Sunday, August 24, 2008

Jefferson is spinning in his grave

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

The main body of our citizens... remain true to their republican principles; the whole landed interest is republican, and so is a great mass of talents. Against us are... all timid men who prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty... We are likely to preserve the liberty we have obtained only by unremitting labors and perils. But we shall preserve it, and our mass of weight and wealth on the good side is so great as to leave no danger that force will ever be attempted against us.

Lethargy [is] the forerunner of death to the public liberty.

Let the eye of vigilance never be closed.

[We] should look forward to a time, and that not a distant one, when corruption in this as in the country from which we derive our origin will have seized the heads of government and be spread by them through the body of the people; when they will purchase the voices of the people and make them pay the price. Human nature is the same on every side of the Atlantic and will be alike influenced by the same causes.

The spirit of 1776 is not dead. It has only been slumbering. The body of the American people is substantially republican. But their virtuous feelings have been played on by some fact with more fiction; they have been the dupes of artful maneuvers, and made for a moment to be willing instruments in forging chains for themselves. But times and truth dissipated the delusion, and opened their eyes.

Ignorance is a comparative concept. Jefferson's United States was inhabited by a frontier people -- a few million people living on the land, with a few scattered small towns, separated by weeks' voyages from the powers of their time. Unschooled, untroubled by the limited suffrage of their time, they were sufficiently informed to successfully begin to build a democracy.

Today, we are schooled, but with great gaps in popular knowledge. We are at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but most people could not find that country on a map. We depend on science and technology for our future economic security, but the public knows little of science and often prefers superstition to scientific knowledge; we depend on immigrants to utilize our great university system and man our technological industries.

We have given suffrage to most adults, but only half our people register to vote, and only half of them actually vote in the major elections.

Today, with more than 300 million people, the United States is the most powerful nation in the world, not only linked to all other nations but deeply influencing their economic, political and cultural systems. In this context we are far more ignorant than were the citizens of the United States in 1800, and our passivity in the management of our government unforgivable.

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