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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government


3. Moral Principles

Morality is intimately related to a nation's government, for as James Madison wrote, "To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical idea." Morality refers to conduct that is proper between members of society. Respect for the equal rights of every citizen becomes the foundation of morality and justice in a free society. Rightful government necessarily reflects this proper relationship in its policies and in its dealings with its own citizens and with other nations.

"God... has formed us moral agents... that we may promote the happiness of those with whom He has placed us in society, by acting honestly towards all, benevolently to those who fall within our way, respecting sacredly their rights, bodily and mental, and cherishing especially their freedom of conscience, as we value our own." --Thomas Jefferson to Miles King, 1814. ME 14:197

"Peace, prosperity, liberty and morals have an intimate connection." --Thomas Jefferson to George Logan, 1813. ME 13:384

3.1 Virtue and Happiness

"The order of nature [is] that individual happiness shall be inseparable from the practice of virtue." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Correa de Serra, 1814. ME 19:210

"Without virtue, happiness cannot be." --Thomas Jefferson to Amos J. Cook, 1816. ME 14:405

"Liberty... is the great parent of science and of virtue; and... a nation will be great in both always in proportion as it is free." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Willard, 1789. ME 7:329

3.2 Truth, Honesty and Morality

"Truth is certainly a branch of morality, and a very important one to society." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814. ME 14:139

"Truth is the first object." --Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Maese, 1809. ME 12:232

"Follow truth as the only safe guide, and... eschew error, which bewilders us in one false consequence after another." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1819. ME 15:234

"Truth being as cheap as error, it is as well to rectify [an error of fact] for our own satisfaction." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1823. ME 15:467

"Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom." --Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Macon, 1819. ME 15:180

"Honesty, disinterestedness and good nature are indispensable to procure the esteem and confidence of those with whom we live, and on whose esteem our happiness depends." --Thomas Jefferson to Francis Eppes, 1816. ME 19:241

3.3 The Moral Sense

"He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality... The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call Common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules." --Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1787. ME 6:257, Papers 12:15

"How necessary was the care of the Creator in making the moral principle so much a part of our constitution as that no errors of reasoning or of speculation might lead us astray from its observance in practice." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814. ME 14:139

"Morals were too essential to the happiness of man, to be risked on the uncertain combinations of the head. [Nature] laid their foundation, therefore, in sentiment, not in science." --Thomas Jefferson to Maria Cosway, 1786. ME 5:443

"I believe... that [justice] is instinct and innate, that the moral sense is as much a part of our constitution as that of feeling, seeing, or hearing; as a wise Creator must have seen to be necessary in an animal destined to live in society." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1816. ME 15:76

"I sincerely... believe... in the general existence of a moral instinct. I think it the brightest gem with which the human character is studded, and the want of it as more degrading than the most hideous of the bodily deformities." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814. ME 14:143

"The moral sense [is] the first excellence of well-organized man." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1823. ME 15:418

"The moral law of our nature... [is] the moral law to which man has been subjected by his Creator, and of which his feelings or conscience, as it is sometimes called, are the evidence with which his Creator has furnished him." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on French Treaties, 1793. ME 3:228

"Conscience is the only sure clew which will eternally guide a man clear of all doubts and inconsistencies." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1789.

"Experience proves that the moral and physical qualities of man, whether good or evil, are transmissible in a certain degree from father to son." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:395

"[It is a] general truth that great men will think alike and act alike, though without intercommunication." --Thomas Jefferson to William B. Giles, 1796. ME 9:326

"The true fountains of evidence [are] the head and heart of every rational and honest man. It is there nature has written her moral laws, and where every man may read them for himself." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on French Treaties, 1793. ME 3:229

"Assuming the fact that the earth has been created in time and consequently the dogma of final causes, we yield, of course, to this short syllogism: Man was created for social intercourse; but social intercourse cannot be maintained without a sense of justice; then man must have been created with a sense of justice." --Thomas Jefferson to Francis Gilmer, 1816. ME 15:24

3.4 Self-Interest and Morality

"Egoism, in a broader sense, has been... presented as the source of moral action. It has been said that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bind up the wounds of the man beaten by thieves, pour oil and wine into them, set him on our own beast and bring him to the inn, because we receive ourselves pleasure from these acts... These good acts give us pleasure, but how happens it that they give us pleasure? Because nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct, in short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and to succor their distresses... The Creator would indeed have been a bungling artist had he intended man for a social animal without planting in him social dispositions. It is true they are not planted in every man, because there is no rule without exceptions; but it is false reasoning which converts exceptions into the general rule." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814. ME 14:141

"That a man owes no duty to which he is not urged by some impulsive feeling... is correct, if referred to the standard of general feeling in the given case, and not to the feeling of a single individual." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814. ME 14:144

"Self-interest, or rather self-love, or egoism, has been more plausibly substituted as the basis of morality. But I consider our relations with others as constituting the boundaries of morality. With ourselves, we stand on the ground of identity, not of relation, which last, requiring two subjects, excludes self-love confined to a single one. To ourselves, in strict language, we can owe no duties, obligation requiring also two parties. Self-love, therefore, is no part of morality. Indeed, it is exactly its counterpart." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814. ME 14:140

"I believe... that every human mind feels pleasure in doing good to another." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1816. ME 15:76

"The greatest honor of a man is in doing good to his fellow men, not in destroying them." --Thomas Jefferson: Address to Shawanee Nation, 1807. ME 16:424

"The practice of morality being necessary for the well-being of society, [our Creator] has taken care to impress its precepts so indelibly on our hearts that they shall not be effaced by the subtleties of our brain." --Thomas Jefferson to James Fishback, 1809. ME 12:315

"The want or imperfection of the moral sense in some men, like the want or imperfection of the senses of sight and hearing in others, is no proof that it is a general characteristic of the species." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814. ME 14:142

3.5 Moral Utility

"Nature has constituted utility to man the standard and test of virtue. Men living in different countries, under different circumstances, different habits and regimens, may have different utilities; the same act, therefore, may be useful and consequently virtuous in one country which is injurious and vicious in another differently circumstanced." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814. ME 14:143

"The non-existence of justice is not to be inferred from the fact that the same act is deemed virtuous and right in one society which is held vicious and wrong in another; because as the circumstances and opinions of different societies vary, so the acts which may do them right or wrong must vary also; for virtue does not consist in the act we do, but in the end it is to effect." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1816. ME 15:76

"Circumstances must always yield to substance." --Thomas Jefferson: Batture at New Orleans, 1812. ME 18:76

"If [an act] is to effect the happiness of him to whom it is directed, it is virtuous; while in a society under different circumstances and opinions the same act might produce pain and would be vicious. The essence of virtue is in doing good to others, while what is good may be one thing in one society and its contrary in another." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1816. ME 15:77

3.6 The Practice of Morality

"My principle is to do whatever is right and leave the consequences to Him who has the disposal of them." --Thomas Jefferson to George Logan, 1813. ME 13:387

"Our part is to pursue with steadiness what is right, turning neither to right nor left for the intrigues or popular delusions of the day, assured that the public approbation will in the end be with us." --Thomas Jefferson to James Breckenridge, 1822. ME 15:363

"A conviction that we are right accomplishes half the difficulty of correcting wrong." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Thweat, 1821. ME 15:307

"Everyone is bound to bear witness, where wrong has been done." --Thomas Jefferson: Virginia Board of Visitors Minutes, 1824. ME 19:449

"The laws of [our] country... in offenses within their cognizance, compel those who have knowledge of a fact to declare it for the purposes of justice and of the general good and safety of society. And certainly, where wrong has been done, he who knows and conceals the doer of it makes himself an accomplice, and justly censurable as such." --Thomas Jefferson: Virginia Board of Visitors Minutes, 1825. ME 19:469

"Perseverance in object, though not by the most direct way, is often more laudable than perpetual changes, as often as the object shifts light." --Thomas Jefferson to Patrick Henry, 1779. ME 4:57

"A bold, unequivocal virtue is the best handmaid even to ambition, and would carry [one] further, in the end, than [the pursuit of a] temporizing, wavering policy." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1789. ME 7:380

"Men are disposed to live honestly, if the means of doing so are open to them." --Thomas Jefferson to Francois de Marbois, 1817. ME 15:131

3.7 Following Principle

"True wisdom does not lie in mere practice without principle." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1816. ME 15:75

"Principle will, in... most... cases open the way for us to correct conclusion." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:71

"Principles conscientiously adopted [should] not be given up." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1793. (*) ME 1:332

"When principles are well understood, their application is less embarrassing." --Thomas Jefferson to Gouverneur Morris, 1793. ME 9:36

"A departure from principle in one instance becomes a precedent for a second; that second for a third; and so on, till the bulk of the society is reduced to be mere automatons of misery, to have no sensibilities left but for sin and suffering." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:40

"Unequivocal in principle, reasonable in manner, we shall be able I hope to do a great deal of good to the cause of freedom and harmony." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1801. ME 10:255

3.8 Moral Examples

"I have ever deemed it more honorable and more profitable, too, to set a good example than to follow a bad one." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Correa de Serra, 1814.

"The only exact testimony of a man is his actions, leaving the reader to pronounce on them his own judgment." --Thomas Jefferson to L. H. Girardin, 1815. ME 14: 295

"Our Saviour... has taught us to judge the tree by its fruit, and to leave motives to Him who can alone see into them." --Thomas Jefferson to Martin Van Buren, 1824. ME 16:55

"The entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant... Everything is useful which contributes to fix us in the principles and practice of virtue. When any signal act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary, when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity and conceive an abhorrence of vice. Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions; and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body, acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and in the instance of which we speak, the exercise being of the moral feelings, produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, 1771. ME 4:237, Papers 1:76

"Considering history as a moral exercise, her lessons would be too infrequent if confined to real life. Of those recorded by historians few incidents have been attended with such circumstances as to excite in any high degree this sympathetic emotion of virtue. We are, therefore, wisely framed to be as warmly interested for a fictitious as for a real personage. The spacious field of imagination is thus laid open to our use, and lessons may be formed to illustrate and carry home to the heart every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics and divinity that ever were written." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, 1771. ME 4:239, Papers 1:77

"History, in general, only informs us what bad government is." --Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 1807. ME 11:223

3.9 Moral Consequences

"The sentiments of men are known not only by what they receive, but what they reject also." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. ME 1:28

"Mischief may be done negatively as well as positively." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:397

"Most virtues when carried beyond certain bounds degenerate into vices." --Thomas Jefferson to Chastellux, 1785.

"It is reasonable that every one who asks justice should do justice." --Thomas Jefferson to George Hammond, 1792. ME 16:227

"The art of life is the art of avoiding pain; and he is the best pilot, who steers clearest of the rocks and shoals with which it is beset." --Thomas Jefferson to Maria Cosway, 1786. ME 5:439

3.10 National Moral Responsibility

"A nation, as a society, forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society." --Thomas Jefferson to George Hammond, 1792. ME 16:263

"Moral duties [are] as obligatory on nations as on individuals." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1808. ME 1:480

"The laws of humanity make it a duty for nations, as well as individuals, to succor those whom accident and distress have thrown upon them." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1807. ME 11:144

"The moral duties which exist between individual and individual in a state of nature accompany them into a state of society, and the aggregate of the duties of all the individuals composing the society constitutes the duties of that society towards any other; so that between society and society the same moral duties exist as did between the individuals composing them while in an unassociated state, and their Maker not having released them from those duties on their forming themselves into a nation. Compacts, then, between nation and nation are obligatory on them by the same moral law which obliges individuals to observe their compacts." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on French Treaties, 1793. ME 3:228

"We are firmly convinced, and we act on that conviction, that with nations as with individuals, our interests soundly calculated will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Inaugural, 1805. ME 3:375

"Political interest [can] never be separated in the long run from moral right." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1806. FE 8:477

"Honesty and interest are as intimately connected in the public as in the private code of morality." --Thomas Jefferson to James Maury, 1815. ME 14:313

"So invariably do the laws of nature create our duties and interests, that when they seem to be at variance, we ought to suspect some fallacy in our reasonings." --Thomas Jefferson to Jean Baptiste Say, 1804. ME 11:3

"Good faith... ought ever to be the rule of action in public as well as in private transactions." --Thomas Jefferson: 6th Annual Message, 1806. ME 3:416

"I never did, or countenanced, in public life, a single act inconsistent with the strictest good faith; having never believed there was one code of morality for a public, and another for a private man." --Thomas Jefferson to Valentine de Foronda, 1809. ME 12:320

"It is strangely absurd to suppose that a million of human beings, collected together, are not under the same moral laws which bind each of them separately." --Thomas Jefferson to George Logan, 1816. FE 10:68

"If the morality of one man produces a just line of conduct in him acting individually, why should not the morality of one hundred men produce a just line of conduct in them acting together?" --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:450

"What is true of every member of the society, individually, is true of them all collectively; since the rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights of the individuals." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789.

3.11 Morality in Government Administration

"When we come to the moral principles on which the government is to be administered, we come to what is proper for all conditions of society... Liberty, truth, probity, honor, are declared to be the four cardinal principles of society. I believe... that morality, compassion, generosity, are innate elements of the human constitution; that there exists a right independent of force." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:490

"[I consider] ethics, as well as religion, as supplements to law in the government of man." --Thomas Jefferson to Augustus B. Woodward, 1824. ME 16:19

"Reading, reflection and time have convinced me that the interests of society require the observation of those moral precepts only in which all religions agree (for all forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, or bear false witness), and that we should not intermeddle with the particular dogmas in which all religions differ, and which are totally unconnected with morality." --Thomas Jefferson to James Fishback, 1809. ME 12:315

"Is it the less dishonest to do what is wrong, because not expressly prohibited by written law? Let us hope our moral principles are not yet in that stage of degeneracy." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. ME 13:360

"Our countrymen are in the precious habit of considering right as a barrier against all solicitation." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1788. ME 7:228

"It is rare that the public sentiment decides immorally or unwisely, and the individual who differs from it ought to distrust and examine well his own opinion." --Thomas Jefferson to William Findley, 1801. FE 8:27

ME, FE = Memorial Edition, Ford Edition.   See Sources.

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