Image credit: Tony the Misfit/Creative Commons
Inscribed on Thomas Jefferson's tombstone at Monticello are the words: "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia."
Renowned architect and designer Bill McDonough often remarks about the power of this inscription. There is no mention, says Bill, of being the President of the United States. What Jefferson chose to describe were the things he left behind: his designs. Examining the work of our Founding Fathers from a design perspective is quite a remarkable journey, one I found myself undertaking anew after a recent trip to Washington, DC. There for a conference of social entrepreneurs, cognoscenti, and new media types, I found myself at dinner one evening with 40 of my fellow conference speakers in a group as diverse as to include magician David Blaine, entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks Mark Cuban, and a handful of movie stars. All of this, set inside one of the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes on the Eastern Seaboard, which hangs on a precipice high above the upper Potomac River.
Going in, we were only told this would be a "working" dinner, and amidst an amazing evening filled with rich stories and local food prepared by local chefs, we were handed a small unmarked envelope that contained a simple letterpress copy of the Declaration of Independence. Our exercise, it turned out, would be to rewrite the Declaration of Independence in the context of the modern world. An ambitious exercise, indeed.
And while the realities of wrangling and distilling the ideas of 40 leading thinkers on a topic as grand as our freedom and connection to society proved too much to pull off over asparagus salad and free-flowing wine, I was left humbled by the thought of designing a nation. I spent the next two days scouring the Smithsonian reacquainting myself with the works that define America, democracy, and what it means to be American.
Understanding the Declaration
The Declaration of Independence is written as an argument. It begins with a statement of principles, provides evidence of the violation of those principles, and concludes with a proclamation—that the colonies are "free and independent states." Its opening sentence states these principles, and introduces the notion of Nature's sovereignty over man:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
This opening sentence is profound and powerful, especially when considered in the historical context. The idea that there are laws that all men must follow, even Kings and the ruling elite, was a highly radical notion in a day when Kings were believed by many to rule by divine right. That all men have certain rights, and are subject to certain principles, including the Laws of Nature, is in fact the core tenet of democracy.
To think that words written more than 200 years ago still ring true in the modern day is remarkable. It is also a reminder that this country, and perhaps democracy itself, was founded on a set of principles that includes respect for Nature's Laws and our responsibility to live within them, not above them. Jefferson probably would have never imagined that technological revolution would give us the ability to usurp and control nature, to give us power over it, but he certainly would have recognized that dominion over nature and many of the ways we use it are in fact anti-democratic and at odds with what it means to be American.
No Better Than King George?
Today, the relevance and truth in the words written in the Declaration of Independence are prescient, even haunting. Have we respected the Laws of Nature in our own development and pursuit of prosperity, or are we guilty of the same usurpations King George exercised on the colonies? Isn't the pillaging of our natural capital in the name of economic development anti-democratic, even anti-American?
With these questions in mind, I found myself wandering to Jefferson's Memorial. While there, I was struck by a passage I had heard before, but long since forgotten. It was one of four writings of Jefferson's carved 30 feet high in the marble walls of the Memorial:
I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
Even before America had institutions, Jefferson knew that institutions needed to change with the times and adapt, or they would cease to serve the purpose for which they were created. The point is that change is progress, you cannot advance as a society without it, and a government must be built to bring it about. Jefferson understood that those who govern must embrace this inevitable fact, and that is why he left on his tombstone not his positions, but his creations.
We don't all have the opportunity to found a country, or author documents that change the course of human history. But we do all make a choice to apply ourselves in work that makes a difference. The issues of Jefferson's day were religious freedom, representative government and liberty from Great Britain. The issues of our day are sustainability, economic stability, and social fairness.
They are complex and difficult. But perhaps keeping in mind some simple advice from our Founding Fathers might help us in our quest to address them: We are all part of organizations and institutions with purpose, and if we focus on how to evolve, change, and adapt them, rather than on their station, we might just make a difference.