I recently watched a History Channel program about Thomas Jefferson. It covered the expected topics like the Declaration of Independence, Louisiana Purchase, his view on the separation of church and state, and his relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings.
Jefferson had a legacy that extended beyond these familiar topics into areas showing another less familiar side explored in works like “The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson” by Richard K. Matthews and Kevin R.C. Gutzman’s “Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America.”
My thoughts return to Jefferson as I work to process the tremendous changes happening to our society because of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Congressional Budget Office projections, with the coronavirus stimulus package, the U.S. government will triple the projected budget deficit from $1.1 trillion to $3.5 trillion. As of May 7, the national debt of the U.S. government is over $25 trillion.
This among other problems like the environment is the legacy I am leaving for my children and for all young people in our world. Sadly, I fear this won’t be the end of the financial burden we face as a nation as we do our best to work through and overcome this global challenge.
In a 1789 letter written to his colleague James Madison, Thomas Jefferson addressed the issue of debt and the generational challenges faced by this nascent republic both men had done so much to enable. In this letter Jefferson argued, “Then no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.” Such an idea might have been considered possible in 1789, but likely not so in 2020.
Nevertheless, Thomas Jefferson continued to make his case for each generation assuming control of society. “The earth belongs always to the living generation which he believed should be set at 19 years. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please.”
What does this mean for the young people graduating from high school and going off to college or entering into adult society? For me, as a father and teacher in my 50s, I believe Jefferson’s words should be a call to arms. There is perhaps no better time for young people to assert their independence and to shape the future of their world then now. We have seen the impact young people can have on electoral politics as President Obama benefited tremendously from the youth vote.
Had the 2012 youth vote split between President Obama and Mitt Romney, Barack Obama would have been a one-term president.
The last decade has seen an upsurge in civic engagement among young people whether it is the Never Again MSD started by high school students or the large number of students engaged in volunteering and community service. As admirable as community service remains, to make impactful and lasting change for our world today and the future, young people must begin working in their communities and advocating for change and finding the issues most important to their generation.
Register to vote, advocate for your candidates and causes, and find your voice. Your time is now.
Nicolas Shump is a longtime educator and writer in northeast Kansas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.