In the summer of 2006, I was vacationing with my family on Martha’s Vineyard and while browsing in an Edgartown bookstore I was privileged to meet one of my favorite authors — David McCollough.
McCollough, who happens to live on the island, is the twice Pulitzer Prize winning historian who at the time had written “Truman,” “John Adams,” as well as “1776,” which I happened to be reading that summer.
After a brief conversation with the celebrated author, I politely suggested that I would love for him to write a book about my favorite Founding Father — Thomas Jefferson. The writer just smiled as he walked on. Well, it has been more than 13 years since that encounter and there’s still no book about Jefferson from David McCollough. So much for any suggestion of mine.
Nonetheless, in just four days, America will be celebrating 243 years since Thomas Jefferson penned that world-changing Declaration of Independence that best described the American mind in 1776 and the courageous, if not valiant, quest for independence from the British crown.
Although flawed like any earthly man, Jefferson was as accomplished as anyone of his time with achievements in such diverse fields as astronomy, architecture, engineering, horticulture, law, literature, mathematics, medicine and science. He was undoubtedly the epitome of intelligence and wisdom.
I once read a story about a friend of Jefferson who was somewhat envious of the ever-brilliant Jefferson. The friend excused his own mediocre existence on the grounds he could never become a genius like his friend. Whereupon, Jefferson hurled back this interesting response: Paraphrasing, Jefferson is purported to have said, in effect, “That if you attribute my laborious study in many fields of endeavor as constituting genius, then I will accept the tribute.”
But the fact is, the Founding Father continued, “I have no more innate ability than many other people. I am just content to lay aside any problem that has challenged my interest until I mastered it to the best of my ability. This has meant long hours of laborious work. Whatever knowledge or special attributes I may have are due to perseverance and to the ability to keep everlasting at it.”
Now that’s an insightful lesson for all of us — the notion of preparing and seizing opportunities for learning and persevering until the challenge has been met. That was Thomas Jefferson.
It was in June 1776 that he who would later become our third president made the 300-mile journey from his home in Virginia to attend the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Being appointed as one of the drafters for the incredible Declaration of Independence based on a historic resolution by Richard Henry Lee, Jefferson did most of the actual writing in four days.
In those 96 hours, Jefferson produced a document that would change the history of the world forever and produced the values which still hold us together as Americans — freedom, liberty and independence.
So, celebrate that on July 4th. Celebrate the promissory note America bestows on its citizens — the promise of equality of opportunity and the general pursuit of happiness. Thanks to men like Jefferson in America, liberty and freedom are not mere words — they are the foundation for our democracy.
Happy Birthday, America — and may our story never be forgotten.