Jefferson Urges Understanding Founding Principles

CHAUTAUQUA – Upon entering the parlor at the Athenaeum Hotel, Thomas Jefferson called to those outside to tend to his horse.

Jefferson also good naturedly chided the audience for not standing as a former president of the United States entered the room but quickly added that’s as it should be, because he’s a public servant, and under our system of government, all power originates with the people.

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Recalling that he was speaking on Aug. 15 in the year ’22 – 1822, that is – Jefferson said he came on horseback. Riding comfortably at about five miles per hour, it took 10 days to travel through, and arrive here in, the wilderness.

He marveled that in 1807, Robert Livingston, who had collaborated with him on the Declaration of Independence, and Robert Fulton sailed via steamboat 150 miles up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany in only 36 hours.

And did you know that a steam engine had even propelled a mode of transportation that rides on two parallel rails?

“I cannot help but ponder, what’s next? What lies before us?” Jefferson asked.

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2022 is the second consecutive year in which a former president has favored Advocates for Balance at Chautauqua, or ABC, with a visit.

Well, sort of.

This time it was veteran historical actor-interpreter Bill Barker as Jefferson, addressing ABC on Aug. 15 for its final program of the 2022 season.

In 2021, it was Bryan Austin as James Madison.

If you’ve never seen historical actors-interpreters, you really do need to put it on your bucket list.

It’s one experience to interact with them briefly at a place such as Colonial Williamsburg, where Barker portrayed Jefferson for many years, or at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where Barker also portrayed Jefferson, or at Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia home, where Barker does the same now.

All of those places are worth visiting, yet it’s another experience entirely to watch, and listen to, historical actors-interpreters – especially when they do as well as Barker does with Jefferson – as they speak for an extended time and take questions.

In both settings, history really does come to life.

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The third president stressed the importance of understanding founding principles.

“It’s so necessary to remember where we were yesterday so that we might have a better understanding of where we are today, particularly with respect to our founding principles, to continue to maintain them, pass them on one generation to the next, remind ourselves that we were the first nation in history founded upon principles, not upon monarchy, not upon nobility, not upon royalty, aristocracy, landed gentry. Mercy, that’s why we fought the war, is it not? That’s why we shed our blood. It was not easy. Nor is the work that remains before us,” Jefferson said.

He recalled that President George Washington believed the Constitution is the guarantee of “our promise” in the Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson drafted in June 1776 and initially presented to others with whom he served on a five-member committee: John Adams of Massachusetts, Dr. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut.

In drafting the Declaration, Jefferson realized he had to write for literate members of the general public.

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Reflecting on John and Abigail Adams, Jefferson said that other than James and Dolley Madison, he has never known another couple so devoted to one another.

Jefferson, recalling that President Adams had written to him a few years ago to say that Mrs. Adams had passed away, said ladies such as Mrs. Adams “are responsible for the cultivation of what I consider the first and foremost element of leadership – compassion – followed by responsibility, responsibility for one’s family, one’s neighborhood, one’s self. That was certainly exemplified by Abigail Adams.”

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Jefferson brought tears to audience members’ eyes as he called the loss of his wife in 1782 “the deepest of my emotions” and called “the 10 short years of our marriage … 10 years of uncheckered happiness.”

“I had to be gone from her death chamber. It was said I paced the floor for two weeks without any sleep whatsoever. They placed me upon my most delightful exercise – horseback – and they had to go out and find the horse, because I was not leading,” Jefferson said. “I can only tell you that it was being invited by Mr. Madison to enter public service again … that brought me out of my misery. But you never forget – you never forget – uncheckered happiness. You always remember that. It sticks with you, and as you progress in trying to recover, you begin to realize our creator is a benevolent being. He never closes one door without opening another, so keep your ears and your eyes open.”

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ABC was formed in 2018. Its mission is “to achieve a balance of speakers in a mutually civil and respectful environment consistent with the historic mission of Chautauqua” Institution. ABC is its own Section 501(c)(3) organization, legally separate from the institution.

Dr. Randy Elf’s Aug. 20, 2020, ABC presentation, on “How Political Speech Law Benefits Politicians and the Rich,” is at https://works.bepress.com/elf/21.



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