Thank you, Dr. O'Connell. President Bowman.
What a glorious day this is today. It's a little windy up here on the podium, and that scares a speaker who doesn't want to lose his notes, but we'll try to manage. I want to begin by saying that I am not a Jefferson scholar, and this would be a particularly inopportune moment and an inopportune place to start pretending to be a Jefferson scholar.
But in my field, one cannot help but encounter Mr. Jefferson, because, as Dr. O'Connell quoted, he's the author of the most famous quote in my field. "The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture."
For Jefferson, this was not just an assertion about history. It was actually an exhortation, because you see, the United States is the homeland of only a few crops. The United States has native cranberries, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, hops, a couple of berries, but that's about it.
So we're actually a nation not just of human immigrants and settlers, we're a nation of plant immigrants and settlers. Wheat from the Near East, potatoes from the Andes, black eyed peas and sorghum from Africa. Rice and soybeans from Asia.
Once arriving on this continent, these crops faced the challenge of settling. In 1800, the western border of these states of ours was on this side of the Mississippi River, and our country might have had aspirations of “from sea to shining sea,” but we didn't have the crops, or, more pointedly, the adapted appropriate varieties of our agricultural crops, to produce a viable, successful agricultural system from sea to shining sea.
And yet, the aspirations of our young country really depended on this. So what did Jefferson do? Well, here at Monticello he established a garden. And because of his fame and notoriety and his activities, you might think of it as a national garden. He acquired a tremendous amount of crop diversity. We know that he acquired this diversity from all over the world. This garden was what Peter Hatch has called an “Ellis Island” for plants. He grew over 330 different varieties of about 100 different vegetables and herbs. He grew 20 varieties of lettuce here. More than 30 different kinds of cabbage.
He was experimenting with these different varieties. He was testing them. He was assembling detailed data, which you can see in his garden books, which gives that data over a period of about 58 years. He provided seeds to his neighbors and even farther beyond. He sponsored, as President, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which actually wasn't an expedition simply to go out and see what was out there, but an expedition to collect seeds.
So when you think about it, all of these crops, coming from all over the world to here at Monticello, they were, in effect, experiencing climate change. And Jefferson, in effect, was engaged in a large-scale experiment to see which types were adapted to conditions here.
Now, Jefferson also was Secretary of State, as you probably know, but as Secretary of State he chaired the three-person committee that examined and granted the first U.S. patents. Shortly after Jefferson's death in 1826, the newly established Patent Office began acquiring seeds from all over the world, just as Jefferson had done, which they then distributed to farmers for testing and experimentation,again, to identify which types of crops could be grown in all the different localities.
This was a massive but yet, today, mostly unrecognized program. Just before the Civil War the Patent Office was distributing annually 800,000 boxes of seeds to farmers, each with a number of different packets in it. By the end of the 1800s, the Patent Office was distributing 10 million boxes of seeds to farmers.
I think the only way that one can explain the spread and the success of non-native crops in this country, in other words the success of American agriculture, is by reference to these efforts by Thomas Jefferson, the Patent Office and others to introduce not just new, useful plants, but to introduce and spread and test the many diverse varieties of those plants and to adapt them to conditions here. My sense is, my prediction is, that in an age of global warming you have to wonder whether Jefferson's experiments might be replicated more globally.
Now, as much as I would like to spend all of my time talking about Jefferson and his agricultural pursuits -- this would be my comfort zone -- I don't think I would be honoring Thomas Jefferson's memory by talking just about the past while ignoring the present state of our democracy that he was so instrumental in creating.
So I want to spend the rest of my time with you talking about how we talk about how we govern ourselves, and about the standards of our own political discourse, because I think that the quality of our democracy really rests on the quality of our national discussions about our common problems.
The biggest lesson I learned in spending many, many years at the United Nations negotiating an international treaty was that Nobel laureate John Hume was right when he observed that victories and solutions are not the same thing.
Today, I see politicians that are intent on defeating the other side, who don't seem to be looking for solutions - who seem only to be looking for victories. In a deeply polarized country, are total victories possible? Are they even desirable? Can they be lasting? Can they even be solutions? A different kind of political culture in which solutions are prioritized, rather than victories of Americans over Americans, requires a discourse that is more civil and more respectful than we have today.
Our leaders are our representatives, and they should be representing our values about how we speak to each other. So I think at a minimum, we need leaders who don't casually throw around personal insults for amusement and gratification. Leaders with self–control who have manners. Leaders who don't constantly test the borders of decorum, ethics and public trust. Leaders who are quicker to empathize than to demonize. And people who at least try to act as if they were brought up right.
Political opponents in this country are not enemies and their intentions are not evil or disloyal by definition. Now, I'm aware that saying in effect that we should try to bring people together, lower the temperature in our national discussions, that we shouldn't go out of our way to offend, in saying those things I'm probably offending some people.
But I see a real danger in the proliferation of bad behavior. And that danger is that unacceptable, unethical, divisive and anti-democratic actions and sentiments become normalized -- that they become a harbinger of something worse and more worrying.
And maybe that something worse is actually already here. As a Southerner, and I would even say a proud Southerner, who was present at Martin Luther King's last speech the day before he was assassinated in Memphis, I am particularly alarmed and distressed by the resurgence of the use of race, in both overt and in subtle ways, to divide people in this country. This tactic didn't have a happy beginning. It's not going to have a happy ending. It's simply intolerable.
When our leadership habitually fails to meet the standards that we set for ourselves and our families, we as citizens, as good citizens, really must bear witness to your shared values and not be silent. As Martin Luther King once said, the time is always right to do what is right.
Our democracy doesn't depend on how we structure the healthcare system or the tax code. It probably doesn't depend on whether we welcome immigrants or turn our backs to them. Our democracy won't fail if we don't get the answers to those tough questions right, but it may falter or fail if we continue to lack the will or the ability to have a civil, fact-based discussion about common problems.
Institutions are important in a democracy, and I'm concerned about the corrosive effect of constant undermining of our institutions. In recent years we've witnessed attacks, including by some of our political leaders, on every single institution that's vital to this democracy.
On the integrity of our election process. On the judicial system and the courts. On our law enforcement and intelligence service. On our military. There's been constant condemnation of the free press. It's been called the enemy of the people, which is only the case in non-democracies.
And questions have been raised about the loyalty of the political opposition, including even overt calls for opposition leaders to be imprisoned. Is this helping our governing process or is it slowly making us ungovernable? Maybe you'll say, "Well, it's all in good fun," but when many people cheer these types of sentiments and urge there to be more, I say it's really not in good fun and not a good joke.
We've also seen science routinely questioned and history and precedent routinely ignored. And I think this is dangerous. At an even more basic level, expertise itself has been mocked and devalued amid assertions that common sense and gut level instincts somehow trump expertise when it comes to formulating policy on complex issues.
And in the last year, not surprisingly, there has been a rather dramatic shift of the American public's views about higher education, according to the Pew Research Center. A large portion of the public now thinks that higher education has a negative effect on the country.
I serve on the board at Rhodes College in Memphis, where 80% of the students are engaged in substantial off-campus community service work, and about 10% of each graduating class will go on to medical school. Bad for the country? And here at the University of Virginia, the alma mater of a president, a vice president, numerous cabinet secretaries, a number of Supreme Court justices, a special prosecutor, appellate judges and countless lower court judges, of which my father is one. He's 95 years old this year, and this year is his 70th Virginia Law School graduating class reunion. The higher education offered at the University of Virginia is bad for the country? Really?
I don't have any magic solutions. I think if I had one wish it would be for an end to partisan gerrymandering, because I think that would encourage more officials to listen to, speak to and work with the other side. If I had two wishes it would be to see more attention paid to encouraging citizen participation in elections than discouraging it.
In closing, a final observation. At Rhodes, our vision is to graduate students with a lifelong passion for learning, compassion for others, and the ability to translate academic study and personal concern into effective leadership in their communities and their world.
This, and a bit of gardening, is I think what Thomas Jefferson had in mind for his university and for all of higher education, and indeed for the country as a whole. So on his 275th birthday, I invite you to celebrate Mr. Jefferson, the gardener, the architect, the small "d" democrat, the father of The University, the visionary, the patriot, the president. And I invite you to celebrate and to work to realize his dream of a rational society, which he defined as one that, quote, "informs the mind, sweetens the temper, cheers our spirits and promotes health."
Thank you very much.