Site Home

Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

9. Self-Government

The object of the republican form of government and of the principles that are essential to that form, is to enable a people to govern themselves to the most practicable extent possible. Not every nation of people are capable of self-government, and many expected the experiment of the Founding Fathers to fail. But it did not fail, and the experiment proved that an educated and enlightened people are capable of self-government. The question remains, however, the extent to which government by the people themselves may be extended.

"The equal rights of man, and the happiness of every individual, are now acknowledged to be the only legitimate objects of government. Modern times have the signal advantage, too, of having discovered the only device by which these rights can be secured, to wit: government by the people, acting not in person, but by representatives chosen by themselves, that is to say, by every man of ripe years and sane mind, who contributes either by his purse or person to the support of his country." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823. ME 15:482

"Every man, and every body of men on earth, possesses the right of self-government." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Residence Bill, 1790. ME 3:60

"Every nation has a right to govern itself internally under what forms it pleases, and to change these forms at its own will." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Pinckney, 1792. ME 9:7

"When forced to assume [self-government], we were novices in its science. Its principles and forms had entered little into our former education. We established, however, some, although not all its important principles." --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:44

9.1 The Foundation of Self-Government

"Man [is] a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights, and with an innate sense of justice; and... he [can] be restrained from wrong and protected in right, by moderate powers, confided to persons of his own choice, and held to their duties by dependence on his own will." --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:441

"Man is capable of living in society, governing itself by laws self-imposed, and securing to its members the enjoyment of life, liberty, property, and peace." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration and Protest of Virginia, 1825. ME 17:446

"Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801. ME 3:320

"At the formation of our government, many had formed their political opinions on European writings and practices, believing the experience of old countries, and especially of England, abusive as it was, to be a safer guide than mere theory. The doctrines of Europe were, that men in numerous associations cannot be restrained within the limits of order and justice, but by forces physical and moral, wielded over them by authorities independent of their will. Hence their organization of kings, hereditary nobles, and priests." --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:440

"We of the United States are constitutionally and conscientiously democrats. We consider society as one of the natural wants with which man has been created; that he has been endowed with faculties and qualities to effect its satisfaction by concurrence of others having the same want; that when, by the exercise of these faculties, he has procured a state of society, it is one of his acquisitions which he has a right to regulate and control, jointly indeed with all those who have concurred in the procurement, whom he cannot exclude from its use or direction more than they him." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:487

"We exist, and are quoted as standing proofs that a government, so modeled as to rest continually on the will of the whole society, is a practicable government." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard Rush, 1820. ME 15:284

9.2 Qualifications for Self-Government

"The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Everett, 1824. ME 16:22

"[Without becoming] familiarized with the habits and practice of self-government,... the political vessel is all sail and no ballast." --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Dearborn, 1822. FE 10:237

"[It is a] happy truth that man is capable of self-government, and only rendered otherwise by the moral degradation designedly superinduced on him by the wicked acts of his tyrant." --Thomas Jefferson to M. de Marbois, 1817. ME 15:130

"We are a people capable of self-government, and worthy of it." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac Weaver, Jr., 1807. ME 11:220

9.3 Minds Capable of Self-Government

"[The] voluntary support of laws, formed by persons of their own choice, distinguishes peculiarly the minds capable of self-government. The contrary spirit is anarchy, which of necessity produces despotism." --Thomas Jefferson to Philadelphia Citizens, 1809. ME 16:328

"Their habits of law and order, their ideas almost innate of the vital elements of free government, of trial by jury, habeas corpus, freedom of the press, freedom of opinion, and representative government, make [a people], I think, capable of bearing a considerable portion of liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1816. (*) ME 15:84

"It is from the supporters of regular government only that the pledge of life, fortune and honor is worthy of confidence." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Philadelphia Citizens, 1809. ME 16:329

"[If a] people [are] so demoralized and depraved as to be incapable of exercising a wholesome control, their reformation must be taken up ab incunabulis. Their minds [must] be informed by education what is right and what wrong, [must] be encouraged in habits of virtue and deterred from those of vice by the dread of punishments, proportioned indeed, but irremissible. In all cases, [they must] follow truth as the only safe guide and eschew error which bewilders us in one false consequence after another in endless succession. These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure of order and good government." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1819. ME 15:234

"[We] believe in the improvability of the condition of man, and [we] have acted on that behalf, in opposition to those who consider man as a beast of burden made to be rode by him who has genius enough to get a bridle into his mouth." --Thomas Jefferson to Joel Barlow, 1810. ME 12:351

9.4 The Spirit of the People

"[Our] object is to secure self-government by the republicanism of our constitution, as well as by the spirit of the people; and to nourish and perpetuate that spirit. 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

"No man has greater confidence than I have in the spirit of the people, to a rational extent. Whatever they can, they will."--Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1814. ME 14:208

"The spirit of our people... would oblige even a despot to govern us republicanly." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:35

"But is the spirit of the people an infallible, a permanent reliance? Is it government? Is this the kind of protection we receive in return for the rights we give up? Besides, the spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless. A single zealot may commence persecutor, and better men be his victims. It can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, Q.XVII, 1782. ME 2:224

9.5 Enduring Difficulties

"I am not discouraged by [a] little difficulty; nor have I any doubt that the result of our experiment will be, that men are capable of governing themselves without a master." --Thomas Jefferson to T. B. Hollis, 1787. ME 6:156

"I... consider the people as our children, and love them... as adults whom I freely leave to self-government." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:489

"While the boasted energies of monarchy have yielded to easy conquest the people they were to protect, should our fabric of freedom suffer no more than the slight agitations we have experienced, it will be an useful lesson to the friends as well as the enemies of self-government." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to New York Legislature, 1809. ME 16:362

"It is a blessing... that our people are reasonable; that they are kept so well informed of the state of things as to judge for themselves, to see the true sources of their difficulties, and to maintain their confidence undiminished in the wisdom and integrity of their functionaries." --Thomas Jefferson to Caesar A. Rodney, 1810. ME 12:358

"The steady character of our countrymen is a rock to which we may safely moor." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1801. ME 10:255

"The only point on which [General Washington] and I ever differed in opinion was, that I had more confidence than he had in the natural integrity and discretion of the people, and in the safety and extent to which they might trust themselves with a control over their government." --Thomas Jefferson to John Melish, 1813. ME 13:212

"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

"I confess I was highly pleased with... proof of the innate good sense, the vigilance, and the determination of the people to act for themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1817. ME 15:132

"Those who will come after us will be as wise as we are, and as able to take care of themselves as we have been." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1811. ME 13:40

9.6 Powers Rightly Exercised by the People

"To secure [our inherent and inalienable] rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." --Declaration of Independence as originally written by Thomas Jefferson, 1776. ME 1:29, Papers 1:315

"Circumstances denied to others but indulged to us have imposed on us the duty of proving what is the degree of freedom and self-government in which a society may venture to leave its individual members." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1802. ME 10:324

"We think in America that it is necessary to introduce the people into every department of government as far as they are capable of exercising it, and that this is the only way to insure a long-continued and honest administration of its powers." --Thomas Jefferson to Abbe Arnoux, 1789. ME 7:422, Papers 15:283

"The right of representation in the legislature [is] a right inestimable to [the people], and formidable to tyrants only." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration of Independence, 1776. ME 1:31, Papers 1:430

"The people, being the only safe depository of power, should exercise in person every function which their qualifications enable them to exercise consistently with the order and security of society... We now find them equal to the election of those who shall be invested with their executive and legislative powers, and to act themselves in the judiciary as judges in questions of fact... The range of their powers ought to be enlarged." --Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1814. ME 14:47

"The government which can wield the arm of the people must be the strongest possible." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac Weaver, Jr., 1807. ME 11:221

"The suppression of the [Burr] conspiracy by the hand of the people, uplifted to destroy it whenever it reared its head, manifests their fitness for self-government, and the power of a nation, of which every individual feels that his own will is a part of the public authority." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to New Jersey Legislature, 1807. ME 16:295

"The hand of the people... has proved that government to be the strongest of which every man feels himself a part." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Tiffin, 1807. ME 11:147

"The full experiment of a government democratical, but representative, was and is still reserved for us. The idea... has been carried by us more or less into all our legislative and executive departments; but it has not yet, by any of us, been pushed into all the ramifications of the system, so far as to leave no authority existing not responsible to the people; whose rights, however, to the exercise and fruits of their own industry can never be protected against the selfishness of rulers not subject to their control at short periods... My most earnest wish is to see the republican element of popular control pushed to the maximum of its practicable exercise. I shall then believe that our government may be pure and perpetual." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1816. ME 15:65

9.7 The Danger of Independent Powers

"It should be remembered as an axiom of eternal truth in politics, that whatever power in any government is independent, is absolute also; in theory only at first while the spirit of the people is up, but in practice as fast as that relaxes." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1819. ME 15:213

"I deem no government safe which is under the vassalage of any self-constituted authorities, or any other authority than that of the nation, or its regular functionaries." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1803. ME 10:438

"We shall... secure the continuance of purity in our government by the salutary, peaceable, and regular control of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:71

"[General Washington] has often declared to me that he considered our new Constitution as an experiment on the practicability of republican government, and with what dose of liberty man could be trusted for his own good; that he was determined the experiment should have a fair trial, and would lose the last drop of his blood in support of it." --Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1814. ME 14:51

"I have no fear, but that the result of our experiment will be, that men may be trusted to govern themselves without a master. Could the contrary of this be proved, I should conclude either that there is no God, or that He is a malevolent being." --Thomas Jefferson to David Hartley, 1787. ME 6:151

"If ever the earth has beheld a system of administration conducted with a single and steadfast eye to the general interest and happiness of those committed to it, one which, protected by truth, can never know reproach, it is that to which our lives have been devoted." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1826. ME 16:159

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

Cross References

To other sections in Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government:

Other resources on this subject

Top | Previous Section | Next Section | Table of Contents | Politics Home