Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Happy Birthday Thomas Jefferson

Today is the 268th anniversary of Jefferson's birth.

Back on his 200th birthday, April 13th, 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood on the banks of the tidal basin in Washington D.C. and dedicated the Jefferson Memorial.

Its placement along the tidal basin and its design were not without controversy, but three million dollars and three and a half years later the structure designed by John Russell Pope was reflecting Jefferson's wisdom in the Potomac.

Or was it?

Inside, surrounding the massive 19 foot tall statue of Jefferson by Rudolph Evans, are four inscribed bronze panels all neatly chiseled with the words of Jefferson or so it seems.

The third panel sets Jefferson's basic belief in freedom of the individual and the necessity for educating all the people. Part way down it says, "Commerce between master and slave is despotism."

Jefferson never said it that way. The edited quote comes from Jefferson's Query #18, one of his writing on democracy in Virginia. Twenty-three words are missing  from the entire quotation.

The original quotation reads: "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part and degrading submissions on the other."

There are no series of dots on the panel to show that the words were truncated. It was not a mistake. It was  done purposely by the architects in order to fit Jeffersons words onto the rectangular panels. The truncation changes the meaning of the sentence.

How many Americans have read those words? How many term papers were written believing they were the words of Jefferson?

Things are not always as they seem.

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