During Bill Clinton's presidency, he frequently mentioned that he could look out the window of the Oval Office and enjoy a straight-line view of the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin. But where, I wondered as a biographer of that man from Monticello, was Jefferson looking?
I recently toured the National Mall, which allowed me to answer that question. Jefferson, in his ring of white marble columns, is looking across the waters of the Tidal Basin at the newly installed Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, which was dedicated Sunday. The historical implications of this juxtaposition are rather significant.
Jefferson wrote the magic words of American history, the ones that begin, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." When King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in August 1963, he did so on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, honoring the man who ended slavery. But in his speech, King also said that he had come to collect on "a promissory note" written by Jefferson, alluding to those magic words, just as Lincoln had done 100 years earlier in the Gettysburg Address.
The full implications of Jefferson's words took a very long time to become clear to us: Lincoln was the one who told us that they meant the end of slavery, and King was the one who told us that they meant racial equality. For this reason we can regard these three icons as an American trinity that embodies our creedal convictions in their 18th, 19th and 20th century versions.