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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

10. Good Government

Government should be judged by how well it meets its legitimate objectives. Good government is that which most effectively secures the rights of the people and the fruits of their labor, promotes their happiness, and does their will.

"The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of good government." --Thomas Jefferson to Maryland Republicans, 1809. ME 16:359

"The only orthodox object of the institution of government is to secure the greatest degree of happiness possible to the general mass of those associated under it." --Thomas Jefferson to M. van der Kemp, 1812. ME 13:135

"The first object of human association [is] the full improvement of their condition." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration and Protest of Virginia, 1825. ME 17:444

"The happiness and prosperity of our citizens... is the only legitimate object of government and the first duty of governors." --Thomas Jefferson to Thaddeus Kosciusko, 1811. ME 13:41

"The energies of the nation... shall be reserved for improvement of the condition of man, not wasted in his destruction." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Address, 1801. ME 10:248

"Here... will be preserved a model of government, securing to man his rights and the fruits of his labor, by an organization constantly subject to his own will." --Thomas Jefferson to William Plumer, 1815. ME 14:237

"The freedom and happiness of man... [are] the sole objects of all legitimate government." --Thomas Jefferson to Thaddeus Kosciusko, 1810. ME 12:369

"The equal rights of man, and the happiness of every individual, are now acknowledged to be the only legitimate objects of government." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823. ME 15:482

"To preserve the peace of our fellow citizens, promote their prosperity and happiness, reunite opinion, cultivate a spirit of candor, moderation, charity and forbearance toward one another, are objects calling for the efforts and sacrifices of every good man and patriot. Our religion enjoins it; our happiness demands it; and no sacrifice is requisite but of passions hostile to both." --Thomas Jefferson: to Rhode Island Assembly, 1801. ME 10:262

"All religions are equally independent here, our laws knowing no distinction of country, of classes among individuals and with nations, our [creed] is justice and reciprocity." --Thomas Jefferson to the Emperor of Morocco, 1803. ME 19:136

10.1 The Necessity of Society and Government

"Society is necessary to [man's] happiness and even existence." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814. ME 14:142

"It will be said that great societies cannot exist without government." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XI, 1782. ME 2:129

"Without society, and a society to our taste, men are never contented." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1786. ME 6:17

"It is a problem, not clear in my mind, that [a society without government, as among our Indians] is not the best. But I believe it to be inconsistent with any great degree of population." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. ME 6:64

10.2 A Society's Self-determination

"Every society has a right to fix the fundamental principles of its association, and to say to all individuals, that if they contemplate pursuits beyond the limits of these principles and involving dangers which the society chooses to avoid, they must go somewhere else for their exercise; that we want no citizens, and still less ephemeral and pseudo-citizens, on such terms. We may exclude them from our territory, as we do persons infected with disease." --Thomas Jefferson to William H. Crawford, 1816. ME 15:28

"Individuals are parts only of a society, subject to the laws of a whole." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:456

"Society [has] a right to erase from the roll of its members any one who rendered his own existence inconsistent with theirs; to withdraw from him the protection of their laws, and to remove him from among them by exile, or even by death if necessary."--Thomas Jefferson to L. H. Girardin, 1815. ME 14:277

"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 proposal to establish a new] form of government... is a work of the most interesting nature, and such as every individual would wish to have his voice in... Should a bad government be instituted for us in future, it had been as well to have accepted at first the bad one offered to us from beyond the water without the risk and expense of contest." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Nelson, 1776. ME 4:254, Papers 1:292

"The provisions we have made [for the support of civil government and the administration of justice] are such as please ourselves; they answer the substantial purposes of government and of justice, and other purposes than these should not be answered." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft, Reply to Lord North, 1775. Papers 1:227

10.3 Government Adapted to the People

"The excellence of every government is its adaptation to the state of those to be governed by it." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:487

"Shall we mould our citizens to the law, or the law to our citizens? And in solving this question their peculiar character is an element not to be neglected." --Thomas Jefferson to John Quincy Adams, 1817. ME 15:145

"The laws... which must effect [a people's happiness] must flow from their own habits, their own feelings, and the resources of their own minds. No stranger to these could possibly propose regulations adapted to them. Every people have their own particular habits, ways of thinking, manners, etc., which have grown up with them from their infancy, are become a part of their nature, and to which the regulations which are to make them happy must be accommodated." --Thomas Jefferson to William Lee, 1817. ME 15:101

"Such indeed are the different circumstances, prejudices, and habits of different nations, that the constitution of no one would be reconcilable to any other in every point." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823. ME 15:484

10.4 Comparison to Governments of Europe

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

"I sincerely wish you may find it convenient to come here [to Europe]. The pleasure of the trip will be less than you expect, but the utility greater. It will make you adore your own country, its soil, its climate, its equality, liberty, laws, people and manners. My God! how little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy. I confess I had no idea of it myself. While we shall see multiplied instances of Europeans going to live in America, I will venture to say no man now living will ever see an instance of an American removing to settle in Europe and continuing there. Come then and see the proofs of this, and on your return add your testimony to that of every thinking American, in order to satisfy our countrymen how much it is their interest to preserve uninfected by contagion those peculiarities in their government and manners to which they are indebted for these blessings." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1785. ME 5:21, Papers 8:233

"Though there is less wealth [in my native country than in Europe], there is more freedom, more ease, and less misery." --Thomas Jefferson to Baron Geismer, 1785. ME 5:129, Papers 8:500

"While the great mass of the people [in Europe] are thus suffering under physical and moral oppression, I have endeavored to examine more nearly the condition of the great, to appreciate the true value of the circumstances in their situation which dazzle the bulk of spectators, and especially to compare it with that degree of happiness which is enjoyed in America by every class of people. Intrigues of love occupy the younger, and those of ambition, the elder part of the great. Conjugal love having no existence among them, domestic happiness, of which that is the basis, is utterly unknown. In lieu of this are substituted pursuits which nourish and invigorate all our bad passions, and which offer only moments of ecstasy amidst days and months of restlessness and torment. Much, very much inferior this to the tranquil permanent felicity with which domestic society in America blesses most of its inhabitants, leaving them to follow steadily those pursuits which health and reason approve, and rendering truly delicious the intervals of these pursuits." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Bellini, 1785. ME 5:152, Papers 8:568

10.5 The Form of Government Must be Right

"It is difficult to conceive how so good a people, with so good a King [as Louis XVI of France], so well-disposed rulers in general, so genial a climate, so fertile a soil, should be rendered so ineffectual for producing human happiness by one single curse--that of a bad form of government. But it is a fact; in spite of the mildness of their governors, the people are ground to powder by the vices of the form of government. Of twenty millions of people supposed to be in France, I am of opinion there are nineteen millions more wretched, more accursed in every circumstance of human existence than the most conspicuously wretched individual of the whole United States." --Thomas Jefferson to Elizabeth Trist, 1785. ME 5:81, Papers 8:568

"To constrain the brute force of the people, [the European governments] deem it necessary to keep them down by hard labor, poverty and ignorance, and to take from them, as from bees, so much of their earnings, as that unremitting labor shall be necessary to obtain a sufficient surplus to sustain a scanty and miserable life." --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:440

"I am astonished at some people's considering a kingly government as a refuge. Advise such to read the fable of the frogs who solicited Jupiter for a king. If that does not put them to rights, send them to Europe, to see something of the trappings of monarchy, and I will undertake that every man shall go back thoroughly cured. If all the evils which can arise among us from the republican form of government, from this day to the day of judgment, could be put into a scale against what [France] suffers from its monarchical form in a week, or England in a month, the latter would preponderate." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Hawkins, 1787. ME 6:232

"A more rational government [is] one in which the will of the people should have... a moderating and salutary influence." --Thomas Jefferson to William Bentley, 1815. ME 14:364

"[Ours is] a government founded in the will of its citizens, and directed to no object but their happiness." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to North Carolina General Assembly, 1808. ME 16:300

"The only condition on earth to be compared with ours, in my opinion, is that of the Indian, where they have still less law than we. The European, are governments of kites over pigeons." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, 1787. ME 6:251

"It is a misfortune that [our countrymen] do not sufficiently know the value of their constitutions, and how much happier they are rendered by them, than any other people on earth by the governments under which they live." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1787. ME 6:322

10.6 But Not Too Much Government

"[Some] seem to think that [civilization's] advance has brought on too complicated a state of society, and that we should gain in happiness by treading back our steps a little way. I think, myself, that we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious. I believe it might be much simplified to the relief of those who maintain it." --Thomas Jefferson to William Ludlow, 1824. ME 16:75

"Government as well as religion has furnished its schisms, its persecutions, and its devices for fattening idleness on the earnings of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Clay, 1815. ME 14:233

"When we consider that this government is charged with the external and mutual relations only of these States; that the States themselves have principal care of our persons, our property and our reputation, constituting the great field of human concerns, we may well doubt whether our organization is not too complicated, too expensive; whether offices and officers have not been multiplied unnecessarily and sometimes injuriously to the service they were meant to promote." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Annual Message, 1801. ME 3:331

"It is not by the consolidation, or concentration of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. ME 1:122

"Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we should soon want bread." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. ME 1:122

"Anarchy [is] necessarily consequent to inefficiency." --Thomas Jefferson to George Mason, 1790. ME 8:35

"We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:39

"We are now vibrating between too much and too little government, and the pendulum will rest finally in the middle." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Smith, 1788. FE 5:3

"A just mean [would be] a government of laws addressed to the reason of the people and not to their weaknesses." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, 1793. ME 9:13

10.7 Energetic Government

"It has been said... that our governments, both federal and particular, want energy; that it is difficult to restrain both individuals and States from committing wrong. This is true, and it is an inconvenience. On the other hand, that energy which absolute governments derive from an armed force, which is the effect of the bayonet constantly held at the breast of every citizen, and which resembles very much the stillness of the grave, must be admitted also to have its inconveniences. We weigh the two together and like best to submit to the former. Compare the number of wrongs committed with impunity by citizens among us with those committed by the sovereign in other countries, and the last will be found most numerous, most oppressive on the mind, and most degrading of the dignity of man." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:122

"I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive. It places the governors indeed more at their ease, at the expense of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. (Forrest version) ME 6:391

"I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world's best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the laws, would fly to the standard of the law and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801. ME 3:319

"Let this be the distinctive mark of an American that in cases of commotion, he enlists himself under no man's banner, inquires for no man's name, but repairs to the standard of the laws. Do this, and you need never fear anarchy or tyranny. Your government will be perpetual." --Thomas Jefferson: Manuscript, 1801? FE 8:1

"Although a republican government is slow to move, yet when once in motion, its momentum becomes irresistible." --Thomas Jefferson to Francis C. Gray, 1815. ME 14:270

"A free government is of all others the most energetic." --Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson, 1801. ME 10:217

10.8 Prescription for Good Government

"A good administration in a republican government,... securing to us our dearest rights and the practical enjoyment of all our liberties,... can never fail to give consolation to the friends of free government, and mortification to its enemies." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Rhode Island Republicans, 1809. ME 16:354

"A... chief [executive] strictly limited, the right of war vested in the legislative body, a rigid economy of the public contributions and absolute interdiction of all useless expenses will go far towards keeping the government honest and unoppressive." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823. (*) ME 15:491

"A noiseless course, not meddling with the affairs of others, unattractive of notice, is a mark that society is going on in happiness. If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1802. ME 10:342

"To us [is committed] the important task of proving by example that a government, if organized in all its parts on the representative principle, unadulterated by the infusion of spurious elements, if founded not in the fears and follies of man but on his reason, on his sense of right, on the predominance of the social over his dissocial passions, may be so free as to restrain him in no moral right and so firm as to protect him from every moral wrong." --Thomas Jefferson to Amos Marsh, 1801. ME 10:292

"This I hope will be the age of experiments in government, and that their basis will be founded in principles of honesty, not of mere force." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1796. FE 7:56

"The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774. ME 1:209, Papers 1:134

"With all [our] blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow citizens--a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801. ME 3:320

"Our wish... is, that the public efforts may be directed honestly to the public good, that peace be cultivated, civil and religious liberty unassailed, law and order preserved, equality of rights maintained, and that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man from his own industry, or that of his fathers." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Inaugural, 1805. ME 3:382

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

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