The unprecedented events of recent days in Washington have struck at the very heart of the constitutionally guaranteed values of the United States. To what extent has the outgoing 45th president of the United States permanently changed the political discourse in the United States and shaken the foundations of the Enlightenment using the example of “Charlottesville”? Is the land of unlimited possibilities turning into the land of unlimited facts in the post-Trump era?
The devastating effect of the principle of presidential one-way communication became apparent just six months later on the occasion of the violent “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia. When a conglomerate of racist and neo-Nazi groups demonstrated against the planned removal of an equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on August 11 and 12, 2017, fierce battles broke out with anti-fascist counter-demonstrators that erupted into intense violence and led to the violent death of a peaceful protester. The Charlottesville rally went down as the largest right-wing extremist demonstration in recent U.S. history. Trump’s half-hearted vindication of the right to freedom of expression on August 15, however, did not ease tensions between the camps, but rather acted as a rhetorical divisive mushroom that had provided the ideological foundation for the recent events in Washington in the first place (“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”).
Charlottesville as “Genius loci”
If we look back in terms of the history of ideas, however, Charlottesville was by no means a place of communicative division, but rather, since the early 19th century, a crystallization point of American social development and, so to speak, a “genius loci” of American constitutional history. With Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and 3rd President of the United States (1801–1809), the small town in Virginia had a trend-setting pacemaker in the spread of the achievements of the Enlightenment in the USA. In addition to the introduction of the separation of powers, the introduction of civil rights (nota bene while retaining slavery), Jefferson’s attention was particularly focused on the establishment of a civil society on American soil. In Jefferson’s vision, education was the central key to the development of an independent nation capable of successfully asserting itself against the colonial power England in the long term. Thus, on December 31, 1787, he had proclaimed his educational vision in a letter to Uriah Forrest, a Maryland representative in the House of Representatives:
“Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them.” (Thomas Jefferson to Uriah Forrest, Dec. 31, 1787)
Jefferson’s approach to establishing the “Ideal University” on American soil was to impart European educational standards that would cut the shackles of colonial oppression with Enlightenment ideals based on the theories of Francis Bacon, John Locke, or David Hume. Jefferson himself sent his daughters to Paris, while some of his countrymen preferred Geneva for the education of their offspring. When Geneva University was threatened with dissolution in 1794 in the wake of the turmoil of the French Revolution, he and his cohorts even developed plans – which were never implemented – to evacuate the entire faculty corps, including the renowned naturalist Horace Bénédict de Saussure, to America. Also serving during Jefferson’s presidency was Albert Gallatin, a minister of finance originally from Geneva who had strongly supported the financing of the university in Virginia.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia (UVA) ultimately stood at the end of Jefferson’s vision and the beginning of his goal of establishing an “Academic Village” where lively exchanges between students and faculty would take place. According to Jefferson, the most important task of the university was not only to prepare the future leaders of the republic for their tasks, but also to support the establishment of a dual education system that included three years of compulsory primary education for boys and girls. Public education was to become the engine of republicanism, with the goal of shaping non-academic citizens in terms of state policy.
In the long run, Charlottesville and its university provided decisive impulses for the further development of the United States. Let us be confident that with the upcoming transition period, the dialectical principles of the Enlightenment will return to political discourse, although the drift of the right-wing spectrum into the subcultures of “alternative facts” is probably unstoppable. Despite the irreconcilable viewpoints, freedom of speech must be preserved at all costs so that the new administration under 46th President Joe Biden has a chance to build on the values of the Founding Fathers. To conclude in the words of Jefferson in 1786: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”