A Messianic Sense of Obligation

A Young Thomas Jefferson. By: Mather Brown.

The effects of the American Revolution throughout the world were not immediately clear, but Thomas Jefferson opined that it would be “a movement on behalf of the rights of man.” Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 110.

In the last letter that Jefferson wrote, he stated that the American Revolution would be “the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.” Id.

Further, he foresaw that the world, “to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,” would follow the lead of the United States in its Revolution. Id. quoting Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman, June 24, 1826, Jefferson: Writings, 1517.

Gordon Wood concluded that these thoughts by Jefferson were the first of American sentiments that would become “the source of America’s messianic sense of obligation to promote the spread of freedom and democracy throughout the world.” Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 110.

Many modern Americans, and others in the world, speculate: Why does America feel the obligation to intervene in so many others countries’ business?

While there are likely a host of factors that create that perceived obligation, Jefferson’s words still ring true. One of the underlying reasons that Americans feel they are in a position to help other countries is because Americans see themselves as a success story. With success comes perceived authority in how to achieve success, as every bookstore’s shelves show.

Whether that American sense of obligation is justified, or even appropriate, is a larger debate.

The fact that Jefferson’s hope that the American Revolution would provide inspiration, and even an example, to other countries to adopt revolutionary beliefs further reinforces Jefferson’s vision for America. His confidence in the success of the Revolution, and its emerging government, institutions, and principles was certainly not misplaced.

The freedom and democracy that America enjoys has not only provided fuel for the flame of America’s success. It also has contributed to America’s intervention abroad. Whether one agrees with those actions or not, Jefferson’s spirit of spreading democracy certainly carries on to the present day.

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