Every American should be aware of the famous words that Thomas Jefferson wrote for the Declaration of Independence in 1776. However, the lesser-known words that the elderly former president wrote for the document’s semicentennial celebration 50 years later still ring just as true for our grand experiment in human liberty today.
Jefferson had been invited to a special 50th anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence, but due to his poor health and age (he had just turned 83 a few months before), the document’s author wasn’t able to make the journey.
In his stead, he sent a meticulously written letter (his last public one) of thanks for the invitation to Washington, D.C., Mayor Roger Chew Weightman. In the now-famous letter, Jefferson says that being unable to attend makes his ailments even worse to bear, but also expresses his lasting hope that the American experiment will continue to be a beacon of liberty to people throughout the world, inspiring them “to assume the blessings & security of self government.”
“All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man,” Jefferson continues. “For ourselves, let the annual return of this day for ever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”
And that’s exactly what Independence Day should really be about, folks.
Here’s the text of the letter in full:
The kind invitation I receive from you on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the 50th. anniversary of American independance; as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. it adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day. but acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to controul. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. may it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) 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 & security of self-government. that form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. the palpable truth, that 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. these are grounds of hope for others. for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
I will ask permission here to express the pleasure with which I should have met my ancient neighbors of the City of Washington and of it’s vicinities, with whom I passed so many years of a pleasing social intercourse; an intercourse which so much relieved the anxieties of the public cares, and left impressions so deeply engraved in my affections, as never to be forgotten. with my regret that ill health forbids me the gratification of an acceptance, be pleased to receive for yourself, and those for whom you write, the assurance of my highest respect and friendly attachments.
(For more from the author of “Thomas Jefferson 50 Years After the Declaration: Never Forget What Independence Really Means” please click HERE)