Monday, May 21, 2007

Jefferson the Saxonist and the Proposed Great Seal:

Wayne Dynes, a retired art history professor, always has interesting historical nuggets to offer on his blogs. Dynes argues Jefferson may have tried to peddle the "Saxonist myth." I know Jefferson attempted to debunk the notion that Christianity is part of the common law, suggesting that since the common law predated Christianity in England, it is by nature pagan, part of England's Saxon not Christian heritage.

Though Christian Nationalists often note Jefferson's and Franklin's proposed Great Seal featuring "a pillar of fire leading the Chosen People into the Promised Land," Dynes reminds us what was to be on the other side of Jefferson's, "the images of Hengist and Horsa." And this is bad because:

The racial character of this combination is unmistakable. Those of English heritage must predominate on the new continent because of the primordial excellence of the Anglo-Saxons, personified by Hengist and Horsa. The pillar of fire designates the collective side. It belongs to what is termed the theory of manifest destiny, the idea that the original settlers of British North America were entitled to exercise supremacy over the whole continent--and beyond.

I think this concludes too far. Jefferson's greatest accomplishments, what he wished to be remembered for, were his great works of abstract philosophy -- his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, and his establishing the University of Virginia. These principles transcend “'roots,' the idea that ethnicity plays a special role in one’s identity." Indeed, Jefferson thought such natural rights belonged to "the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination."

If he did flirt with such ideas of Saxonism, ethnic conquest, they certainly weren't central to his philosophy and ought not be remembered as anything other than an interesting footnote in his history.

On a side note, the history of the original proposals for The Great Seal by Jefferson, Franklin and Adams, are quite interesting in and of themselves. Again, what we usually hear is the part about one side featuring Moses challenging Pharaoh. But that was proposed along side pagan imagery:

Benjamin Franklin's proposal is preserved in a note of his own handwriting:

"Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.

"Motto, Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God."

Thomas Jefferson also suggested allegorical scenes. For the front of the seal: children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. For the reverse: Hengist and Horsa, the two brothers who were the legendary leaders of the first Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain.

John Adams chose the allegorical painting known as the "Judgment of Hercules" where the young Hercules must choose to travel either on the flowery path of self-indulgence or ascend the rugged, uphill way of duty to others and honor to himself.

This seems not unlike the Supreme Court Frieze featuring Moses and the Ten Commandments surrounded by such pagan lawgivers Hammurabi, Muhammad, Menes, Lycurgus, Solon, Confucius, and others.

As they would tell the story, the Founders, from 1776-1789, "constructed" our public order using the tools of "reason" and "the senses," enlighted men drawing from a variety of philosophical sources, as many pagan as "Judeo-Christian." Believing man's reason supreme, they could "extract" only those rational parts from the classical Greco-Roman democracies and republics of old, the Bible, the Christian religion and the pagan pantheon.

In reality, they "rewrote," or "reimagined" much of the history of these ancient sources. Certainly, having some affinity for some Biblical narratives, the classic being Moses' and the Jews' liberation from Egypt, they conveniently interpreted the Bible to suit their modern Whig-Enlightenment beliefs. They stressed the Ancient Jews' liberation, "explained away" Romans 13 (where Paul states rebellion against civil leaders is out of the question), and pretended the Ancient Israelites had a "Republic," when clearly, they did not, as such concept entirely derives from the West's pagan Greco-Roman heritage. Accordingly, more inspired by their pagan heritage, they adopted pseudonyms from the pagan past like Publius, Cato, and Brutus, when they wrote anonymously. Yet, as with the Bible, they viewed the history of the pagan Greeks and Romans through their modern Whig Enlightenment lens and similarly, took liberties with the past.

Whether their reason really "discovered" principles true everywhere, every time (something I'd like to believe), the ideas with which they came forth -- liberty, equality, property, conscience, science, progress, the rights of man -- are the best the world has ever seen and thus ought to be preserved.

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