Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of legal history at Harvard University and the author of two books on Thomas Jefferson: “the Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” and “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.” She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the first title. She opened the eyes of many of us to the incredible complexity of the life of Thomas Jefferson.

My high school American History notion of Jefferson included more than a small amount of hero worship. I knew that he was an owner of slaves, but I also was taught that he freed his slaves upon his death. And more than that I was taught about his role in the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of our nation. The third President of the United States found just the right words to boldly declare the principles of American democracy to the world and at the same time to rally the citizens of the colonies to bold - and life threatening - action. The Declaration of Independence presented a series of indictments against King George III that justified the actions of the colonists. If the Declaration were written in today’s style, there would be 27 bullet points alleging acts of infamy and tyranny on the part of the king.

Gordon-Reed’s book, however, demonstrates that Jefferson, like all human beings was a complex person with both positive and negative qualities. He may have had big ideas - capable of inspiring a nation 243 years later. But he also took advantage of his slaves and engaged in relationships that we would not consider to be consensual or moral.

I walk along the President’s walk at Mount Rushmore and I look up at the four presidents carved into the mountain and I know that the emotions I feel are more complex than a simple rush of patriotism. These great men, worthy of the sculptor’s efforts, were flawed. They were human.

We are all complex persons. When we feel that we are able to sum up the personality of any other person, the one thing of which we can be sure is that there is more to the story. We are all multifaceted persons motivated by many different emotions, goals, relationship and values.

Our faith teaches us the different between heroes and idols. Idols teach us what we can never become. The stand above mere humans. They rise above humanity. Idols demand our adoration, affection and loyalty. And they steal loyalty from the one true God. Heroes on the other hand, show us what we can become. Since the days of his rise to the office of President of the United States Abraham Lincoln has been a demonstration that one can rise from simple and humble beginnings to assume leadership and become a unifier of the people. Leadership does not come from the cost of one’s education or the wealth of one’s parents, but rather from integrity and faithfulness.

As I celebrated Independence Day yesterday and as I took my grandchildren to Mount Rushmore a few days earlier I was struck that one of the essential qualities of democracy that isn’t commonly discussed in our day is humility.

Our political system is not set up to reward humility. Politicians don’t win elections by admitting their failings. Democracy, however, is dependent upon the humility of our leaders. Leaders who lack humility quickly become the very despots and tyrants that resemble in many ways the very King George against whom our founding document so powerfully rallies. Instead of living out the values of the Declaration of Independence, those who feel that they are entitled to positions of power and authority become the very persons against whom that document was crafted.

Without humility, there is no democracy.

So when I pray for our leaders, which I do every day, I pray that they will discover the humility to admit their mistakes and to understand that only God is all powerful. Any illusions of power that they now hold are temporary at best and dangerous at worst. May God grant them health and wisdom, strength and humility for the positions they hold.

Centuries from now, historians will write about the complex personalities of our Representatives, Senators and Presidents. I suspect that the scandals that surround them will be no less galling than the things that have been revealed about our founders. I am confident that someone will follow in the steps of Annette Gordon-Reed to uncover and teach future generations about the failings of today’s leaders. And when our great-great-great grandchildren read their words they will likely wonder about us. “What were they thinking?” “Why didn’t they say something?”

Democracy demands humility of everyday citizens as well as of our leaders.

We, too, make mistakes. We, too, need to be willing to humbly admit our failings and shortcomings and then get up and go to work to make our world better.

Back in 2016, coal mines near Gillette, Wyoming laid off more than 460 workers touching off economic shock waves that resounded through out the Powder River Basin. Although not a major factor in that fall’s election, the candidate who was elected promised to return jobs to the coal mines. But that promise was one that could not be kept. On Monday, the Eagle Butte And Bell Ayr mines near Gillette sent home all of their workers. The fourth- and sixth- largest producing coal mines in the nation have sent home more than 700 workers without warning. Pay checks are bouncing. Pension payments are not being made. Workers are wondering where to get grocery money. The owner of the mines, Blackjewel, is the fifth coal producer in Wyoming to file for bankruptcy in recent years. The promises made to those who work in the mines simply were not kept.

I don’t expect apologies. I do expect, however, that the 2020 election will see a lot less talk about coal and the miners whose lives depend on the work. Humility and truth-telling don’t seem to be the route chosen in the pursuit of votes.

The good, hard-working people who have lost their jobs don’t expect an apology, which is probably a good thing because I don’t expect that they’ll get one. Imagine how much stronger our democracy would be if they received one accompanied by affordable health care and a method of retraining for more stable jobs. May we all learn humility for the sake of future generations of citizens of our country.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!