by Diane Rufino, January 21, 2017
Yesterday I visited the Jefferson Memorial to commune with my favorite Founding Father. Jefferson is perhaps the single reason I am so very proud to be an American. The principles he articulated in the Declaration of Independence, which the Second Continental Congress adopted in 1776, laid the basis for our independence from Great Britain. It established the principles and government philosophy that defines us as a nation, and although it’s message is lost on most Americans, I am sure to remind my students how it laid the basis for government by proclaiming that power originates with the individual and that power can never be fully divested from them. The Declaration informed Britain and the rest of the world that the thirteen colonies were dedicated first and foremost to the recognition and preservation of individual liberty. To that end, they proclaimed “to a candid world” that individuals of those colonies have the natural right to a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In other words, government serves the people and its primary role is, and should be, to protect their rights. Nowhere in our founding documents does it state that government is a permanent fixture. Nowhere does it provide that the government has the right to seeks its longevity or its permanence. Rather, it exists in form and organization just as long as it serves its legitimate ends. The people always have the right – even the duty – to alter or abolish it when it frustrates its purpose. Jefferson and Madison, along with our other Founders, knew full well that power would corrupt if it was centralized enough in government, then government would eventually limit or even deny rights away to the people. And in many instances, we see that the fears of our Founders have come to fruition.
What I learned from Jefferson is that when it comes to citizenship, it is perhaps more important to represent an idea or an ideal than merely a physical location.
And so I sat inside the rotunda and gazed up for awhile at this under-appreciated Founding Father. I walked around the room and read some of his poignant quotes memorialized on the walls and reflected on their timeless message. Sadly, to some degree, our government has rejected his wisdom. Then I went outside the rotunda and looked straight across the tidal basin towards the rest of the National Mall. I could easily see the Washington Monument. And I could also see the White House. What I couldn’t see was the Lincoln Memorial. I thought about that for a moment. And then I began to note its significance.
It’s true that the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial are not visible to one another. I think there is a reason for that, whether or not it was a conscious factor in the Mall’s design. Abraham Lincoln didn’t see eye to eye with Jefferson. In fact, his vision of government was quite different. While the Declaration of Independence clearly provides that individuals can alter or abolish their government, Lincoln adamantly proclaimed that the Union, and by extension the federal government, was to be perpetual. In fact, after he repeatedly ignored and even violated provisions of the Constitution, suspended habeas corpus, imprisoned journalists, publishers, newspaper owners, citizens and seized their property, waged war without a declaration, etc, he sought a resolution from Congress to excuse those violations. Such a resolution was proposed and it read: “For the preservation of the federal government,”….. Congress would the actions of President Lincoln. (The resolution was never voted upon because the session of Congress concluded for the year). Lincoln had to ignore the principles laid down in the Declaration if he was to use force to bring the South back into the Union and convince the North that he had the power to do so.
President Lincoln destroyed the notion of limited government and its relationship to the individual, as promised in the Declaration, and our country has never sought to reclaim those ideals. Why? Because government had become so strong and no one, no state, and certainly no government official had the guts to challenge the creature that the government had become. States have cowered and caved. They have tacitly relinquished their independence and have become subjugated to the design and will of the federal government. Perhaps that is why, when the government designed the National Mall, it put the memorial to Abraham Lincoln at the most prestigious position. Its layout is spectacular; Lincoln sits on high, looking out over a long reflecting pool, to the strongest branch of government – Congress. Lincoln is rewarded and glorified because he is the president who achieved the most in transforming the government into one of great power and influence and coercion over its independent parts (the States). Lincoln, in a sense, destroyed the ideals that inspired our founding generation to fight for their independence.
The Jefferson Memorial directly faces the White House – the home of our President and Chief Executive. The White House does not face the Lincoln Memorial. Could it be that this lay-out was intended to remind Presidents of Jefferson’s ideals and the principles of government outlined in the Declaration? Could it be that the president of the United States should forever be reminded that government is not a tool of an ambitious president (as it was for Abraham Lincoln) but rather an institution which serves the people and their interests in life, liberty, and happiness.
Something to think about.
What I can say is that when I listened to Donald Trump’s inaugural address – and particularly the part when he announced: “Every four years we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power…. Today’s ceremony, however, has a very special meaning because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.” — I couldn’t help but smile and think to myself how Jeffersonian he sounded.
Maybe, at least for the next few years, we can enjoy a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Maybe Trump, in fact, gets it.