IN HIS tribute to Thomas Jefferson on his 250th birthday last week, Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia said, "Some 250 years ago it may never have been envisioned that I would be here, representing the commonwealth, succeeding Thomas Jefferson in office and welcoming you."
On the other hand, it may have been envisioned. By Jefferson, himself. Sure, he lived in a world of black slavery, male suffrage and other bad stuff that the politically-correct such as I and you scorn today, Reader. But that was then. As Dumas Malone concluded in his six-volume biography of Jefferson:
"In these pages [Jefferson] has been viewed in his own time and circumstances. He was limited by these, and he made concessions to the society in which he lived. But he perceived eternal values and supported timeless causes. Thus he became one of the most notable champions of freedom and enlightenment in recorded history."
Even if Jefferson could not have envisioned a black governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the fact is, as Malone suggests, he set in play in the political arena ideas that led inevitably to a Governor Wilder.
I've been thinking about Jefferson a lot this year, because of the debate in Maryland over the motto on the state seal. It is "Fatti maschii, Parole femine." That's Tuscan for either "deeds are manly, words are womanly" (state archivist, 1969) or "manly deeds, womanly words" (General Assembly, 1975).
Some women legislators want to change the motto, on the grounds that it is insulting to women. In fact, it ought to be changed because it is incorrect.
Words are manly.
Thomas Jefferson placed his words above his acts. When he wrote his own epitaph, he did not mention having been president, or purchasing Louisiana, or sending Lewis and Clark overland to the Pacific, or winning the Tripolitan War, or abolishing the slave trade or any other deeds. His first item of self-praise was that he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
That is the most influential written work in American history. Too extravagant? Garry Wills, who won a Pulitzer Prize on Jefferson's birthday last week for his book, "Lincoln at Gettysburg," seems to think so. He says Jefferson's words and ideas inspired the Gettysburg Address, which in turn inspired Americans to replace, in effect, the Constitution (also manly words) with the Declaration as the basic compact of government and society.
Congratulations to Wills, who spent many years here as Hopkins prof and free-lance journalist. I'm a fan. I found it mildly ironic that he won on the same day that David McCullough won a Pulitzer for his fawning biography of Harry S. Truman. Garry is one of the most unabashed of the Truman-bashers.
I go along with him on Harry, but my other favorite ex-Baltimore writer does not.
Thursday: CVW on HST.