Thomas Jefferson remains enigmatic precisely because he was American. Inquisitive but passionate, self-educated beyond the confines of limiting social class but always a member of that class, a fervent proponent of the Enlightenment who owned nearly 200 slaves and never freed more than a handful, practical yet visionary, hopeful – even optimistic – in the face of prolonged personal and political losses, he preached a life long sermon of limited government yet doubled the size of the country. As President, he has no equal in his ability to successfully manage Congress, even then divided and prone to gridlock, yet he did not consider his tenure as one of his most significant or enduring achievements.
Nations arise from tribes. Larger nations assemble tribes, often by conquest, and the national identity is that of the tribe. Lincoln, perhaps the ablest student of Jefferson, told us that America to the contrary is a nation “…dedicated to a proposition.” All that is necessary to be an American is to assent to that proposition. The shy, soft-voiced Jefferson distilled that proposition for us, not the urbane Franklin, nor the aloof Washington, nor the splenetic Adams, and that proposition still defines us in its contradictions in a few words, “…We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
And the contradictions are inherent. Absolute liberty prevents justice as it exalts individual standards to the exclusion of any sense of community and, therefore, any group or collective consent of what is fair and just. Perfect justice excludes liberty for perfection denies individual differences. Rights are frequently alienated, and the alienation confirmed in law. Moreover, “that all men are created equal” is on the face of it not our experience. Aside from the fact that all are born in the same manner (so far!), the variations in physical and mental capacities, the trajectories of “the pursuit of happiness” and unhappiness are experienced by each and termed ‘diversity’ by all.
What Jefferson articulated was not the absolute nor even the particular, but the ideal to which we assent. And that assent finds its expression in the oath each of us publicly swears from about the age of seven: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”