By John W. Whitehead
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
-- Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence
In a misguided attempt to restore balance and compensate for an academic environment that "is skewed too far to the left," the Texas Board of Education has actually proposed to remove Thomas Jefferson from the Texas public school curriculum. The recent 10-5 vote of the school board members, none of whom are historians, was sharply divided along party lines, with the ten Republican members of the board voting to replace Jefferson with other historical figures such as European thinkers Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone.
Given Texas' purchasing power (they're one of the largest buyers of textbooks in the country) and the nature of mass publishing today, the Board's decision could have far-reaching implications for public schools throughout the nation, not just in Texas. As Fritz Fisher, the chairman of the National Council for History Education, recognizes, "the books that are altered to fit the standards become the best-selling books, and...within two years they will end up in other classrooms."
Thus, the crucial question: Should Thomas Jefferson really be excluded from American textbooks? By way of an answer, just imagine what the world would be like had Jefferson never lived. Not only would American history have lost one of its greatest political philosophers, both nationally and internationally, but it would also lose one of its greatest champions of individual freedom.
The author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson took bold strides in reversing the history of governmental corruption and unbridled control over the people by asserting firmly and clearly that the fundamental role of the government is to protect the people and their rights. Such concepts are still revolutionary today.
The Declaration of Independence, a document upon which numerous governments and institutions throughout the world, including the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are based, was approved by Congress on July 4, 1776. The words Jefferson penned are as radical as they come. In the brief preamble alone, Jefferson introduces the idea of inalienable rights and establishes the authority of the citizenry to use whatever means necessary, including force, to throw off a despotic government, or a government that no longer serves the needs of the people. As Jefferson stated, the government receives its power from the "consent of the governed" and the people have the right to "alter or abolish" a government that becomes destructive, instituting a new government and laying out new principles that better protect the "Safety and Happiness" of the people.
One revolution was not enough for Jefferson, however. In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson stated, "A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as in the physical...it is a medicine necessary for the sound health of the government." In fact, Jefferson was so convinced of the value of frequent, publicly-driven rebellions that he advocated for a new rebellion approximately every twenty years. In a 1787 letter to William Smith, John Adams' secretary and son-in-law, Jefferson wrote: "[G]od forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion . . . the tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure."
To suggest that American citizens turn to violence and bloodshed to ensure their liberty was, and still is, a radical idea. Although Jefferson was not an advocate of unnecessary violence, he was so firmly entrenched in his beliefs in the pursuit of liberty and its guarantee that he encouraged whatever means necessary to be used to secure it. As Jefferson wrote, "what country can preserve its liberties, if the rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take to arms."
One wonders if the Republican members of the Texas Board of Education would be more inclined to rethink their decision to exclude Thomas Jefferson from the state's curriculum if they learned that he was one of the earliest and strongest champions of gun rights. In fact, he advocated the right of all citizens to carry arms in order to protect themselves against the tyranny of the government and the infringement of their liberties by fellow citizens. Writing to his nephew, Peter Carr, in 1785, Jefferson stated, "As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind...Let your gun therefore be your constant companion of your walks."
The Bill of Rights itself is, in part, a radical Jeffersonian victory. James Madison, who drafted the Bill of Rights, initially felt that the inclusion of a bill of rights in the originally ratified Constitution was unnecessary to its success, but Jefferson noted that its absence was an enormous oversight on the part of the Framers. He told Madison "a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, & what no just government should refuse, or rest on inferences." As such, Jefferson advocated for the inclusion of a document so revolutionary at the time that it was not even considered in the drafting of the original Constitution. Yet Americans now look to the Bill of Rights as the epitome of American liberty.
One aspect of Jefferson's thinking that seems to most concern the Texas Board of Education is his insistence on a separation of church and state as a prominent feature of American government. In a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, Jefferson asserted his beliefs that "religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his [G]od, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, [and] that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions...I contemplate with sovereign reverence that...[American] legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state."
However, this "wall of separation" phrase has been grossly misunderstood as Jefferson advocating for the removal of religion from the nation or from the government. In truth, Jefferson not only believed in and promoted religion, he also authored his own version of the Bible (which emphasized the moral teachings of Jesus) in an attempt to create a more easily understood moral and biblical guide. Thus, his coining of the phrase "separation of church and state" was not at all a swipe at religion or religious followers, but rather yet another mechanism to check the power of the government over the rights of the people.
Removing Thomas Jefferson from the curriculum of the Texas school system does not just eliminate a single man's political and ideological history from the textbooks. By overlooking the legacy of a man whose ideas and politics were, and still are, considered among some of the most revolutionary in the world, it is nothing less than an Orwellian rewriting of American history. To suggest that Jefferson's life and legacy are unimportant to the education of American schoolchildren is to severely handicap their ability to formulate a complete, thorough and accurate picture of American history, both with regards to its successes and failures.