In the Hands of the People, Jon Meacham. New York: Penguin Random House, 2020.
Summary: A collection of the sayings of Thomas Jefferson, reflecting his belief in the critical responsibility of the people to the health and growth of the new Republic, with commentary by the author.
Thomas Jefferson was the optimist to the pessimism of a John Adams. He once remarked in their correspondence: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” A significant reason for that was his belief in the citizens of the new nation, and in the government that they had formed. It can be readily granted that Jefferson was a flawed individual. His university was a gentleman’s university. He owned slaves who had to be sold off after his death. It was not his example, but the ideals of equality, of the consent of the governed, of an educated citizenry, of the important of religion and keeping the state out of it, of patriotism above partisanship, the value of immigration, and of compromise.
Historian Jon Meacham has collected the statements of Jefferson on all of these topics and more around the central idea of citizenship, how it may both be trusted, and how important the practice of good citizenship would be to the future of the Republic. He groups these under eleven topics, devoting a chapter to each. Meacham provides brief introductions in each chapter, followed by quotes from Jefferson, and others talking about Jefferson’s ideas. The last two chapters are statements by an assorted group of others about Jefferson, and by other presidents on Jefferson.
Here are a few of those quotes:
On the right and responsibility to vote:
It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people: but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption.
On the vitality of a free press:
But the only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to.
It is safer to have a whole people respectably enlightened than a few in a high state of science and the many in ignorance. This last is the most dangerous state in which a nation can be.
On threats to the Republic:
I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom. And, to preserve their independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt.
One more, from the collection of presidential quotes on Jefferson, this one from Jimmy Carter:
Thomas Jefferson conceived our United States of America as no other nation had ever tried to be–dedicated to human fulfillment, where individual liberty was guaranteed. But Thomas Jefferson also founded a university, collected a national library, planned beautiful cities, mapped the wilderness, and being a farmer, he invented a better plow!
This book comes out at a time riven with controversy where we may be greatly tempted to fear for the future of the republic. Yet it strikes me that so many of our protests concern the disparity between our ideals of unalienable rights and the equality of all, and realities that fall short for some. Jefferson would challenge us all to patriotism above partisanship, and to the hard work of responsible citizenship that seeks the common good above our personal profit.
I could wish that all of us would buy a copy, and read it as we prepare to celebrate another July 4 and look ahead to national and local elections in November, as we consider what obligations we have to one another in time of pandemic. If ever there was a time for the renewal of an understanding of responsible citizenship and civic engagement, this is time. Jefferson offers guidance both about what we must value, and why we might hope.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.