No two men now live, fellow-citizen, perhaps it may be doubted whether any two men have ever lived in one age, who, more than those we now commemorate, have impressed on mankind their own opinions more deeply into the opinions of others, or given a more lasting direction to the current of human thought… And no age will come, we trust, so ignorant or so unjust as not to see and acknowledge the efficient agency of those we now honor in producing that momentous event.
-Daniel Webster, “Adams and Jefferson”
Last week Little Bear and I visited a Forest Service lookout tower. It was a new one for us both, and despite it’s restored status, a tourist attraction, safe and stable on the ground (the old tower frame, stairs, and cables lay drying into the grass 100 yards away), the view was when compared to my recent Yaak journey so much more vast as to suspend speech. There forest rolled away in all directions, waves as regular as daylight. Here the prairie spilled away in one direction, while white limestone canyons corrugated the forest in another, as a stack of books thrust up for our edification. In a third direction the forest ran plain, almost to the horizon, a dark sheet whose trees were in texture like the weave of bedding, something that serves our daily comfort without being well understood. Profundity is birthed by context, and there I had laid just enough threads across the landscape that, with a 70 mile view, imagination could run free tying them together. Over there was that lively creek, where I slashed open the floor of my boat and finished the day hypothermic sitting in a pool of water. Over there, 2000 foot corn runs in June. Over there, a dynamic canyon with a few hidden exits, full couloirs of steep old growth with elk paths like storm drains. And a little further over there, the valley in which we live. The Yaak, by contrast, is for me too unknown to be so tied together.
It was impossible to be in either place, today, and not think about Lewis and Clark, and by extension Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, who took the commerce and ambition which impelled us across the Atlantic and through the forest and down the rivers and along the plains and framed the disorganized logic of avarice into national identity. America has been a place of discovery, self-consciously, ever since. And it doesn’t seem too much of an assumption into the man from Braintree that his deathbed pronouncement, “Thomas Jefferson still survives”, was more metaphysical than literal. All of this is immensely problematic, of course. Theodore Roosevelt, whose presidency marks the transition to post-Frontier America, and who as a rancher and hunter directly assisted in its death, was as close in time to George Washington as to Donald Trump. For 21st century America the Frontier, the time when our country exceeded the imagination and, for that reason, was a playground of potential wealth, is far enough in the past that it is almost beyond abstraction. That the time in which such possibility existed was exceedingly brief, and that the possibility of becoming self-made was of necessity made possible by stacking the exploitation of one class atop another, are facts easily buried in the dust of the past.
And this is the crux of our time; that the same blindness which has glued our way of life together for 250 years has, with the brittleness of age, made America peculiarly vulnerable to the pandemic. As the world watches our irrational protests, about masks and shutdowns taking our freedom, I hope they wonder how a class of people purported so long steeped in liberty could worry about loosing it, really having it fall away, in the face of things so trivial. And do not tell me here about the deep state, or draw analogies to Hitler’s Germany, how tyranny ascends in government intrusion piled subtle until suddenly it crossed into significance. Tyranny begins in the mind, when insecurity sends fear as an outrider. We, the white people, are not going to lose our freedom when we lose our guns. We are going to lose our freedom when we collectively refuse to at once admit that individual intention can be virtuous while individual effect can be, because of the weight of context, be freighted with prejudice and injustice.
Jefferson’s empire, be that Monticello, tidewater Virginia, or the Louisiana Purchase, was built by slave labor. This fact should not, cannot, undo the virtues of a president either first or second (to the aformentioned TR) in modeling the intellectual and moral tenure of America. Jefferson can be a devoted husband and the lover to a woman he owned. He can be a great supporter of science, and a supporter of racism. Cancelling one, the other, or the man himself is no more possible than erasing the river the Corps of Discovery dragged themselves up in 1805. We can damn and divert the latter, and remove statues of the former, but memory is something we can choose no more readily than we can choose the direction of a canyon.
It is a hard thing to be ashamed of your country, because while I am a myself and get to move around in the world as I please, my country would not exist without my just as I would not make sense of myself without my country. There is nothing my country can do that isn’t also something I am doing. This is the lesson of 2020, or COVID and Black Lives Matter, that being separate beings and an inevitable part of the whole are as inseparable as they are contradictory. It may be that the United States has a chance here to grow up, as a country, all at once, and accept that the coherence and necessity of individual freedom is bound to our place in the present of history. Insecurity, in our freedom, is evidently inevitable when the history of that freedom, with how it came into being, is both so fraught and yet to be fully said out loud. I remain an optimist, because I have to be, that the synthesis of our last two presidents will provide well for the future. It is an unspeakable tragedy of circumstance, though perhaps one that will in the end fast forward the future of our history, that the Trump side of us, rather than the Obama side, was to the fore during the pandemic.