While writing my book about Jefferson’s travels, I’ve had the chance to spend the Fourth of July in far-flung places. Like the town of Carrara, Italy, where Jefferson obtained gleaming marble for his buildings. And the Court of St. James in London, where King George snubbed the American diplomat (I wonder why?). Of course, Philadelphia, where he wrote our founding creed. Naturally, Monticello, where every Independence Day a judge administers an oath to immigrants becoming new Americans and a celebrity speaker welcomes them home. (The year I went it was that noted orator Dave Matthews.)
But this year I’m not going to a grand place fit for royalty and Founders. Instead I’m making a pilgrimage to a quiet spot, Jeffersonian in its own right: my local library.
Each year my office gets dismissed early on July 3, and on my way home I’ll head straight for the Thomas Jefferson Library in Falls Church, Virginia. It’s humble, with a small sculpture of a scroll of the Declaration of Independence in front. But it’s the perfect source for my next day’s summer reading. On the Fourth, I would, as Jefferson once wrote, “rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post.”
Fireworks and speeches weren’t Jefferson’s thing. He couldn’t imagine anything better on the nation’s birthday than for a new generation of citizens to think critically, examine the world, and dream of remaking it anew. For only when people “improved” their minds “to a certain degree” would they be safe depositories of liberty, he wrote.
Jefferson found many ways to improve his own mind: traveling, challenging received wisdom, experimenting. Still, for him it was hard to beat reading. “I cannot live without books,” he wrote, and he hardly ever had to. Even when he sold his volumes to the Library of Congress, for the good of all, he promptly began to assemble new private library.
So, on this, the day he gave us permission to pursue happiness when he was only 33 years old, and the day in which he himself “slipped his mortal coils” exactly 50 years later, I’ll skip the parades and explosions. I’ll pass on that speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
Instead, I’m going to crack a book and invite you to do the same. How about an independent Independence Day this year? Let’s all do our part to live up to Jefferson’s “ardent desire to see knowledge so disseminated through the mass of mankind that it may, at length, reach even the extremes of society: beggars and kings.”