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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

6. The Safest Depository

"Who will govern the governors?" There is only one force in the nation that can be depended upon to keep the government pure and the governors honest, and that is the people themselves. They alone, if well informed, are capable of preventing the corruption of power, and of restoring the nation to its rightful course if it should go astray. They alone are the safest depository of the ultimate powers of government.

"Democrats... consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them, therefore, and wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competent." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1825. ME 16:96

"The mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816. ME 15:23

"The people of every country are the only safe guardians of their own rights." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wyche, 1809.

"I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:39

"Aristocrats... fear the people, and wish to transfer all power to the higher classes of society." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1825. ME 16:96

"The people...are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. ME 6:392

6.1 Preventing the Corruption of Power

"No government can continue good, but under the control of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1819. ME 15:234

"Unless the mass retains sufficient control over those entrusted with the powers of their government, these will be perverted to their own oppression, and to the perpetuation of wealth and power in the individuals and their families selected for the trust." --Thomas Jefferson to M. van der Kemp, 1812. ME 13:136

"No other depositories of power [but the people themselves] have ever yet been found, which did not end in converting to their own profit the earnings of those committed to their charge." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:71

"We fear that [violations of the Constitution] may produce insurrection. Nothing could be so fatal. Anything like force [used against the violators] would check the progress of the public opinion and rally them round the government. This is not the kind of opposition the American people will permit. But keep away all show of force and they will bear down the evil propensities of the government by the constitutional means of election and petition." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Pendleton, 1799. ME 10:105

"Resort may be had to the people of the country, a more governable power from their principles and subordination; and rank and birth and tinsel-aristocracy will finally shrink into insignificance." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:402

"The influence over government must be shared among all the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates of the ultimate authority, the government will be safe, because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth, and public ones cannot be provided but by levies on the people. In this case every man would have to pay his own price." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782. ME 2:207

"If once [the people] become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:58

"[Montesquieu wrote in Spirit of the Laws, XI,c.4:] 'Constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go... To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power.'" --Thomas Jefferson: copied into his Commonplace Book.

6.2 An Informed People

"I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." --Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820. ME 15:278

"The people, especially when moderately instructed, are the only safe, because the only honest, depositaries of the public rights, and should therefore be introduced into the administration of them in every function to which they are sufficient; they will err sometimes and accidentally, but never designedly, and with a systematic and persevering purpose of overthrowing the free principles of the government." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Coray, 1823. ME 15:483

"There is one provision [in the new constitution of Spain] which will immortalize its inventors. It is that which, after a certain epoch, disfranchises every citizen who cannot read and write. This is new, and is the fruitful germ of the improvement of everything good and the correction of everything imperfect in the present constitution. This will give you an enlightened people, and an energetic public opinion which will control and enchain the aristocratic spirit of the government." --Thomas Jefferson to Chevalier de Ouis, 1814. ME 14:130

"Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government. Whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price, 1789. ME 7:253

"Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. Madison Version FE 4:480

"Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:491

6.3 The People's Interest in Order

"I am among those who think well of the human character generally. I consider man as formed for society and endowed by nature with those dispositions which fit him for society." --Thomas Jefferson to William Green Munford, 1799.

"Everyone, by his property or by his satisfactory situation, is interested in the support of law and order. And such men may safely and advantageously reserve to themselves a wholesome control over their public affairs and a degree of freedom which, in the hands of the canaille of the cities of Europe, would be instantly perverted to the demolition and destruction of everything public and private." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:401

"Every man being at his ease feels an interest in the preservation of order and comes forth to preserve it at the first call of the magistrate." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Pictet, 1803. ME 10:356

"The mobs of the great cities add just so much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIX, 1782. ME 2:230

"It was by the sober sense of our citizens that we were safely and steadily conducted from monarchy to republicanism, and it is by the same agency alone we can be kept from falling back." --Thomas Jefferson to Arthur Campbell, 1797. ME 9:421

"To the sincere spirit of republicanism are naturally associated the love of country, devotion to its liberty, its right and its honor." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Virginia Legislature, 1809. ME 16:333

"[It is the people's] conviction that a solid Union is the best rock of their safety." --Thomas Jefferson to C. W. F. Dumas, 1791. ME 8:197

"The cement of this Union is in the heart-blood of every American. I do not believe there is on earth a government established on so immovable a basis." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1815. ME 14:252

"Possessed of the blessing of self-government and of such a portion of civil liberty as no other civilized nation enjoys, it now behooves us to guard and preserve them by a continuance of the sacrifices and exertions by which they were acquired, and especially to nourish that Union which is their sole guarantee." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to New London Plymouth Society, 1809. ME 16:360

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

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