While speaking at Hampton University today, President Barack Obama did something subtle. He took Thomas Jefferson and the actions of the Revolutionary War patriots away from the Tea Party and applied them to all America, “What Jefferson recognized, like the rest of that gifted generation, was that in the long run, their improbable experiment, America, wouldn’t work if its citizens were uninformed.”
Here is the full video of Obama’s remarks from C-SPAN:
Within his remarks, Obama took a jab at the right wing media, and their struggles with facts, “You’re accepting your degrees as America wages two wars – wars that many in your generation have been fighting. Meanwhile, you’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t rank all that high on the truth meter. With iPods and iPads; Xboxes and PlayStations; information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment. All of this is not only putting new pressures on you; it is putting new pressures on our country and on our democracy.”
The theme of Obama’s address was education, and he used Tea Party heroThomas Jefferson to make his point, “Years after he left office, decades after he penned the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson sat down, a few hours’ drive from here, in Monticello, to write a letter to a longtime legislator, urging him to do more on education. Jefferson gave one principal reason – the one, perhaps, he found most compelling. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” he wrote, “it expects what never was and never will be.””
The President continued, “What Jefferson recognized, like the rest of that gifted generation, was that in the long run, their improbable experiment – America – wouldn’t work if its citizens were uninformed, if its citizens were apathetic, if its citizens checked out, and left democracy to those who didn’t have their best interests at heart. It could only work if each of us stayed informed and engaged; if we held our government accountable; if we fulfilled the obligations of citizenship.”
Later he put the Colonists of the Revolutionary War in a different context for Hampton grads, “So, yes, an education can fortify us to meet the tests of our economy, the tests of citizenship, and the tests of our time. But what makes us American is something that can’t be taught – a stubborn insistence on pursuing a dream. The same insistence that led a band of patriots to overthrow an empire. That fired the passions of union troops to free the slaves and union veterans to found schools like Hampton.”
Obama is a student of history, so it is no accident that a quote from noted slave owner Thomas Jefferson was included in his address to historically black Hampton University, but there was also something else going on here. The Tea Party movement has redefined the Revolutionary War period and Thomas Jefferson in a very narrow way. To the Tea Party movement, the revolution was strictly about a tax protest and the battle against tyranny.
If a person only got their information from the Tea Party, or Fox News, they would believe that the only thing Jefferson ever said of value was, “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. …And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
Jefferson would likely be mortified to know that his quote was being misused to undermine the legitimacy of a constitutionally elected president. President Obama was able to point out today that there is more to Jefferson and the Patriots than the Tea Party presents. Obama used the language of the Tea Party in a progressive way to reinforce his message about the importance of education and dreams. In short, Obama took Jefferson and the Patriots back from the Tea Party and restored them to their rightful place as important figures in history for all Americans.