July 4, 2015


The Declaration of Independence: Translucent Poetry (Eva Brann, 7/04/15, Imaginative Conservative)

When American schoolchildren first discover that they have a place in the world they sometimes give their addresses a wonderful form. Transformed for our case, it would be: "Proper Name, St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland, the United States of America, the North American continent, the Earth, the Solar System." That is the containing sequence of places in which we live and have our being. The effects of the document with which we are to concern ourselves tonight have pervaded or invaded each of them: "space," our planet, this land, this nation, this state, this city, this school. I might say right now that this diffusion of its power would not have astonished its author very much.

I shall not try to trace its influence on the largest realms, which began with its acknowledged role in the early, as yet innocent, days of the French Revolution. That attempt, I am convinced, would be tantamount to that of giving an account of modem politics. But I do want to point to its relation to the smallest realm, this college, whose immediately post­-revolutionary foundation was assisted by the four Maryland signers: by Paca, Carroll and Stone with subscriptions of money, and by Chase and Stone as members of the first Board of Visitors and Governors. We may therefore imagine that the college was conceived in a spirit much like that which later informed Jefferson's University of Virginia. And indeed it was originally to be the Western branch of the University of Maryland, committed by its charter to admitting students "according to their merit without requiring or enforcing any religious or civil test" and to preparing them "upon a most liberal plan" for discharging "the various offices of life, both civil and religious." But even if these original conditions and aims were to have to be termed "post-Revolutionary" rather than specifically Jeffersonian, it would still be demonstrable­--though not here and now--that our present program, a very pure realization of the founding intention, has more Jeffersonian elements than any other well-known college plan.

Now at Jefferson's university, the Declaration of Independence was to be the first of the "textbooks" prescribed by him as the "teaching norm" for the political education of young Americans. In this one instance Jefferson was the unashamed advocate of indoctrination--he intended the Declaration as a teaching tool for combatting certain anti-Republican "heresies." It is probably not necessary to be more liberal than Jefferson. Nonetheless let us say that the Declaration should not so much be taught as talked of at every American college, and above all, at this one.

It is consequently my ambition and my project for tonight to persuade those of you not already so convinced that this text must be to you, as students and as human beings in the world, a near and dear, a most personal concern.

I., B.

You may well be wondering--I would in your place--why a person audibly not native born should presume to have such an ambition. But consider: a naturalized citizen, like myself, is a citizen by a second, acquired nature, by deliberation and choice. Therefore, just as it is a natural stance for young natives to foster alienation in themselves so it may well be the proper business of those whose youth was alien to feel at home--and to reflect on that feeling.

Forgive me then if I began with a personal apology and continue with a personal prologue--it is after all my argument that the founding tradition should be a personal concern.

Posted by at July 4, 2015 8:17 AM

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