A Day With Thomas Jefferson
Sometimes I have random daydreams about what it would be like to play tour guide for a day with Thomas Jefferson. I’ve long had a fascination with Jefferson (defying the Hamilton squad, I know), so I feel like I know him better than other historical figures, which makes it easier to imagine spending time with him. Plus, his natural curiosity and inventive nature make him an ideal candidate for my time traveling hostess desires.
Ignoring the (current) impossibility of time travel, imagine what it would be like to show Thomas Jefferson around our modern world.
Can you imagine the sheer awe and amazement (and possibly fright) that would linger on his face as he took in every building, every appliance, every road and person and object he saw?
Not long ago, I was driving along Whitehurst Freeway in Washington, D.C., heading from Georgetown towards the Kennedy Center. As I drove, I passed a building with a slanted roof. There were men out on the roof, presumably cleaning the windows that stuck out at odd angles. I wondered as I passed them, what would Thomas Jefferson think of seeing those men on that building? What would he think of their harnesses and the way they were hooked in? Would he be appalled and frightened that they might fall? Or would he just be in awe of the sheer creativity of the whole endeavor?
That got me thinking about what our conversation would be like if he were in the car with me. What would he think of how fast cars could drive? Would he sit in his seat, bracing his hands against the dashboard like we do on a rollercoaster and waiting for it to be over? How would I explain to him simple things like seatbelts, or the radio, or the car engine? (In case you were wondering, my knowledge of cars and electrical circuits probably wouldn’t impress him.)
I also love to play this time traveling game on airplanes. Whenever I fly, I always try to sit by a window so my 5-year old self can be delighted by the take-off and landing. Because I love it so much, it’s fun to imagine experiencing Thomas Jefferson’s first flight and watching him shriek with terror and excitement as the plane takes off from the ground and climbs 30,000 feet into the air, questions flying as fast as he can come up with them.
But I also realize it might be super annoying to escort T.J. around all day.
We might not ever make it onto the airplane because he would be so fascinated by the moving walkways or the security gates or the food court that we’d miss our flight. And we might not ever make it downtown to see the skyscrapers because it would take him forever to get on the metro (possibly making him more annoying than the tourists who also don’t know how to ride the metro).
In these moments, I realize just how much our world has changed in the last 250 years. It’s not just better publication processes or the use of gas lamps instead of candles – it’s stuff like skyscrapers, cars, planes, trains, speed boats, laptops, smart phones, the Internet. “Hey Siri, how do you explain the Internet to Thomas Jefferson?”
The other reason I dream of T.J. is because of his role as one of America’s Founding Fathers.
I love to imagine showing him the state of the country he staked his life to build. In many ways I think he would be dumbfounded by what America has become. His pride (and ego) would soar when we entered the National Archives and saw his Declaration of Independence sitting there, enshrined as one of the premier examples of successful modern democracy and copied by other nations around the world.
He would be both impressed and astonished at our military might, stunned by the power of aircraft carriers, tanks, and submarines, and awed by the majesty of Army, Navy, and Air Force troops standing at attention.
But what would he think of our government? What he would think of the way the three separate but equal branches have evolved over time? Would he be shocked at the power of the Supreme Court? Would he watch over a session of Congress and think it looks a little tamer but essentially the same (I mean, at least we no longer have Senators openly hitting each other with canes)? And what of the Presidency? How would he feel about the way Americans vote? What would he think of our history with Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity? At the end of his journey, would he be impressed with where we’ve taken the country, or not?
I like to think that he would. Even though we have a long way to go to perfection, overall I think America has done a pretty great job. There aren’t many countries in the world who have declared and maintained their independence like America has. And the American Dream is still real for millions of people at home and abroad. Yes, we’ve made some pretty glaring mistakes, but we usually find our way back and end up better for it. And I think Thomas Jefferson would tell us that, in spite of all that’s going wrong in the world today, there is also still much to be grateful for.