th century dream persists.
Cut into one wall are Jefferson’s famous words, “We hold these truths to be self evident.” Most people focus on the second part of that statement, about “all men being created equal,” but as scholars point out, the first part is just as radical—the idea that reasonable people speaking reasonably to one other around the world could reach the same conclusion. That at least something could be universally agreed.
Folks speak of the American Dream as if it were about success, but really, this nation rests more on the dream of reasonableness than home ownership. We could not live together if we did not believe that certain truths exist at a level more fundamental than ideology or identity or even religion.
I can’t quite define the term “reasonableness” any more than Jefferson could. Like him, I can only see what it is not. It’s not “Applying the same solution to every problem.” Or “Taking a good concept too far.” Or “bending the facts to your ideology.”
Lately, we are obsessed with political ideologies, but Jefferson hated them as much as he hated monarchies. Like conservatives, he feared the tyranny of untested Utopias…and called even Plato a fool for imagining a perfect Republic. Like liberals, he feared the tyranny of a static social order…and foresaw, if not the election of a black man, the end of slavery. Nothing would ever be perfect, he said, but we would improve. It seemed to him…a reasonable expectation.
Which brings me to the perhaps unreasonable hope of this particular evening—I mean that our new president is himself somehow and miraculously reasonable. That in this difficult hour, he will not escape God, but will also “[swear] upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."
Maybe they should add that phrase to the oath of office…and tonight, before the rban Man leaves the 18th century, I whisper to the statue: “Say it again, Tom. Say it loud enough for everyone to hear.” Jefferson does not speak, but he does continue to look down across the marble steps, out across the water, and toward the noisy horizon.
Copyright (c) 2009. Marc Porter Zasada. All rights reserved.
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