Note: This article originally appeared in Running the Campus on July 4, 2017.
Each year on July 4, I take some time to share and reflect on the last letter Thomas Jefferson wrote.
It was a response to Roger Weightman, the mayor of Washington, D.C., who had invited Jefferson, then 83 years old, along with the other two surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, who was 90, and Charles Carroll, 88, back to the nation’s capital to celebrate America’s 50th anniversary in 1826.
Jefferson’s health was failing fast, and it was not possible for him to travel from Monticello. Instead, he sent his regrets, along with these stirring thoughts on the founding of the nation, the importance of reason, and the rights of all people to be free:
May it be to the world what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self government. That form which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.
All eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born, with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others.
For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
Jefferson and Adams died within a few hours of each other shortly after noon on that very July 4, 1826, symbolically ending the era of the Founders.
Although today we may rightly question how Jefferson, a slaveholder himself, could hold up the youthful America as a beacon of freedom to the world, his words nevertheless are a soaring reminder of the principles, the hope, the aspirations our country was founded upon.
From the instant the ink dried on the Declaration to this very day, our collective 244th birthday, our progress as a democratic nation has run in fits and starts. Americans in every age have experienced moments of pride and unity, as well as shame and discord.
But whatever challenges may present themselves, or setbacks may befall us, those principles, those hopes, those aspirations inevitably put us back on the path toward our Purpose again.
However you may be feeling about our progress as a nation—and opinions do range widely—may “the annual return of this day” today refresh in you your recollection and devotion to “the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion” Jefferson held so dear.
And may you and your family and loved ones celebrate a safe, happy, and free Independence Day.