Political rhetoric does more than simply convey partisan messages. It can also provide insight into changing conceptions of the relationship between the citizen and government, the ruled and the rulers.
So, for example, in its 1776 Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress did not just lay out its case for seceding from the British Empire. Rather, it claimed that God had endowed men with certain inalienable rights, famously including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It also envisioned the citizenry as ultimately in a position of mastery over its government. When government ceased to serve their purposes, Congress claimed, “It is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
One searches far and wide in the writings of the Founding Fathers for imagery of the kind produced by our American statesmen in recent years. Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Revolutionaries did not believe that their role was, in the words of former president Bill Clinton, to “take care of the American people.” Certainly George Washington did not claim a wide-ranging obligation to “protect the American people,” as George W. Bush did.
Perhaps most foreign to the Founders’ conception of the proper relationship between republican citizens and their creature, the government is imagery recently employed by President Barack Obama. In a May 5, 2012 speech kicking off his reelection campaign, Obama opined that, “This country is at its best when we harness the God-given talents of every individual.” Far from an independent citizen working to achieve his own dreams for himself and his family, then, it seems that Obama’s image of each American is of an ox pulling a cart driven by … Barack Obama.
This image of course fits in quite nicely with Clinton’s passive recipients of government care and W.’s unsuspecting recipients of protection. It stands in stark contrast, however, to the imagery beloved of America’s greatest political penman, Thomas Jefferson.
In his presidential First Inaugural, Jefferson imagined yeomen flying to the colors in case their country came under enemy attack. America had no need of a standing professional army, the captain of the Jeffersonian Republican Party held, because Americans loved their government. They loved their government, he said, precisely because it imposed so light a burden upon them.
Jefferson’s writing consistently reflected this vision. Among his favorite specimens of political language were the dying words of a British republican martyr who faced the hangman with contempt. Jefferson borrowed his language in the very last letter of the great Virginian’s life.
No, Jefferson said, in a letter to Roger Weightman, he would not be able to journey to Washington, D.C. to join in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He did, however, have strong opinions about it. Finally, after so many millennia, mankind stood on the verge of universal liberty. The Declaration of Independence would serve as “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 & security of self-government. that form which we have substituted,” he insisted, “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.”
Here, in the very last letter he ever wrote, Thomas Jefferson ten days before his death grew angry at the idea of “a favored few” treating average people as beasts of burden. Far more noble would they be, now that they had begun to stand upright in the broad, warm sunlight of freedom.
In an age of benefits, entitlements, aid, security, and assistance granted by government to passive recipients, there is a bracing quality to the rhetoric of a man such as Thomas Jefferson. His idea of citizenship had more in common with that of a Cato or a Cicero, a Demosthenes or a Washington than of a Clinton, Bush, or Obama. Ultimately, what he insisted that people deserved was respect—their own and their governments’. If the favored few were not to be booted and spurred, neither were the common folk to be harnessed. Someone get a memo to President Obama.