Jefferson, France and the formation of America

I grew up in the Midwest, spent an ample amount of time on the east coast, have lived in New York, Chicago and San Francisco/Silicon Valley. For the last two decades I’ve resided in Southern California.

I share this to set up the following statement.

I truly did not start to understand America’s place in the world until I left its shores.

It’s hard to grasp something if you’re inside its bubble.

The more I travel the more I understand how much we’ve borrowed from other cultures. The deeper one looks the more they find that America is the result of our collective experiences and our historical roots in other countries.

When we think of technologies and innovation we think of Silicon Valley and perhaps emerging hubs in Bangalore and Beijing. Yet the roots of innovation, whether we segregate that to technology, or take a larger view, point back to places like Paris.

The literal foundations of this country were built on the technological advancements from other countries. For example, to understand the significance of the Brooklyn Bridge is to understand the role of Paris as a hub for creativity and engineering during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Another way to say that is no Paris, no Brooklyn Bridge.

But this goes well past technology and engineering. EVERY element of the New York art scene (museums, galleries, performance halls, bands, art and architecture schools) originated somewhere else and most have roots pointing directly back to Paris. One can make the same argument for medical schools, hospitals, culinary schools, etc. The list is long.

An umbrella metaphor for this is Thomas Jefferson’s time spent in Paris.

Before he ascended to Secretary of State and eventually to the Presidency he occupied the role of Minister to France for four years. When I think of the experiences and cultures he drew on for his last two positions and his legacy after… when I think of his love of architecture, agricultural techniques, writing and culinary exploration… I find myself pointing back to his time in Europe. It all points back Paris.

True, Monticello was started before Jefferson went to Paris but it was a shell. It was while he was in Paris that he integrated the ideas of the central dome, natural light via skylights and even indoor toilets.

Jefferson is celebrated as somewhat of a quintessential American due to his varied interests, overarching optimism and stirring rhetoric captured in iconic documents like the Declaration of Independence. Since he’s one of our founding fathers it’s important to understand where his inspiration came from.

I see Jefferson as a quintessential American BECAUSE he reached past what was available here, sought out the best of what was available elsewhere and brought the best back. In my opinion that is what being an American has come to mean.

America is a global mashup.

All of our roots point to other places. Our family trees have sampled the soil of alternative forms of government and reacted to those with the bedrock documents of this nation: the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. More than three hundred years later we continue to attract people who risk their lives to get here because they believe the opportunity here is greatest.

Sure, America invented baseball, national parks, jazz and the internet. I’m sure others can extend that list. We should also recognize that a large percent of what “America is” hails from somewhere else.

If you want to go deeper, I recommend two books. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph Ellis and The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough.




2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Lash,

    The Melting Pot….it’s a wonderful experiment. Sometimes messy and mixed up. But the end product can be a thing of beauty. Emma Lazarus said it eloquently in her 19th century poem. My 6th grade teacher at an all-white, small, rural school, K-12 in one building made us memorize it and for good reason. We are the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse….” Poem is part of Statue of Liberty monument.

    I personally like Bill Murray’s take from the 20th century….”Our ancestors were kicked out of every other good country.” “We’re mutts.”

    You have always been an observer and vocal critic of our “culture.” And rightly so. Yet our culture resonates with so many throughout the world. Maybe it’s just good marketing but I got to believe that many still look at the American experiment and want to be a part of it.

    Your boy Jefferson’s bold signature on the Declaration of Independence got it all started, yet many of his English successor’s fought like hell to limit those wretched refuse. Through it all, the Melting Pot lives on.

    Good piece. I dig the history/political/sociology stuff.

  2. jmoriarty,

    Thanks Jeff. The ah ha moment came via that second book, The Greater Journey. Pick it up. France has been bashed by many Americans. It’s good us to trace our roots further than our shores (and understand the role of France/Paris in who we’ve become).

    The US welcomes constructive criticism (most of the time) because (most of the time) we’re interested in bettering our long-term future. The shift that unsettles me is the current shift on both of those characteristics… we seem to be less willing to learn from our mistake and less willing to look beyond an election cycle.

    Re. History/political/sociology stuff. There will be more but you know me… and thus the more varied subject lineup.

    Be well amigo.

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