History came to life once again at Vance-Granville Community College on March 17, when students, faculty, staff and members of the community enjoyed a visit from Thomas Jefferson, as portrayed by Bill Barker. He presented “Mr. Jefferson and the U.S. Constitution,” the second in his series of three lectures, which have been organized by VGCC’s Arts and Sciences division this spring.
Barker, the critically acclaimed resident “Mr. Jefferson” at Colonial Williamsburg, Va., has a local connection, as his father was an Oxford native and he has many relatives in Granville County.
He will return for his final engagement, entitled “Mr. Jefferson and Slavery,” on Thursday, April 21, at 11 a.m. in the small auditorium in Building 2 on VGCC’s Main Campus in Henderson. The public is invited.
On March 17, “Jefferson” started with his general thoughts on the nature of government and politics. “As Americans, we are more free to disagree than man has ever been,” he said. “What continues to make us a unique people and to strengthen our form of government is compromise and resolution in the midst of difference of opinion. That is what brought together 13 nations into a union.”
The speaker noted that the young United States first existed under a framework for a federal system known as the Articles of Confederation. “I originally thought that those Articles of Confederation were a venerable fabric and ought not to be tampered with,” Jefferson said, when his contemporaries talked of radically changing it. But, he admitted, the system had its faults. “It had no efficient method for electing a chief magistrate of our nation,” Jefferson said. “There was also no cohesive method of raising taxes for the general defense of the entire nation.”
Such faults led to the constitutional convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. Jefferson himself was a world away at the time, serving as the nation’s ambassador to France, but his friend, James Madison, kept him informed of the proceedings. “The mighty Madison I considered the most luminous mind I have ever known,” Jefferson told the VGCC audience. “He sent me the draft of our Constitution that had been agreed upon. I was hesitant to read it, but when I finished, I wrote back to Madison, saying ‘I am captivated.… It is the shortest document of its kind in history, creating a government to check its own power.’” He was glad to see that under the Constitution, the most influential and important of the three branches of government remained “the legislative, that branch elected by the people.”
Still, the future president had his doubts about the proposed Constitution. “What I was concerned about in this new system of government is something that it did not have, and without it, this new Constitution could be read by any government in power for its own means and ends – a Bill of Rights,” he said. Jefferson’s opinion eventually prevailed, of course, and the Bill of Rights were added as the first ten amendments to the Constitution. “The Bill of Rights allows the government to remain in the hands of the people,” Jefferson remarked.
“If a people become disinterested and disengaged from their government, they allow their government to be disinterested and disengaged from them,” he added.
Jefferson went on to describe another of the Constitution’s drawbacks, which was corrected by an amendment. “As originally written, our Constitution stated that whoever receives the second-highest number of votes in the presidential election becomes vice president,” he explained. “I lost the presidential election of 1796, and I suffered the office of vice president for four years. As I have written, the mind of man never conjured up a more useless office than that of Vice President.”
He also noted that the right to vote was severely limited in the country he knew. “Only white males 21 years of age who owned property and were not mortgaged hold the reins of our government,” Barker said from Jefferson’s perspective. He noted that until he and others changed Virginia law, voters also had to be Protestant Christians. “What a remarkable advance we have made in my one lifetime,” Jefferson marveled. “And yet I say we have a long way to go.”
The experienced Barker never broke character. When he happened to hear a cell phone ring at the end of his lecture, without missing a beat, Barker exclaimed “I declare, I hear a nightingale! That’s extraordinary. They are not indigenous to our nation.”
For more information on the lecture series, call David Wyche at (252) 738-3364 or Deanna Stegall at (252) 738-3311.