EIGHT days before his death on July 4, 1826 - as the nation was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence - Thomas Jefferson wrote his last letter. In declining an invitation to appear at the festivities in Washington, Jefferson wrote that, "All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man."
Jefferson was known to most world leaders, and to many Americans, as naive and idealistic. Yet we now see the truth of his great prophecy that democracy would ultimately come to every region of the world - "to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all."
In his final letter, Jefferson expressed his hope that America's experiment with democracy would be "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 and security of self-government.... 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."
As heirs of those great men and women who laid the foundations of the world's oldest democracy, we should be bursting with pride today. Yet that pride is tempered by what most see as widespread failures in America's political system. In those failures, we may be seeing the fulfillment of another prophecy - a darker prophecy made by Jefferson's greatest adversary, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was a republican and a patriot, yet he feared "the masses" of citizens would not have sufficient discernment to el ect statesmen over demagogues.
Voters, he said, are "liable to be duped by flattery, and to be seduced by artful and designing men." These views were mild by comparison to attitudes in other countries, where kings and aristocrats laughed at the notion that masses of citizens could have the intelligence to govern themselves wisely.
The electorate today is angry at all those "artful and designing" leaders who have spent the nation into paralysis, and created a climate where investment in the future is a thing of the past. But voters don't seem to hold accountable the people who elected all these rascals in the first place - themselves.
The electorate doesn't seem to want to acknowledge that they are the very ones who have been rewarding candidates who treat them like children - by promising that they will lower taxes and decrease the budget by "eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse." People say Congress has lost touch with those outside the Beltway. But the truth is elected representatives are too much in touch, shifting to please the voters as each new public opinion poll is produced.
VOTERS who scream about bloated government are often the same ones who scream loudest when their own particular handout is threatened. We have become a people who demand our services, and demand not to be taxed to pay for them. We are an electorate who bought the absurd promise that we could "increase military spending, cut taxes, and balance the budget." The few elected officials with the integrity to stand up and announce that this was quite impossible were punished at the polls. Voters say they are an gry because elected leaders won't tell them the truth, but in practice they run out of office anyone who does.
It all seems to be confirming Hamilton's fears. Observing the activities of state legislatures in the 1780s, Hamilton said, "The inquiry [of legislators] constantly is what will please, not what will benefit the people." Of the people themselves, Hamilton complained that they "murmur at taxes, clamor at their rulers" and "change one incapable man for another more incapable."As Jefferson traveled from Monticello to New York to join President Washington's first Cabinet, he paused in Charlottesville, Va. To
a gathering of local citizens, he said: "It rests now with ourselves alone to enjoy in peace and concord the blessings of self-government, so long denied to mankind: to show by example the sufficiency of human reason for the care of human affairs...."
The great philosophical fight between Jefferson and Hamilton remains unresolved. Whose vision will prove the more accurate in describing America as we near the 21st century? "It rests now with ourselves alone" to decide.