The Middlebury Campus

I Cover the Waterfront: On TJ, JA and Guns

By WILL DIGRAVIO, Managing Editor

Isn’t it funny how often we tend to view historical figures in ways they most certainly would not have approved?

I think about that a lot these days, since political leaders seem to grow more and more certain that they know the answers the Founding Fathers would provide to Wolf Blitzer and Rachel Maddow in the wake of each mass killing.

Like, I assume, even the most casual lover of American history, I too have a fascination with the Founding Fathers, more specifically, the men who gathered in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress, and, in particular, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Over this past winter break, I read Christopher Hitchens’ brief biography of Jefferson (it’s more like fan nonfiction), and I am currently making my way through “Friends Divided,” Gordon Wood’s 2017 examination of the Jefferson-Adams relationship.

Though I can offer no insight into the lives of these two men, much less what they would say about “gun control” and amendement number two, I can, with some degree of confidence, say that they would find these perpetual debates over what they and their contemporaries thought/would think if they were alive to be quite, to keep this column G-rated, silly.

Have we forgotten what our third grade teachers taught us about the American Revolution, about the struggle between ancient regimes and Enlightenment values? The Founding Fathers disagreed on much, but they were, above all, free thinkers, committed to the idea that governments, should they fail to serve the interests of the people, must be changed.

In a 1789 letter to James Madison, Jefferson writes “that the Earth belongs in usufruct [I had to look it up too] to the living: that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” I first encountered Jefferson’s observation on screen, during a conversation between him, Adams and Benjamin Franklin in the HBO miniseries “John Adams.” It’s something I think about a lot, and an idea that has informed how I think about government.

Now, I’m sure there are Jefferson/history experts who could find reason to say the aforementioned quote is not indicative of Jefferson’s beliefs. As Hitchens and Wood both point out, Jefferson contradicted himself and changed his mind constantly. In fact, by quoting Jefferson, I have just contradicted myself, and what I said at the beginning of this column about the endless quoting of the Founding Fathers in debates over contemporary issues.   

The Founding Fathers were, of course, students of history, of laws, governments and everything else. And, yes, they constantly turned to the past for guidance in an attempt to understand the present and construct the future. Yet, they, clearly, did not see themselves as beholden to the ways, laws, or ideas of old. Though they admired and learned from the men of the past, they did did not, as is the case today, deify them. That is obvious, and something we, in 2018, should remember.

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