Charles Scamahorn visiting the portrait of Thomas Jefferson

“I have sworn on the altar of God eternal enmity against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Thomas Jefferson

This is written in giant gold leafed letters around the dome above the statue’s head in the Jefferson Memorial on the Mall in Washington DC. Just below that sentence there are five huge stone banners with truncated quotes of Jefferson’s ideas written around inside of the barrel of the building.

Jefferson was a deep thinker and a careful wordsmith, and so when he uses words like God — Eternal — Enmity we should pause and consider just what he intended by those maximally potent words. The entire short sentence is laden with words and concepts so extreme it is almost hallucinatory in its effect if you pause and reread it carefully, and Sworn — Altar — Tyranny are terms set at the absolute limits of human responsibility.

I have thought of Jefferson as an open-minded liberal in the good spin on that term, a man devoted to seeking the truth as fervently as any man ever has sought it, and to make this statement of the most extreme sort sets my mind to spinning. Generally speaking intellectuals like to couch their thoughts in more relative terms so why was this Founding Father of American freedom so vehement in this particular statement?

This is more than I can cope with at this time, and I am going to ponder over it for a week or two and ask my friends to help me pull these challenging concepts and fighting words apart so we can understand them and carry forward the banners of freedom and liberty of the mind.

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