In applying to participate in the Monticello Teacher Institute for next summer, I had to answer some leading questions. These took much thought on my part as I considered the seriousness of the goals for the institute. As a conscientious person, I must realize that if I apply for a scholarship, including travel expenses, meals, and lodging, and if someone is willing to award me with such, then I must be respect that generosity by taking the award seriously. In other words, I expect myself to put forth great effort to do the best I can if given the opportunity to visit Monticello on somebody else's dime. That also means, in the second year of applying, I must consider revising or rewriting my answers. This response was one that needed a complete overhaul. I tried to make it apply in a more personal manner.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,” just what sort of tomorrow did he expect? When he penned, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” and claimed, “It is its natural manure,” what was he predicting for the future?
There are so many aspects of Thomas Jefferson’s life that intrigue me, but at the moment, I wonder what kinds of events would warrant rebellion. For example, did Mr. Jefferson ever wonder if his writing would inspire a terrorist?
I taught five miles from the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City when Timothy McVeigh, wearing a t-shirt displaying the latter quote above, detonated a chemical bomb that killed 168 people. I doubt Jefferson would have considered McVeigh’s actions an acceptable interpretation of his thought, but at what point would Jefferson lend his support to rebellion?
The answer may lie in Mr. Jefferson’s bolstering of the United States Navy to combat Barbary Pirates. It may take time to trace writings and track changes in the third president’s tone and opinion concerning a larger naval presence on the seas. I am confident that primary sources exist to support fundamental changes in Jefferson as he changed roles from ambassador to secretary of state to president to citizen. At what point did he justify violent action? At what point did he substantiate using offensive force? At what point did he warrant putting American lives in harm’s way? Returning to Continental Congress, at what pivotal point did Jefferson take sides against King George III?
His transformation in combatting piracy may reveal Jefferson’s Growth Mindset – something I would love to highlight to students. Understanding that grit and open-mindedness carry us forward – even through ugly moments, historic failures, and tragic missteps – is an essential part of what I instill in my fourth graders every day. To see our third president experiencing those struggles between diplomacy and combat, and to note any changes in his character, is to understand that the path forward, for any of us, will not always be smooth. Not only that, but we must also recognize that understandings and opinions evolve as we encounter new information and events.
Every year, I present my personal account of the Oklahoma City Bombing to all of the fourth graders in our school in Joplin, Missouri. Evidence tells me that McVeigh believed his actions fulfilled Thomas Jefferson’s prophecy of drawing the blood of tyrants, but I do not believe that Jefferson’s warning of rebellion was properly applied in the bombing. Perhaps my curiosity will never be fulfilled, but studying the actions he took against the crown and against piracy may get me a little closer to what he really meant when he penned those particular thoughts.