By Julie Engbloom, USDCHS President 2019, 2020
“The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.”
The quote, etched in granite on the front of the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse, comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to Lafayette in December 1820. The correspondence put forth Jefferson’s solution to slavery: diffusion. Jefferson believed that the spread of slavery into the Louisiana Purchase territory would more quickly end the institution and result in emancipation. This idea led Jefferson to oppose the Tallmadge Amendment, which sought to admit Missouri to the Union as a free state.
It is in this context Jefferson wrote:
The boisterous sea of liberty indeed is never without a wave, and that from Missouri is now rolling toward us: but we shall ride over it as we have over all others. It is not a moral question, but one merely of power. Its object is to raise a geographical principle for the choice of a president, and the noise will be kept up till that is effected. All know that permitting the slaves of the South to spread into the West will not add one being to that unfortunate condition, that it will increase the happiness of those existing, and by spreading them over a larger surface, will dilute the evil everywhere and facilitate the means of getting finally rid of it, an event more anxiously wished by those on whom it presses than by the noisy pretenders to exclusive humanity.
It started out so well. To be fair, “the noisy pretenders to exclusive humanity,” is not a bad ending and resonates today. It’s the middle part where things get muddy.
That said, I doubt the full context of the quote was on the minds of those who took to the streets after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25. I doubt it was on the minds of those who tagged the Hatfield Courthouse with graffiti.
But, maybe, in a way, it was. The problem with the American approach to history is that it is forgetful. Too often those memory lapses are purposeful. Omissions, from history textbooks and lectures, from the media we consume, from movies and popular culture. Omissions from quotations that appear to say one thing when the full rendition of the words paints a different picture. Jefferson’s wave of liberty was wide-spread slavery.
These historical and cultural omissions are powerful in their ability to mold and hold the status quo. But, when they are found out and brought to light there is an opportunity to learn, to listen, and to hold ourselves accountable. And, yes, sometimes there is rage.
And sometimes that rage comes calling. It stares at us and demands attention. The graffiti painted on our beloved courthouse is difficult to take in. But we must. Because when you look closely, you will see that there, in the midst of the cacophony of words, is a rejoinder to Thomas Jefferson: Ride the Wave.
Jefferson sought to avoid the wave of freedom by letting it roll onward, under him, and cross his fingers. Today’s calling is more insistent, less patient. Four hundred years of patience run dry. We can no longer bury our past and pine for the status quo. The boisterous sea of liberty is rolling toward us like a tsunami. It demands more from our institutions, including the courts. Sometimes the blind eye of justice needs to peek out at the roiling waters.
The U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society’s role is to look ever backwards. We will work even harder to tell our stories, fully and unvarnished. To look backwards with open eyes and, where necessary, re-tell our stories with honesty and clarity. “History is nothing if it is not about trying our level best to tell the truth about our past and our collective efforts to come to grips with it to make a better nation.” –Daryl Michael Scott, Professor of History, Howard University
The boisterous sea of liberty demands it.