“The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.”
Thomas Jefferson, Man of Liberty
The Man of Liberty, a paradox,
With passion wrote of rights and liberty
While owning slaves the way that men own stocks
Today, while adding to his family tree.
At nine, I studied Latin, Greek and French,
And Homer, Tacitus, the law, John Locke,
And always carried my Greek grammar text.
I studied fifteen hours a day–hard work.
I studied architecture and designed
And built Monticello, where I could read
And write and drink my silky, soft, smooth wine
My agent shipped me from Marseille with speed.
What can men do when taxes are too high?
Buckle like cowards or put up a fight?
Bright men, strong nerves, each risked his life
For a people’s government and for our rights.
1776: The Declaration of Independence
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,”
The words I wrote with my favorite quill pen,
Rights from the Creator of women and men,
“Unalienable” – there! I’ve said it again.
I wrote that England’s king had made a mess,
That life and liberty and the pursuit
Of happiness were rights which God had blessed
All men with, which the king sought to uproot.
1777: The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
I drafted the Virginia Statute for
Religious Freedom, which begins “Whereas,
Almighty God hath created the mind free”
And states “our civil rights have no dependence”
On our opinions of religion any
More than our physics and geometry
Opinions, and that “Truth is great, and will
Prevail” if left alone, therefore law
No longer will compel a man to aid
A certain ministry but that all men
Shall have the freedom to profess, and by
Argument to maintain, their own opinions
In matters of Religion, and their views
Shall in no way diminish, augment or
Affect their civil scope and power, and
Th’Assembly did declare these rights to be
Natural rights of mankind, so that
If this Act were repealed, it would infringe
On those same natural rights; when drafters came
To Philadelphia and looked for guides
To write the Constitution, they esteemed
This Act so much that they embodied it
With a clause: “but no religious test
Shall ever be required” to qualify
To any office or a public trust
In the United States–which pleased me well.
For on these questions, men are fallible.
Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781–83
Can a land’s liberties be thought secure
When we have taken their sole sound foundation:
Conviction in the people’s minds, assured
These are God’s gifts and that to violate
The Lord’s benevolence and breach his trust
Would anger him, like Pharaoh and the Red Sea?
Now when I contemplate that God is just,
From what I’ve seen, I tremble for my country.
The blood of tyrants and oppressors, so dear,
Must from time to time refresh the Freedom Tree
What country can preserve its liberties
If people don’t preserve the rebel spirit?
The Bill of Rights
That Constitution has some good parts,
Mr. Madison, you’ve made a fine start,
To raise it to the level of fine art,
Give it a Bill of Rights, give it a heart
For individuals, so government
Can’t overbear and take God-given rights:
Free speech, no searches with no warrant,
Freedom to worship Divinity’s light,
Right to bear arms, to congregate
As to what the government has done or may
Do, right to counsel, not to incriminate
Themselves, let law’s due process go its way.
And Mr. Madison took my advice
So that the rights were written and precise.
1803: Louisiana Purchase
Nap’s offer was too great for us to say
No, for it doubled the U.S.’s size
At three cents for an acre, yes, we’ll pay:
Good deal, no matter how it’s scrutinized.
“For our whole lives, this is our noblest work,
The U.S. now is among the power of the first rank,”
Said Livingston, the Minister to France,
“We did it with help from an English bank.”
1803–1806: Lewis and Clark
What’s in the West? The maps were dark.
I commissioned two men, Lewis and Clark
Get me samples of wildlife, plants, bark.
Tell me of eagles, hawks, river birds and larks,
Is there a waterway to the western coast?
That is what I want to know the most.
Bring plants and seeds of which the region boasts;
Make this an expedition that we can toast.
Sally and I aren’t items in the news
We keep it private, actions that we do,
No one has forced her–it is what she chooses
To do, let us be or I’ll question you.
1801–1805:The Barbary Pirates
The pirates boarded, daggers in both hands
And between the teeth, and sailors, scared,
Gave up the ships, gave up command,
Were sold as slaves; I, President, declared
I’d end their ransom scam, white slavery
In the Islamic realms had to desist;
The cost in lives and merchandise was dear
Too much was flowing to Islamic fists.
For the nation’s budget one-fifth goes
To ransom, mil. a year, is much too grave
To pay the tribute pirates have imposed.
These pirates turn our sailors into slaves
Hard labor hell for so-called infidels–
We’ll send Marines to clean, so lives are saved
Decatur sailed with frigates full
Of fighters who took the pirates to their graves.
He stormed a ship and overpowered foes,
The age’s boldest and most daring act,
And the Marines took Derna, which was close
To Tripoli, which we would have attacked,
So Yusuf Karamanli had to sign
A treaty to conclude hostilities
And free enslaved Americans to dine
In the United States as they might please.
1817: University of Virginia
A university on an extensive
And liberal scale I had conceived while I
Served as third President, one that would give
Students the knowledge cup, with no requirement
To know a catechism. They could read
Ancient or modern languages, or law,
Medicine, mathematics, chemistry,
Or in philosophy. The tragic flaw
In other universities, I said:
They were religious schools, and I was firm
That higher education not be wed
To a religious doctrine any term.
1826: Life’s End
God gave us liberty when he gave life
(Time wastes too fast, our precious passing lives),
John Adams lives this Fourth of July,
And Independence thrives . . . now I can die.
And on his epitaph, which he designed:
Nothing about his Presidency; instead
The Declaration, which he wrote and signed,
Virginia’s University (he led
With how he had conceived curriculum)
And Statute for Religious Freedom of
Virginia, law designed to overcome
Prejudice for beliefs–labors of love.