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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

22. Elective Government

Through their right of suffrage, the people exercise their sovereign power over government. If things are not going right, they can throw one set of interests out and elect another that promises a revision of the course that government has taken. Thus, elective government is an essential part of the process of control by the people.

"Elective government [is] calculated to promote [my fellow citizens'] happiness, peculiarly adapted to their genius, habits, and situation, and the best permanent corrective of the errors or abuses of those entrusted with power." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Address, 1801. ME 10:248

"Election [is] a fundamental member in the structure of government." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816. ME 15:45

"The Legislative and Executive branches may sometimes err, but elections and dependence will bring them to rights." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Thweat, 1821. ME 15:307

"[It is] by their votes the people exercise their sovereignty." --Thomas Jefferson: written note in Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws.

22.1 Choosing the Natural Aristocracy

"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 natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And, indeed, it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? 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

"I hold it to be one of the distinguishing excellences of elective over hereditary successions, that the talents which nature has provided in sufficient proportion, should be selected by the society for the government of their affairs, rather than that this should be transmitted through the loins of knaves and fools, passing from the debauches of the table to those of the bed." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792. ME 8:405

"Yet by such worthless beings is a great nation to be governed." --Thomas Jefferson to Mdm. de Tesse, 1813. ME 14:27

"Our executive and legislative authorities are the choice of the nation, and possess the nation's confidence. They are chosen because they possess it." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1811. ME 13:50

"Men of high learning and abilities are few in every country; and by taking in those who are not so, the able part of the body have their hands tied by the unable." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, 1791. ME 8:277

22.2 Ensuring Honest Government

"With us, the people (by which is meant the mass of individuals composing the society)... being unqualified for the management of affairs requiring intelligence above the common level yet competent judges of human character, they choose for their management representatives, some by themselves immediately, others by electors chosen by themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:488

"I have ever observed that a choice by the people themselves is not generally distinguished for its wisdom. This first secretion from them is usually crude and heterogeneous. But give to those so chosen by the people a second choice themselves and they generally will choose wise men." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Pendleton, 1776. Papers 1:503

"The frequent recurrence of this chastening operation [of elections] can alone restrain the propensity of governments to enlarge expense beyond income." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1820. FE 10:176

"Our President is chosen by ourselves, directly in practice, for we vote for A as elector only on the condition he will vote for B, our representatives by ourselves immediately, our Senate [now elected directly --ed.] and judges of law through electors chosen by ourselves. And we believe that this proximate choice and power of removal is the best security which experience has sanctioned for ensuring an honest conduct in the functionaries of society." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:488

"When the legislative or executive functionaries act unconstitutionally, they are responsible to the people in their elective capacity. The exemption of the Judges from that is quite dangerous enough." --Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820. ME 15:277

"I love to see honest and honorable men at the helm, men who will not bend their politics to their purses nor pursue measures by which they may profit and then profit by their measures." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, 1796. ME 9:355

"Men possessing minds of the first order and who have had opportunities of being known and of acquiring the general confidence do not abound in any country beyond the wants of the country." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert Livingston, 1801. FE 7:492

"I think... that it is for the public interest to encourage sacrifices and services by rewarding them, and that they should weigh to a certain point in the decision between candidates." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1785. ME 5:237

"An unprincipled man, let his other fitnesses be what they will, ought never to be employed." --Thomas Jefferson to George Gilmer, 1793. ME 9:143

"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

"Our public economy is such as to offer drudgery and subsistence only to those entrusted with its administration--a wise and necessary precaution against the degeneracy of the public servants." --Thomas Jefferson to Jean Nicholas Demeunier, 1795. FE 7:14

22.3 The Role of the People as Electors

"That love of order and obedience to the laws, which so remarkably characterize the citizens of the United States, are sure pledges of internal tranquility; and the elective franchise, if guarded as the ark of our safety, will peaceably dissipate all combinations to subvert a Constitution, dictated by the wisdom, and resting on the will of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waring, 1801. ME 10:235

"A worthy portion of our fellow-citizens... consider themselves as in duty bound to support the constituted authorities of every branch, and to reserve their opposition to the period of election." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Leib, 1808. ME 12:76

"We believe that... proximate choice and power of removal [are] the best security which experience has sanctioned for ensuring an honest conduct in the functionaries of society." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:488

"Should things go wrong at any time, the people will set them to rights by the peaceable exercise of their elective rights." --Thomas Jefferson to Wilson Nicholas, 1806. ME 11:98

"All can be done peaceably, by the people confining their choice of Representatives and Senators to persons attached to republican government and the principles of 1776, not office-hunters, but farmers, whose interests are entirely agricultural. Such men are the true representatives of the great American interest, and are alone to be relied on for expressing the proper American sentiments." --Thomas Jefferson to Arthur Campbell, 1797. ME 9:420

"A jealous care of the right of election by the people--a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided--I deem [one of] the essential principles of our Government, and consequently [one of] those which ought to shape its administration." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801. ME 3:321

22.4 The Right of Suffrage

"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

"I [am] for extending the right of suffrage (or in other words the rights of a citizen) to all who [have] a permanent intention of living in the country. Take what circumstances you please as evidence of this: either the having resided a certain time, or having a family, or having property--any or all of them. Whoever intends to live in a country must wish that country well, and has a natural right of assisting in the preservation of it." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Pendleton, 1776. Papers 1:504

"The basis of our [state] Constitution is in opposition to the principle of equal political rights [if it refuses] to all but freeholders any participation in the natural right of self-government... However nature may by mental or physical disqualifications have marked infants and the weaker sex for the protection rather than the direction of government, yet among the men who either pay or fight for their country, no line of right can be drawn. The exclusion of a majority of our freemen from the right of representation is merely arbitrary, and an usurpation of the minority over the majority." --Thomas Jefferson to John Hampden Pleasants, 1824. (*) ME 16:28

"One-half of our brethren who fight and pay taxes are excluded, like Helots, from the rights of representation, as if society were instituted for the soil, and not for the men inhabiting it." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816. ME 15:21

"Experience and reflection have but more and more confirmed me in the particular importance of... equal representation." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:33

"Every male citizen of the commonwealth liable to taxes or to militia duty in any county, shall have a right to vote for representatives for that county to the legislature." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes for a Constitution, 1794. FE 6:520

"Were our State a pure democracy, in which all its inhabitants should meet together to transact all their business, there would yet be excluded from their deliberations, 1. Infants, until arrived at years of discretion. 2. Women, who, to prevent depravation of morals and ambiguity of issue, could not mix promiscuously in the public meetings of men. 3. Slaves, from whom the unfortunate state of things with us takes away the rights of will and of property. Those then who have no will could be permitted to exercise none in the popular assembly; and of course, could delegate none to an agent in a representative assembly. The business, in the first case, would be done by qualified citizens only." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:71

"The fool has as great a right to express his opinion by vote as the wise, because he is equally free, and equally master of himself." --Thomas Jefferson: Address to the Cherokee Nation, 1809. ME 16:456

"Society has certainly a right to disavow him whom they offer, and are permitted to qualify for the duties of a citizen." --Thomas Jefferson: Note to Elementary School Act, 1817. ME 17:423

"My opinion has always been in favor of [a general suffrage]. Still, I find some very honest men who, thinking the possession of some property necessary to give due independence of mind, are for restraining the elective franchise to property." --Thomas Jefferson to Jeremiah Moor, 1800. FE 7:454

"It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people; but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782. ME 2:208

"I believe we may lessen the danger of buying and selling votes by making the number of voters too great for any means of purchase." --Thomas Jefferson to Jeremiah Moor, 1800. FE 7:454

22.5 Voting for Correct Principle

"[In 1800,] the nation declared its will by dismissing functionaries of one principle and electing those of another in the two branches, executive and legislative, submitted to their election. Over the judiciary department, the Constitution had deprived them of their control." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1819. ME 15:212

"I think the best remedy is exactly that provided by all our constitutions: to leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the real good and wise. In some instances wealth may corrupt and birth blind them, but not in sufficient degree to endanger the society." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:397

"It will be forever seen that of bodies of men even elected by the people, there will always be a greater proportion aristocratic than among their constituents." Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Hawkins, 1803. ME 10:360

"In a government like ours, the standing of a man well with this portion of the public [i.e., in Washington] must weigh against a considerable difference of other qualifications." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1807. ME 11:392

"If our fellow citizens, now solidly republican, will sacrifice favoritism towards men for the preservation of principle, we may hope that no divisions will again endanger a degeneracy in our government. --Thomas Jefferson to Richard M. Johnson, 1808. ME 12:10

22.6 Responsibilities of Elected Officials

"I think it is a duty in those entrusted with the administration of their affairs to conform themselves to the decided choice of their constituents." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1785. ME 5:94, Papers 8:426

"Perfection in wisdom as well as in integrity is neither required nor expected in [the] agents [of government]. It belongs not to man... Were every man engaged in rendering service to the public, bound in his body and goods to indemnification for all his errors, we must commit our public affairs to the paupers of the nation, to the sweepings of hospitals and poor-houses, who, having nothing to lose, would have nothing to risk. The wise know their weakness too well to assume infallibility; and he who knows most, knows best how little he knows... The spirit of our law... expects not impossibilities. It has consecrated the principle that its servants are not answerable for honest error of judgment... He who has done his duty honestly, and according to his best skill and judgment, stands acquitted before God and man." --Thomas Jefferson: Batture at New Orleans, 1812. ME 18:129

"The newspapers [of England say] that Mr. Madison and myself are personally her enemies. Such an idea is unworthy a man of sense; as we should have been unworthy our trusts could we have felt such a motive of public action." --Thomas Jefferson to James Maury, 1815. ME 14:314

"I,... having no motive to public service but the public satisfaction, would certainly retire the moment that satisfaction should appear to languish." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1789. ME 8:2

"Nothing is more incumbent on the old than to know when they should get out of the way and relinquish to younger successors the honors they can no longer earn, and the duties they can no longer perform." --Thomas Jefferson to John Vaughan, 1815. ME 14:239

22.7 No Independent Public Officials

"I am for responsibilities at short periods, seeing neither reason nor safety in making public functionaries independent of the nation for life, or even for long terms of years." --Thomas Jefferson to James Martin, 1813. ME 13:381

"A government by representatives elected by the people at short periods was our object, and our maxim at that day was, 'where annual election ends, tyranny begins;' nor have our departures from it been sanctioned by the happiness of their effects." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Adams, 1800. ME 10:153

"The term of office to our Senate... like that of the judges, [is] too long for my approbation." --Thomas Jefferson James Martin, 1813. ME 13:381

"In truth, man is not made to be trusted for life if secured against all liability to account." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823. ME 15:487

"That there should be public functionaries independent of the nation, whatever may be their demerit, is a solecism in a republic of the first order of absurdity and inconsistency." --Thomas Jefferson to William T. Barry, 1822. ME 15:389

"Contented with our government, elective as it is in three of its principal branches, I wish not... to see two of them for life; and still less, hereditary, as others desire." --Thomas Jefferson to W. D. G. Worthington, 1810. ME 12: 362

"I have been ever opposed to... [those] desirous of introducing into our government authorities, hereditary or otherwise, independent of the national will. These always consume the public contributions and oppress the people with labor and poverty." --Thomas Jefferson to David Howell, 1810. ME 12:436

"In a free country, every power is dangerous which is not bound up by general rules." --Thomas Jefferson to Philip Mazzei, 1785. FE 4:116

22.8 The Corruptions of Power

"It [appears] that however certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights, and are at the same time themselves better guarded against degeneracy, yet experience [has] shown that, even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny." --Thomas Jefferson: Diffusion of Knowledge Bill, 1779. FE 2:220, Papers 2:526

"[Algernon Sidney wrote in Discourses Concerning Government, Sect. II, Par. 19:] 'All tyrannies have had their beginnings from corruption. The histories of Greece, Sicily and Italy show that all those who made themselves tyrants in several places, did it by the help of the worst and the slaughter of the best.'" --Thomas Jefferson: copied into his Commonplace Book.

"Men... enriched by the dexterity of a leader, [will] follow of course the chief who [is] leading them to fortune and become the zealous instruments of all his enterprises." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1818. (*) ME 1:273

"Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on [offices,] a rottenness begins in his conduct." --Thomas Jefferson to Tench Coxe, 1799. FE 7:381

"An honest man can feel no pleasure in the exercise of power over his fellow citizens... Power is not alluring to pure minds and is not with them the primary principle of contest." --Thomas Jefferson to John Melish, 1813. ME 13:211

"I have the consolation... of having added nothing to my private fortune during my public service and of retiring with hands as clean as they are empty." --Thomas Jefferson to Comte Diodati, 1807. ME 11:182

"It suffices for us if the moral and physical condition of our own citizens qualifies them to select the able and good for the direction of their government, with a recurrence of elections at such short periods as will enable them to displace an unfaithful servant before the mischief he mediates may be irremediable." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:402

"The executive in our governments is not the sole, it is scarcely the principal object of my jealousy. The tyranny of the Legislatures is the most formidable dread at present and will be for many years. That of the executive will come in its turn; but it will be at a remote period." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:312

22.9 Ineffectiveness of Impeachment

"I see nothing in the mode of proceeding by impeachment but the most formidable weapon for the purposes of dominant faction that ever was contrived. It would be the most effectual one for getting rid of any man whom they consider as dangerous to their views, and I do not know that we could count on one-third in an emergency." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1798. ME 9:440

"History shows that in England, impeachment has been an engine more of passion than justice." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1798. ME 9:441

"Experience has proved that impeachment in our forms is completely inefficient." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Livingston, 1825. ME 16:114

"In cases of an abuse of the delegated powers, the members of the General Government, being chosen by the people, a change by the people would be the constitutional remedy." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft Kentucky Resolutions, 1798. ME 17:386

"The constitutional remedy by the elective principle becomes nothing if it may be smothered by the enormous patronage of the General Government." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas M'Kean, 1801. ME 10:195

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

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