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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

4. Moral Degeneracy

From experience, we know that human beings do not always act in accordance with right and justice. Injustice in government undermines the foundations of a society. A nation, therefore, must take measures to encourage its members along the paths of justice and morality.

"When [the moral sense] is wanting, we endeavor to supply the defect by education, by appeals to reason and calculation, by presenting to the being so unhappily conformed, other motives to do good and to eschew evil, such as the love, or the hatred, or the rejection of those among whom he lives, and whose society is necessary to his happiness and even existence; demonstrations by sound calculation that honesty promotes interest in the long run; the rewards and penalties established by the laws; and ultimately the prospects of a future state of retribution for the evil as well as the good done while here. These are the correctives which are supplied by education, and which exercise the functions of the moralist, the preacher, and legislator; and they lead into a course of correct action all those whose depravity is not too profound to be eradicated." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814. ME 14:142

"That every man shall be made virtuous by any process whatever is, indeed, no more to be expected than that every tree shall be made to bear fruit, and every plant nourishment. The brier and bramble can never become the vine and olive; but their asperities may be softened by culture, and their properties improved to usefulness in the order and economy of the world." --Thomas Jefferson to Cornelius Camden Blatchly, 1822. ME 15:399

"I know but one code of morality for men, whether acting singly or collectively. He who says I will be a rogue when I act in company with a hundred others, but an honest man when I act alone, will be believed in the former assertion, but not in the latter." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:449

4.1 Counteracting Selfishness

"The human character, we believe, requires in general constant and immediate control to prevent its being biased from right by the seductions of self-love." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:489

"Self-love... is the sole antagonist of virtue, leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others. Accordingly, it is against this enemy that are erected the batteries of moralists and religionists, as the only obstacle to the practice of morality. Take from man his selfish propensities, and he can have nothing to seduce him from the practice of virtue. Or subdue those propensities by education, instruction or restraint, and virtue remains without a competitor." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814. ME 14:140

"A regard for reputation and the judgment of the world may sometimes be felt where conscience is dormant." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Livingston, 1825. ME 16:114

"I fear, from the experience of the last twenty-five years, that morals do not of necessity advance hand in hand with the sciences." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Correa de Serra, 1815. ME 14:331

"In every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate and improve." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782. ME 2:207

"What institution is insusceptible of abuse in wicked hands?" --Thomas Jefferson to L. H. Girardin, 1815. ME 14:270

"Mankind soon learn to make interested uses of every right and power which they possess, or may assume." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIII, 1782. ME 2:164

"[Montesquieu wrote in Spirit of the Laws, III,c.3:] 'When virtue is banished, ambition invades the minds of those who are disposed to receive it, and avarice possesses the whole community." --Thomas Jefferson: copied into his Commonplace Book.

"Cannibals are not to be found in the wilds of America only, but are reveling on the blood of every living people." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Clay, 1815. ME 14:234

"[Algernon Sidney wrote in Discourses Concerning Government, Sect. II, Par. 8:] 'Those who have no sense of right, reason or religion, have a natural propensity to make use of their strength to the destruction of such as are weaker than they.'" --Thomas Jefferson: copied into his Commonplace Book.

"The nation who [has] never admitted a chapter of morality into her political code,... [will] boldly [avow] that whatever power [she] can make hers is hers of right." --Thomas Jefferson to John Langdon, 1810. (*) ME 12:375

"It was not expected in this age, that nations so honorably distinguished by their advances in science and civilization, would suddenly cast away the esteem they had merited from the world and, revolting from the empire of morality, assume a character in history which all the tears of their posterity will never wash from its pages." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Philadelphia Democratic Republicans, 1808. ME 16:303

"I do not believe with the Rochefoucaults and the Montaignes that fourteen out of fifteen men are rogues. I believe a great abatement from that proportion may be made in favor of general honesty. But I have always found that rogues would be uppermost, and I do not know that the proportion is too strong for the higher orders and for those who, rising above the swinish multitude, always contrive to nestle themselves into the places of power and profit. These rogues set out with stealing the people's good opinion, and then steal from them the right of withdrawing it, by contriving laws and associations against the power of the people themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to Mann Page, 1795. ME 9:306

"Such is the moral construction of the world, that no national crime passes unpunished in the long run... Were your present oppressors to reflect on the same truth, they would spare to their own countries the penalties on their present wrongs which will be inflicted on them in future times. The seeds of hatred and revenge which they [sow] with a large hand will not fail to produce their fruits in time. Like their brother robbers on the highway, they suppose the escape of the moment a final escape and deem infamy and future risk countervailed by present gain." --Thomas Jefferson to Francois de Marbois, 1817. ME 15:130

"Crooked schemes will end by overwhelming their authors and coadjutors in disgrace, and... he alone who walks strict and upright, and who, in matters of opinion, will be contented that others should be as free as himself, and acquiesce when his opinion is fairly overruled, will attain his object in the end." --Thomas Jefferson to Gideon Granger, 1804. ME 11:25

"If pride of character be of worth at any time, it is when it disarms the efforts of malice." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Nelson, 1781. ME 4:364, Papers 4:677

"There are various ways of keeping truth out of sight." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.VI, 1782. ME 2:95

"Truths necessary for our own character must not be suppressed out of tenderness to its calumniators." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1815. ME 14:291

"In truth, I do not recollect in all the animal kingdom a single species but man which is eternally and systematically engaged in the destruction of its own species. What is called civilization seems to have no other effect on him than to teach him to pursue the principle of bellum omnium in omnia [war of all against all] on a larger scale, and in place of the little contests of tribe against tribe, to engage all the quarters of the earth in the same work of destruction. When we add to this that as to the other species of animals, the lions and tigers are mere lambs compared with man as a destroyer, we must conclude that it is in man alone that nature has been able to find a sufficient barrier against the too great multiplication of other animals and of man himself, an equilibrating power against the fecundity of generation." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1797. ME 9:360

"When great evils happen, I am in the habit of looking out for what good may arise from them as consolations to us, and Providence has in fact so established the order of things, as that most evils are the means of producing some good." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, 1800. ME 10:173

4.2 Force and Corruption

"I have never been able to conceive how any rational being could propose happiness to himself from the exercise of power over others." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811. ME 13:18

"Force [is] the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801. ME 3:321

"I know that the passions of men will take their course, that they are not to be controlled but by despotism, and that this melancholy truth is the pretext for despotism." --Thomas Jefferson to George Logan, 1805. ME 11:71

"Either force or corruption has been the principle of every modern government." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1796.

"Force cannot change right." --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:43

"With the laborers of England generally, does not the moral coercion of want subject their will as despotically to that of their employer, as the physical constraint does the soldier, the seaman, or the slave?" --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1814. ME 14:183

"[When] the principle that force is right is become the principle of the nation itself, they would not permit an honest minister, were accident to bring such an one into power, to relax their system of lawless piracy." --Thomas Jefferson to Caesar Rodney, 1810. (*) ME 12:358

"My observations do not enable me to say I think integrity the characteristic of wealth. In general, I believe the decisions of the people in a body will be more honest and more disinterested than those of wealthy men, and I can never doubt an attachment to his country in any man who has his family and peculium [i.e., private property] in it." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Pendleton, 1776. Papers 1:504

"I may further say that I have not observed men's honesty to increase with their riches." --Thomas Jefferson to Jeremiah Moor, 1800. FE 7:454

"Wealth, title, office, are no recommendations to my friendship. On the contrary, great good qualities are requisite to make amends for their having wealth, title, and office." --Thomas Jefferson to Maria Cosway, 1786. ME 5:445

"There is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents... There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class... The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendency." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:396

"A heavy aristocracy and corruption are two bridles in the mouths of [a people] which will prevent them from making any effectual efforts against their masters." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1785. (*) FE 4:38, Papers 8:40

"To detail the real evils of aristocracy, they must be seen in Europe." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:84

"Generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIX, 1782. ME 2:229

"A due horror of the evils which flow from these distinctions [by birth or badge] could be excited in Europe only, where the dignity of man is lost in arbitrary distinctions, where the human species is classed into several stages of degradation, where the many are crushed under the weight of the few, and where the order established can present to the contemplation of a thinking being no other picture than that of God Almighty and His angels, trampling under foot the host of the damned." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:89

4.3 Defeating the Corruptions of Wealth

"Lay down true principles and adhere to them inflexibly. Do not be frightened into their surrender by the alarms of the timid, or the croakings of wealth against the ascendency of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:35

"[Is] it best to put the pseudo-aristoi [of wealth and birth] into a separate chamber of legislation, where they may be hindered from doing mischief by their coordinate branches, and where, also, they may be a protection to wealth against the agrarian and plundering enterprises of the majority of the people? I think that to give them power in order to prevent them from doing mischief is arming them for it, and increasing instead of remedying the evil. For if the coordinate branches can arrest their action, so may they that of the coordinates. Mischief may be done negatively as well as positively... Nor do I believe them necessary to protect the wealthy; because enough of these will find their way into every branch of the legislation to protect themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:397

4.4 Governments Against the People

"I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government, enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under the European governments. Among the former, public opinion is in the place of law, and restrains morals as powerfully as laws ever did anywhere. Among the latter, under pretense of governing, they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep. I do not exaggerate... Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind; for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:58

"The sheep are happier of themselves than under the care of the wolves." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XI, 1782. ME 2:129

"[The European nations] are nations of eternal war. All their energies are expended in the destruction of the labor, property and lives of their people. On our part, never had a people so favorable a chance of trying the opposite system, of peace and fraternity with mankind, and the direction of all our means and faculties to the purpose of improvement instead of destruction." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1823. ME 15:436

"How soon the labor of men would make a paradise of the whole earth, were it not for misgovernment, and a diversion of all his energies from their proper object -- the happiness of man -- to the selfish interest of kings, nobles, and priests." --Thomas Jefferson to Ellen W. Coolidge, 1825. ME 18:341

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

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