In April of 1962, President John F. Kennedy was hosting a dinner in the White House for recent Nobel Prize winners from the Western Hemisphere.
During his remarks, he said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Several years ago, Debbie and I drove to the east coast of Virginia on a vacation that was intended to expand our appreciation of American history. Our first stop was Monticello, just outside of Charlottesville. Monticello was the home of Thomas Jefferson.
He built many innovative devices and designs into his home. From the master bed that accessed two different rooms, to the great clock in the entrance hall that shows the day of the week, the hour, minute and second of the day. The clock was designed by Jefferson and the weights that operated the clock extended from the top of the ceiling down through the floor into the basement.
In the dining room, two dumbwaiters are built into the fireplace. This allowed Jefferson and his guests to dine undisturbed, because the kitchen staff did not have to carry food and wine into the dining room.
Jefferson’s innovations and inventions are scattered throughout the estate. Monticello is amazing.
It was in this setting that Jefferson developed his thoughts and formulated the principles that guided our country before and during the Revolutionary War. It was in this setting that he formulated within his mind the wording that would become our Declaration of Independence.
Years later, as he sat in a boarding house in Philadelphia, he selected these words and penned the document that would change our country and the world.
“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.”
From his wording of that document came the resolve of the members of the Continental Congress to sign their names to the Declaration of Independence. As such, they knew they were becoming traitors to Great Britain. Their signatures lit the fuse that would spark war between the Colonies and England.
Many people will argue about Jefferson’s words today.
In 1776, did the words “all men” include only all property-owning white men? Did those words exclude slaves, women, native Americans and others? That issue was debated in Philadelphia in 1776 and is still argued and hotly debated today.
Was Jefferson being hypocritical in penning such beautiful images while still owning slaves. I believe he was. Yet, despite being written by a slave-owner, The Declaration of Independence still stands as a beacon of freedom.
Many of our Founding Fathers and the Framers of the Constitution owned slaves while forming this country; a country that was to become a haven for people to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In preparing for this column and while re-exploring Colonial Williamsburg, I read the following paragraphs that were written and endorsed by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
“Across our organization, our community and our nation, Americans are reeling. We are reeling from the horror of bearing witness to the killing of an African American man in the custody of those entrusted to protect him and all members of our communities. We are reeling from the fury it has unleashed across our nation. And we are reeling from racial inequality that divides us from one another.
“In difficult times, our nation has historically found its greatest hopes in the words of the Declaration of Independence, our most sacred founding document.
“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.
“As it was at our nation’s birth, and in the history of institutions such as our own, we must acknowledge the truth that America’s reality today continues to fall short of this ambition. It is beyond time that the ideals embedded in the Declaration of Independence are realized for everyone.
“Today, and evermore, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation affirms our commitment to stand with all people denied these liberties, by helping to create the world envisioned in the Declaration of Independence through education, outreach and constant examination of our nation’s past. This is our work and we will not rest until these rights and the promise of equality are fully realized by all Americans.”
Thank you to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for reminding us that Jefferson’s dream is still alive and that the ideals he wrote about can still be honored and achieved.
Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.