By Joseph J. Ellis
Ask a group of realtors to name the most valuable plot of ground in the United States and they will end up arguing about the price per square foot in Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston.
Ask a group of historians the same question and they end up agreeing, with scarcely a dissenter, on the Mall and Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. You can’t buy space there. All the permanent residents earned their plots for reasons that defy the measures of the marketplace.
The reasons do not defy the shifting winds of politics. The Jefferson Memorial, for example is located on the Tidal Basin in a space previously reserved for Theodore Roosevelt. His cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, effectively stole the space for Jefferson in the 1930s in order to provide the Democratic Party with a canonized saint who offset Abraham Lincoln, already perched on the Mall as the Republican Party’s saint.
Soon after the dedication of the Jefferson Memorial in 1943, a dialogue began between Jefferson and Lincoln over the role of slavery and race in American history. Though the conversation between the two icons occurs at a transcendent level beyond the range of human ears, it is discernible by lip-reading the steady parade of tourists at each memorial as they mumble the words on the marble panels surrounding each rotunda. George Washington had chosen to remain silent during this dialogue. There are no words on the Washington Monument save for the graffiti scrawled on the staircase leading to the top by several generations of tourists.
Here is Lincoln, channeling Jefferson’s wisdom in the Gettysburg Address (1863): “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this Continent a new Nation, Conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” By speaking those words, Lincoln was declaring that the Civil War was not just about preserving the Union; it was also about ending slavery. He was invoking Jefferson’s words in 1776 to keep the promise in 1863 that Jefferson himself had failed to keep during his lifetime as a slave-owning statesman.
But instead of scolding Jefferson for his hypocrisy, Lincoln celebrated him for his visionary view of human equality: “All honor to Jefferson, to the man who had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, and so to embalm it there, that today and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.” One can only imagine Jefferson smiling at the tribute, relishing the irony of “a merely revolutionary document,” basking in the glory of crafting the American Creed.
Meanwhile, over on the Tidal Basin, tourists were whispering the words that Lincoln found so inspirational. Here are the magic words of American history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
In murmuring the words most tourists resemble members of a congregation in prayer. Jefferson seems to generate an electromagnetic field where “these truths” are articles of faith that all are expected to embrace with unspoken devotion. (If you think about it, that’s what being self-evident means.) The Jefferson Memorial serves as a semi-sacred zone where political differences dissolve in deference to transcendent moral principles, a uniquely American version of the Delphic Oracle.
A third voice joined the ongoing dialogue in August of 1963 when Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Though speaking in Lincoln’s shadow, King announced that he had “come to collect on a promissory note” written by Jefferson. He was obviously referring to the very words Lincoln had cited to justify the end of slavery, which King now claimed as a mandate to end racial discrimination. This was an expansive version of Jefferson’s promise that not even Lincoln had seen fit to propose.
King’s voice became a permanent presence on the Mall in August of 2011 with the dedication of the Martin Luther King Memorial. Although King is looking towards Lincoln, his message floats across the Tidal Basin to Jefferson as the primary source for the egalitarian agenda of the Civil Rights Movement.
What the lifelong Virginia slaveholder meant when he wrote the magic words, King argued, was less important than what the words said to us now. The distance that America needed to travel in order to reach the promised land was less important than our collective commitment to racial equality as a goal. Like the arc of the moral universe, the arc of the dialogue on the Mall bent toward justice. The fact that the first Black president in American history was present for the dedication of the King Memorial seemed to indicate that King’s dream was coming true.
The exact opposite was occurring. The proliferation of cell phones among the tourists and visitors to the Mall filled the airwaves with voices of disbelief that a man who looked like Barack Obama could possibly be their president. Within the new echo chamber, King’s dream was described as a nightmare. White protestors at the King Memorial wearing “Make America Great Again” hats resembled the unique replication of King’s head emerging from the mountain as a joke about howling into the wilderness. “Again” for them meant before Barack Obama and before the Civil Rights Movement.
Meanwhile, over on the Tidal Basin, protesters carrying “Black Lives Matter” signs were calling for the removal of the Jefferson Memorial, describing it as a celebration of both slavery and racism. The panels inside the rotunda, especially the one with the magic words about human equality, were monuments to American hypocrisy by a false prophet.
A panel with the following words from Jefferson’s autobiography was, not so mysteriously, missing: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them: For Jefferson, Black inferiority was the most self-evident truth of all. Despite Jefferson’s well-earned reputation for duplicity, he was sufficiently candid to play the race card up.
Where does that leave us? Well, the Mall always was, and always will be, a semi-sacred space where Americans come together to meditate, mourn, and remember who we were, and are, as a people and a nation. When the ongoing dialogue confronts the race question; however, the collective consensus breaks down because a sizable minority of white Americans, most of whom would pass a lie detector test proving they are not racists, have never internalized the egalitarian assumptions of the Civil Rights Movement. As a result, the ongoing dialogue becomes an ongoing debate. Jefferson is the most resonant figure in that debate because he straddles both sides of the argument with both eloquence and agility. Rather than tear down the Jefferson Memorial and thereby lose his tribute to human equality, my preference is to add the panel with his distressing words about racial inequality. Our dialogue will then contain a realistic reminder of what we are up against.
One of the nation’s leading scholars of American history, Joseph J. Ellis was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers: the Revolutionary Generation and the National Book Award for American Sphinx, a biography of Thomas Jefferson. His latest book, American Dialogue, shows that the founding fathers worried about many of the issues confronting us now — corruption, foreign influence, and a divisive two party system.