Thomas Jefferson’s answer to that question might surprise you! But first, what do you think? What’s the origin of American values? Where do they come from?
For the past two weeks, we’ve considered almost a dozen core values, finding consensus on some and division on others. (Scroll down on the right to view links to more stories about our core values.) Today, we consider origins.
For an answer, let’s go to the source: Thomas Jefferson, the author of what historian Joseph J. Ellis calls “the best known 58 words in American history.” These words are: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain [inherent and] inalienable Rights; that among these are life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Jefferson wrote these words (and the rest of the Declaration of Independence) working alone in the summer of 1776. The writing is considered by many to be a “quasi-religious episode in American history,” says historian Ellis in his character study of Jefferson. It was a “moment when, at least according to the most romantic explanations, a solitary Jefferson was allowed a glimpse of the eternal truths and then offered the literary inspiration to inscribe them on the American soul.”
Jefferson had a theory about the origin of American values, about those eternal truths he had glimpsed in the summer of 1776. He revealed it in earlier writings. According to Jefferson, American values go back to the Saxon world before the Norman Conquest in 1066, and before that to the forests of Germany. It was there, in the words of historian Ellis, Jefferson believed was “a set of people who lived freely and harmoniously, without kings or lords to rule over them, working and owning their land as sovereign agents.
How did he know? His evidence came from histories of the English people that he read as a student at William and Mary, and even from reading a translation of Germania. This ethnography of ancient Germanic tribes was written in the year 98 by the Roman historian and senator, Tacitus. America was the rebirth of these ancient Saxon values, reestablishing a place where people would live in perfect harmony without kings or governments or clerics. The pristine Saxon past might be dubious history but it appealed to Jefferson’s way of thinking, says Ellis. The story of this romantic past “gave narrative shape to his fondest imaginings and to utopian expectations with deep roots in his personality.”
The Jeffersonian principles of limited government and individual freedom live today. As Ellis puts it, “American political discourse is phrased in Jeffersonian terms as a conversation about sovereign individuals who only grudgingly and in special circumstances are prepared to compromise that sovereignty for larger social purposes.”
Does this characterization sit well with you?
Is it your view of the America in the 21st century?
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