“Civilized Society”

I’m just back from a family vacation in Washington, D.C. It’s one of my favorite places to visit, and always overwhelms me on a number of dimensions.

We went this spring for a few different reasons, but in large part because we thought it would be a good experience for our 10 year old son in the run up to the 2016 election.

Although, honestly, we booked the tickets well before the primary season became a raging dumpster fire. There’s a lot more to explain to a 10 year old than you’d really prefer this cycle, honestly.

Anyway. It was a good trip. One highlight for me was spending time in the Jefferson Memorial, a space that I love.

In the photo above, on the right you can see the immortal words from the Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson authored at the age of 33.

But I was happy to be reminded of another of his less well known quotes — on the left in the picture above:

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

That’s a profound idea, especially from a founder: we’ll build things, and we’ll get some right and some wrong. But you learn and you evolve. You cannot stay the same.

Jefferson wrote these words in 1816, about a decade after he was president, and 40 years after writing the Declaration.

I find the political debates of 2016 so tiresome, and more than that, genuinely troubling. Originalism, conservatism, literalism.

Fine, okay: the work of our founders — and so many re-founders of our country over the centuries like Lincoln and MLK and countless others — was monumental, and much of it has stood the test of time.

But society progresses, and we learn, and we should evolve in turn.

And Thomas Jefferson knew that even 200 years ago.

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