Bush misquotes Jefferson

Stirred by President Bush’s actual comments at Monticello on July 4th, Ruhi Ramazani and I (sh) published a comment in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch: Bush’s War Betrays the Sage of Monticello’s Vision for Liberty.
As we suggested last week, President Bush’s decision to speak at Monticello, the first visit of his life, sought a Jeffersonian stamp of approval for his own foreign policy legacy. (Here’s the WhiteHouse link to the speech.)

Ironically, President Bush sought to don the Jefferson mantle by claiming that, “We honor Jefferson’s legacy by aiding the rise of liberty in lands that do not know the blessings of freedom. And on this Fourth of July, we pay tribute to the brave men and women who wear the uniform of the United States of America.”

As the often forgotten founder of the US Military Academy, Jefferson likely would not object to honoring a professional American military. Yet we also contend that Jefferson would have turned over in his grave at the thought that his beloved country had justified “a war of choice” and occupation in the name of promoting democracy.
Having recently been a Jefferson Fellow focused on Jefferson’s reflections on the Declaration of Independence, I was particularly startled when I heard President Bush misquote a 24 June 1826 Jefferson letter, written just before his death, to Robert Weightman. The full passage in the original reads:

May it be to the world what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self government

This is the same letter cited accurately last Monday by Bill Kristol in his New York Times column.
But President Bush’s speech tellingly deleted the clause referencing “monkish ignorance and superstition.”

This omission matters because the full quote reflects Jefferson’s long-held doubts about democracy taking root elsewhere. Unlike Bush, Jefferson believed that before democracy can flourish, citizens and their culture must be receptive to democratic principles, including the rule of law and respect for minority rights.

Our essay then highlights means Jefferson endorsed for exporting democratic ideals — leading by example, via information, and through education.
We close with a reference to a theme I wrote about here at jwn last year — about the simple, yet so often forgotten original purpose of the Declaration:

More than a listing of grievances and abstract principles, it was crafted to declare independence — to proclaim America’s determination before a “candid world” to govern itself.
As the world granted America that liberty to choose its own path, so too “The Sage of Monticello” would see wisdom in America granting other countries the same freedom

What a concept.

One thought on “Bush misquotes Jefferson”

  1. I did not comment above on Kristol’s invocation of the Jefferson 1826 letter. Notice that K’s focus is on “the choice they made” — implying that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were somehow out in front of their fellow citizens. (yet another neoconservative case now to claim, ironically, that present public opinion is beside the point — that we need to “do what is right” …. and oh never mind that little line about that starts the Declaration off: “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” (for the neocons, their hope now moves to “what history will say”)
    In any case, Kristol is engaging in some “creative” writing here. I happened to have written biosketches for a recent UVA book on the signers — all 56 of them. Quite a diverse lot. And some of them had only been brought to the Continental Congress just days before the key votes for it. (especially the critical Pennsylvania delegation — which had until very late in the game been quite opposed to an independence declaration — for a variety of principled and legal reasons, later recognized by TJ in his autobiography.)
    The newer, late forming Pennsylvania delegation, like the others, could not have acted as it had with at least some semblance of authority or instructions from the home citizens…. (even as the PA case was a bit dubious)
    In any case, the Declaration was written precisely with a mind to a “candid world” — at home and abroad. They were NOT playing Bush cowboys, ignoring whether the public was for ’em or against ’em.

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