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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

7. Republican Principles

The best form of government that has ever been devised for protecting the rights of the people has been found to be the republican form. While not perfect, it nevertheless gives a voice to the people and allows them to correct the course of government when they find it moving in a wrong direction.

"It must be acknowledged that the term republic is of very vague application in every language... Were I to assign to this term a precise and definite idea, I would say purely and simply it means a government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally according to rules established by the majority; and that every other government is more or less republican in proportion as it has in its composition more or less of this ingredient of direct action of the citizens. Such a government is evidently restrained to very narrow limits of space and population. I doubt if it would be practicable beyond the extent of a New England township." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816. ME 15:19

"A democracy [is] the only pure republic, but impracticable beyond the limits of a town." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1816. ME 15:65

"The first shade from this pure element which, like that of pure vital air cannot sustain life of itself, would be where the powers of the government, being divided, should be exercised each by representatives chosen either pro hac vice, or for such short terms as should render secure the duty of expressing the will of their constituents. This I should consider as the nearest approach to a pure republic which is practicable on a large scale of country or population. And we have examples of it in some of our State constitutions which, if not poisoned by priest-craft, would prove its excellence over all mixtures with other elements; and with only equal doses of poison, would still be the best." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816. ME 15:19

"Societies exist under three forms, sufficiently distinguishable. 1. Without government, as among our Indians. 2. Under governments, wherein the will of everyone has a just influence; as is the case in England, in a slight degree, and in our States, in a great one. 3. Under governments of force; as is the case in all other monarchies, and in most of the other republics. To have an idea of the curse of existence under these last, they must be seen. It is a government of wolves over sheep. It is a problem not clear in my mind that the first condition is not the best. But I believe it to be inconsistent with any great degree of population. The second state has a great deal of good in it. The mass of mankind under that, enjoys a precious degree of liberty and happiness. It has its evils, too; the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. But weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. ME 6:64

"The preeminence of representative government [is maintained] by showing that its foundations are laid in reason, in right, and in general good." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1810. ME 12:408

7.1 A Republic is Controlled by the People

"We may say with truth and meaning that governments are more or less republican as they have more or less of the element of popular election and control in their composition; and believing as I do that the mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights, and especially that the evils flowing from the duperies of the people are less injurious than those from the egoism of their agents, I am a friend to that composition of government which has in it the most of this ingredient." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816. ME 15:23

"The catholic principle of republicanism [is] that every people may establish what form of government they please and change it as they please, the will of the nation being the only thing essential." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1792. ME 1:330

"The mother principle [is] that 'governments are republican only in proportion as they embody the will of their people, and execute it.'" --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:33

"Independence of the will of the nation is a solecism, at least in a republican government." -- Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Ritchie, 1820. ME 15:298

"I freely admit the right of a nation to change its political principles and constitution at will." --Thomas Jefferson to the Earl of Buchan, 1803. ME 10:400

"It accords with our principles to acknowledge any government to be rightful which is formed by the will of the nation substantially declared." --Thomas Jefferson to Gouverneur Morris, 1792. ME 8:437

"A government is republican in proportion as every member composing it has his equal voice in the direction of its concerns: not indeed in person, which would be impracticable beyond the limits of a city or small township, but by representatives chosen by himself and responsible to him at short periods." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:33

"A representative government [is] a government in which the will of the people will be an effective ingredient." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Austin, 1816. ME 14:388

"Action by the citizens in person, in affairs within their reach and competence, and in all others by representatives, chosen immediately, and removable by themselves, constitutes the essence of a republic... All governments are more or less republican in proportion as this principle enters more or less into their composition." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:490

"Other shades of republicanism may be found in other forms of government, where the executive, judiciary and legislative functions, and the different branches of the latter, are chosen by the people more or less directly, for longer terms of years, or for life, or made hereditary; or where there are mixtures of authorities, some dependent on, and others independent of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816. ME 15:20

7.2 The Danger of an Hereditary Aristocracy

"The further the departure from direct and constant control by the citizens, the less has the government of the ingredient of republicanism; evidently none where the authorities are hereditary... or self-chosen... and little, where for life, in proportion as the life continues in being after the act of election." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816. ME 15:20

"The hereditary branches of modern governments are the patrons of privilege and prerogative, and not of the natural rights of the people, whose oppressors they generally are." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1784. ME 4:218, Papers 7:106

"Hereditary bodies... always on the watch for their own aggrandizement, profit of every opportunity of advancing the privileges of their order, and encroaching on the rights of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823. ME 15:483

"There is no King, who, with sufficient force, is not always ready to make himself absolute." --Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, 1786. ME 5:398

"An hereditary aristocracy... will change the form of our governments from the best to the worst in the world. To know the mass of evil which flows from this fatal source, a person must be in France; he must see the finest soil, the finest climate, the most compact State, the most benevolent character of people, and every earthly advantage combined, insufficient to prevent this scourge from rendering existence a curse to twenty-four out of twenty-five parts of the inhabitants of this country." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1786. ME 6:3

"I was much an enemy of monarchies before I came to Europe. I am ten thousand times more so since I have seen what they are. There is scarcely an evil known in these countries which may not be traced to their king as its source, nor a good which is not derived from the small fibres of republicanism existing among them." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1788. ME 6:454

"Courts love the people always, as wolves do the sheep." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1789. ME 7:264

"The small and imperfect mixture of representative government in England, impeded as it is by other branches aristocratical and hereditary, shows yet the power of the representative principle towards improving the condition of man." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823. ME 15:482

"I do not flatter myself with the immortality of our governments; but I shall think little also of their longevity, unless this germ of destruction [i.e., the aristocratical spirit] be taken out." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1786. ME 6:3

7.3 A Republic is Consistent with Equal Rights

"We cannot open the mantle of republicanism to every government of laws, whether consistent or not with natural right." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816.

"The principles of government... [are] founded in the rights of man." --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:51

"The equality among our citizens [is] essential to the maintenance of republican government." --Thomas Jefferson: Thoughts on Lotteries, 1826. ME 17:461

"No Englishman will pretend that a right to participate in government can be derived from any other source than a personal right, or a right of property." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to Soules Questions, 1786. ME 17:133

"The republican is the only form of government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Address, 1790. ME 8:6, Papers 16:225

"[As Montesquieu wrote in Spirit of the Laws, VI,c.2:] 'In republican governments, men are all equal; equal they are also in despotic governments: in the former because they are everything; in the latter because they are nothing.'" --Thomas Jefferson: copied into his Commonplace Book.

"I conscientiously believe that governments founded in [republican principles] are more friendly to the happiness of the people at large, and especially of a people so capable of self-government as ours." --Thomas Jefferson to David Howell, 1810. ME 12:436

"It is, indeed, of little consequence who governs us, if they sincerely and zealously cherish the principles of union and republicanism." --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Dearborn, 1821. ME 15:330

7.4 Establishing Republican Government

"From the moment that to preserve our rights a change of government became necessary, no doubt could be entertained that a republican form was most consonant with reason, with right, with the freedom of man, and with the character and situation of our fellow citizens." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Virginia Legislature, 1809. ME 16:333

"[To establish republican government, it is necessary to] effect a constitution in which the will of the nation shall have an organized control over the actions of its government, and its citizens a regular protection against its oppressions." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1816. ME 19:240

"[The first step is] to concur in a declaration of rights, at least, so that the nation may be acknowledged to have some fundamental rights not alterable by their ordinary legislature, and that this may form a ground work for future improvements." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1788. ME 7:18, Papers 13:190

7.5 The Extent of a Republic

"Where the citizens cannot meet to transact their business in person, they alone have the right to choose the agents who shall transact it; and... in this way a republican or popular government... may be exercised over any extent of country." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1816. ME 15:65

"A government by representation is capable of extension over a greater surface of country than one of any other form." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:491

"I suspect that the doctrine, that small States alone are fitted to be republics, will be exploded by experience, with some other brilliant fallacies accredited by Montesquieu and other political writers. Perhaps it will be found that to obtain a just republic (and it is to secure our just rights that we resort to government at all) it must be so extensive as that local egoisms may never reach its greater part; that on every particular question a majority may be found in its councils free from particular interests and giving, therefore, a uniform prevalence to the principles of justice. The smaller the societies, the more violent and more convulsive their schisms." --Thomas Jefferson to Francois d'Ivernois, 1795. ME 9:299

"It seems that the smaller the society the bitterer the dissensions into which it breaks... I believe ours is to owe its permanence to its great extent, and the smaller portion comparatively which can ever be convulsed at one time by local passions." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert Williams, 1807. ME 11:390

"Our present federal limits are not too large for good government, nor will [an] increase of votes in Congress produce any ill effect. On the contrary, it will drown the little divisions at present existing there." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, 1786. ME 5:259

"The character which our fellow-citizens have displayed... gives us everything to hope for the permanence of our government. Its extent has saved us. While some parts were laboring under the paroxysm of delusion, others retained their senses, and time was thus given to the affected parts to recover their health." --Thomas Jefferson to Gen. James Warren, 1801. ME 10:231

"Every nation is liable to be under whatever bubble, design, or delusion may puff up in moments when off their guard." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, 1816. ME 14:381

"Montesquieu's doctrine that a republic can be preserved only in a small territory [has been proved a falsehood]. The reverse is the truth. Had our territory been even a third only of what it is we were gone. But while frenzy and delusion like an epidemic gained certain parts, the residue remained sound and untouched, and held on till their brethren could recover from the temporary delusion; and that circumstance has given me great comfort." --Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Niles, 1801. ME 10:232

"I know that the acquisition of Louisiana has been disapproved by some, from a candid apprehension that the enlargement of our territory would endanger its union. But who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively? The larger our association, the less will it be shaken by local passions." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Inaugural, 1805. ME 3:377

"If ever this vast country is brought under a single government, it will be one of the most extensive corruption, indifferent and incapable of a wholesome care over so wide a spread of surface." --Thomas Jefferson to William T. Barry, 1822. ME 15:389

"I have much confidence that we shall proceed successfully for ages to come, and that, contrary to the principle of Montesquieu, it will be seen that the larger the extent of country, the more firm its republican structure, if founded, not on conquest, but in principles of compact and equality." --Thomas Jefferson to Francois de Marbois, 1817. ME 15:130

"My hope of [this country's] duration is built much on the enlargement of the resources of life going hand in hand with the enlargement of territory, and the belief that 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

"I see our safety in the extent of our confederacy, and in the probability that in the proportion of that the sound parts will always be sufficient to crush local poisons." --Thomas Jefferson to Horatio G. Spafford, 1814. ME 14:120

7.6 The Proper Size of States

"How may the territories of the Union be disposed of, so as to produce the greatest degree of happiness to their inhabitants? The ultramontane States... will not only be happier in States of moderate size, but it is the only way in which they can exist as a regular society. Considering the American character in general, that of those people particularly, and the energetic nature of our governments, a State of such extent as one hundred and sixty thousand square miles, would soon crumble into little ones. These are the circumstances which reduce the Indians to such small societies. They would produce an effect on our people similar to this. They would not be broken into such small pieces, because they are more habituated to subordination, and value more a government of regular law. But you would surely reverse the nature of things, in making small States on the ocean, and large ones beyond the mountains. If we could, in our consciences, say, that great States beyond the mountains will make the people happiest, we must still ask, whether they will be contented to be laid off into large States? They certainly will not; and, if they decide to divide themselves, we are not able to restrain them. They will end by separating from our confederacy, and becoming its enemies." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1786. ME 5:360

"A tractable people may be governed in large bodies; but, in proportion as they depart from this character, the extent of their government must be less. We see into what small divisions the Indians are obliged to reduce their societies." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1786. ME 6:10

"[If] we treat them as fellow citizens, they will have a just share in their own government; they will love us, and pride themselves in an union with us. [If] we treat them as subjects, we govern them, and not they themselves; they will abhor us as masters, and break off from us in defiance." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1786. ME 5:360

7.7 How Republican is America?

"The people through all the States are for republican forms, republican principles, simplicity, economy, religious and civil freedom." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Livingston, 1800. ME 10:164

"If, then, the control of the people over the organs of their government be the measure of its republicanism, and I confess I know no other measure, it must be agreed that our governments have much less of republicanism than ought to have been expected; in other words, that the people have less regular control over their agents, than their rights and their interests require. And this I ascribe, not to any want of republican dispositions in those who formed these constitutions, but to a submission of true principle to European authorities, to speculators on government, whose fears of the people have been inspired by the populace of their own great cities, and were unjustly entertained against the independent, the happy, and therefore orderly citizens of the United States. Much I apprehend that the golden moment is past for reforming these heresies. The functionaries of public power rarely strengthen in their dispositions to abridge it, and an unorganized call for timely amendment is not likely to prevail against an organized opposition to it." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816. ME 15:22

"The great body of our native citizens are unquestionably of the republican sentiment. Foreign education, and foreign connections of interest, have produced some exceptions in every part of the Union, north and south, and perhaps other circumstances... may have thrown into the scale of exceptions a greater number of the rich. Still there, I believe, and here, I am sure, the great mass is republican... Our countrymen left to the operation of their own unbiased good sense, I have no doubt we shall see... our citizens moving in phalanx in the paths of regular liberty, order, and a sacrosanct adherence to the Constitution." --Thomas Jefferson to James Sullivan, 1797. ME 9:378

"Our preference to [the republican] form of government has been so far justified by its success, and the prosperity with which it has blessed us. In no portion of the earth were life, liberty and property ever so securely held." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Virginia General Assembly, 1809. ME 16:333

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

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