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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

23. The Legislative Branch

The power of legislation resides in the people, but they are not competent to exercise it. Neither is it practical that they should do so. Therefore, they entrust this power to competent representatives who will act on their behalf and in their own best interests, and they watch over them carefully to see that they do just that.

"Were I called upon to decide whether the people had best be omitted in the legislative or judiciary department, I would say it is better to leave them out of the legislature. The execution of the laws is more important than the making of them. However, it is best to have the people in all the three departments, where that is possible." --Thomas Jefferson to Abbe Arnoux, 1789. ME 7:423, Papers 15:283

"[The people] are not qualified to legislate. With us, therefore, they only choose the legislators." --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

"I consider the pure federalist as a republican who would prefer a somewhat stronger Executive; and the republican as one more willing to trust the legislature as a broader representation of the people, and a safer deposit of power for many reasons. But both sects are republican, entitled to the confidence of their fellow citizens." --Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson, 1801. FE 8:76

"I find the conviction growing strongly that nothing can preserve our confederacy unless the band of union, their common council, be strengthened." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1784. ME 4:458, Papers 7:356

"That every State should be represented in the great council of the nation is not only the interest of each, but of the whole united, who have a right to be aided by the collective wisdom and information of the whole, in questions which are to decide on their future well-being." --Thomas Jefferson to John Sevier, 1809. ME 12:243

"Any proposition might be negatived by the representatives of a majority of the people of America, or of a majority of the [states] of America. The former secures the larger, the latter, the smaller [states]." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1777. (*) ME 4:287, Papers 2:19

"I look for our safety to the broad representation of the people [in Congress]. It will be more difficult for corrupt views to lay hold of so large a mass."--Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., 1792. FE 5:455

"I am happy in [the] opportunity of committing the arduous affairs of our government to the collected wisdom of the Union. Nothing shall be wanting on my part [as President] to inform, as far as in my power, the legislative judgment, nor to carry that judgment into faithful execution." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Annual Message, 1801. ME 3:339

23.1 A Sound Spirit of Legislation

"A sound spirit of legislation,... banishing all arbitrary and unnecessary restraint on individual action, shall leave us free to do whatever does not violate the equal rights of another." --Thomas Jefferson: Report for the University of Virginia, 1818.

"Our legislators are not sufficiently apprised of the rightful limits of their power: that their true office is to declare and enforce only our natural rights and duties and to take none of them from us. No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him; every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society, and this is all the laws should enforce on him; and, no man having a natural right to be the judge between himself and another, it is his natural duty to submit to the umpirage of an impartial third. When the laws have declared and enforced all this, they have fulfilled their functions; and the idea is quite unfounded that on entering into society we give up any natural right. The trial of every law by one of these texts would lessen much the labors of our legislators and lighten equally our municipal codes." --Thomas Jefferson to Francis Gilmer, 1816. ME 15:24

"To special legislation we are generally averse lest a principle of favoritism should creep in and pervert that of equal rights. It has, however, been done on some occasions where a special national advantage has been expected to overweigh that of adherence to the general rule." --Thomas Jefferson to George Flower, 1817. ME 15:139

"The framers of our Constitution, in their care to provide that the laws shall bind equally on all, and especially that those who make them shall not be exempt themselves from their operation, have only privileged "Senators and Representatives" themselves from the single act of arrest in all cases except treason, felony, and breach of the peace, during their attendance at the session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same, and from being questioned in any other place for any speech or debate in either House." --Thomas Jefferson: Parliamentary Manual, 1800. ME 2:340

"One of [the legislator's] important duties is as guardian of those who from causes susceptible of precise definition, cannot take care of themselves. Such are infants, maniacs, gamblers, drunkards. The last, as much as the maniac, requires restrictive measures to save him from the fatal infatuation under which he is destroying his health, his morals, his family, and his usefulness to society. One powerful obstacle to his ruinous self-indulgence would be a price beyond his competence. As a sanatory measure, therefore, it becomes one of duty in the public guardians." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Smith, 1823. ME 15:431

"Congress... wisely enough avoid deciding on abstract questions." --Thomas Jefferson to John W. Eppes, 1813. ME 13:273

"Congress have no... natural or necessary powers, nor any powers but such as are given them by the Constitution." --Thomas Jefferson: Parliamentary Manual, 1800. ME 2:342

"Some have proposed to Congress to incorporate [a central agricultural] society. I am against that, because I think Congress cannot find in all the enumerated powers any one which authorizes the act, much less the giving the public money to that use. I believe, too, if they had the power it would soon be used for no other purpose than to buy with sinecures useful partisans. I believe it will thrive best if left to itself." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert Livingston, 1801. FE 7:492

"If there be anything amiss... in the present state of our affairs,... I ascribe it to the inattention of Congress to their duties, to their unwise dissipation and waste of the public contributions. They seemed, some little while ago, to be at a loss for objects whereon to throw away the supposed fathomless funds of the Treasury... The deficit produced and a heavy tax to supply it will, I trust, bring both [Congress and the people] to their sober senses." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Ritchie, 1820. ME 15:296

"An adherence to fundamental principles is the most likely way to save both time and disagreement [between legislative bodies]... a departure from them may at some time or other be drawn into precedent for dangerous innovations, and... therefore it is better for both Houses and for those by whom they are entrusted to correct the error while new and before it becomes inveterate by habit and custom." --Thomas Jefferson: Conference Report, 1777. Papers 2:46

23.2 A Sense of the People's Disposition

"The representatives of the people in Congress are alone competent to judge of the general disposition of the people, and to what precise point of reformation they are ready to go." --Thomas Jefferson to Mr. Rutherford, 1792. ME 9:5

"Coming from every section of our country, [both houses of Congress] bring with them the sentiments and the information of the whole, and will be enabled to give a direction to the public affairs which the will and wisdom of the whole will approve and support." --Thomas Jefferson: 5th Annual Message, 1805. ME 3:384

"To be really useful, we must keep pace with the state of society, and not dishearten it by attempts at what its population, means, or occupations will fail in attempting." --Thomas Jefferson to G. C. de La Costa, 1807. ME 11:206

"[Montesquieu wrote in Spirit of the Laws, XIX, c.5:] 'It is the business of the legislature to follow the spirit of the nation, when it is not contrary to the principles of government; for we do nothing so well as when we act with freedom and follow the bent of our natural genius." --Thomas Jefferson: copied into his Commonplace Book.

"It is not only vain, but wicked in a legislator to frame laws in opposition to the laws of nature, and to arm them with the terrors of death. This is truly creating crimes in order to punish them." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Crimes Bill, 1779. Papers 2:502

"It is the will of the nation which makes the law obligatory; it is their will which creates or annihilates the organ which is to declare and announce it." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Randolph, 1799. ME 10:126

23.3 The Work of the Legislature

"Nothing is so embarrassing nor so mischievous in a great assembly as the details of execution. The smallest trifle of that kind occupies as long as the most important act of legislation and takes place of everything else. Let any man recollect or look over the files of [the Confederation] Congress; he will observe the most important propositions hanging over from week to week and month to month till the occasions have passed them and the thing never done. I have ever viewed the executive details as the greatest cause of evil to us, because they in fact place us as if we had no federal head, by diverting the attention of that head from great to small subjects." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:228

"A forty years' experience of popular assemblies has taught me that you must give them time for every step you take. If too hard pushed, they balk, and the machine retrogrades." --Thomas Jefferson to Joel Barlow, 1807. ME 11:400

"Ours... is a government which will not tolerate the being kept entirely in the dark." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1807. ME 11:168

"If the members are to know nothing but what is important enough to be put into a public message and indifferent enough to be made known to all the world; if the executive is to keep all other information to himself and the House to plunge on in the dark, it becomes a government of chance and not of design." --Thomas Jefferson to Barnabas Bidwell, 1806. ME 11:116

"The Legislature should never show itself in a matter with a foreign nation but where the case is very serious and they mean to commit the nation on its issue." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1791. ME 8:250

"[A legislature,] elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation onLy, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding [legislatures], constituted with powers equal to [their] own, and therefore to declare [an] act irrevocable would be of no effect in law." --Thomas Jefferson: Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1777. (*) Papers 2:546

"Each house of Congress possesses [the] natural right of governing itself... so far as it has not been abridged by the law of those who employ them, that is to say, by the Constitution." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Residence Bill, 1790. ME 3:66

"That all should be satisfied with any one order of things is not to be expected, but I indulge the pleasing persuasion that the great body of our citizens will cordially concur in honest and disinterested efforts, which have for their object to preserve the general and State governments in their constitutional form and equilibrium; to maintain peace abroad, and order and obedience to the laws at home; to establish principles and practices of administration favorable to the security of liberty and property, and to reduce expenses to what is necessary for the useful purpose of government." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Annual Message, 1801. ME 3:340

"The instability of our laws is really an immense evil. I think it would be well to provide in our constitutions that there shall always be a twelve-month between the engrossing a bill and passing it; that it should then be offered to its passage without changing a word; and that if circumstances should be thought to require a speedier passage, it should take two-thirds of both houses instead of a bare majority." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. ME 6:393

"The journals of Congress not being printed earlier gives more uneasiness than I would ever wish to see produced by any act of that body, from whom alone I know our salvation can proceed. In our Assembly, even the best affected think it an indignity to freemen to be voted away, life and fortune, in the dark." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1777. ME 4:287, Papers 2:19

"Whether the great interests of agriculture, manufactures, commerce, or navigation, can, within the pale of [Congress'] constitutional powers, be aided in any of their relations; whether laws are provided in all cases where they are wanting; whether those provided are exactly what they should be; whether any abuses take place in their administration, or in that of the public revenues; whether the organization of the public agents or of the public force is perfect in all its parts; in fine, whether anything can be done to advance the general good, are questions within the limits of [Congress'] functions which will necessarily occupy [their] attention. In these and other matters which [they] in [their] wisdom may propose for the good of our country, [they] may count with assurance on my hearty co-operation and faithful execution." --Thomas Jefferson: 4th Annual Message, 1804. ME 3:374

23.4 The Composition of the Legislature

"For good legislation two Houses are necessary." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1789. ME 7:334

"The purpose of establishing different houses of legislation is to introduce the influence of different interests or different principles. Thus in Great Britain it is said their constitution relies on the House of Commons for honesty, and the Lords for wisdom; which would be a rational reliance if honesty were to be bought with money, and if wisdom were hereditary." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIII, 1782. ME 2:162

"The Senate... was intended as a check on the will of the Representatives when too hasty." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1794. ME 9:288

"I find my countrymen... think their own experience has so decidedly proved the necessity of two Houses to prevent the tyranny of one that they fear that this single error will shipwreck [a nation's] new constitution." --Thomas Jefferson to Rouchefoucauld, 1790. (*)

"I am captivated by the compromise [in the new federal Constitution] of the opposite claims of the great and little States, of the latter to equal and the former to proportional influence. I am much pleased, too, with the substitution of the method of voting by person, instead of that of voting by States." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. ME 6:387

"In the structure of our [State] legislatures, we think experience has proved the benefit of subjecting questions to two separate bodies of deliberants; but in constituting these, natural right has been mistaken, some making one of these bodies, and some both, the representatives of property instead of persons; whereas the double deliberation might be as well obtained without any violation of true principle either by requiring a greater age in one of the bodies or by electing a proper number of representatives of persons, dividing them by lots into two chambers and renewing the division at frequent intervals in order to break up all cabals." --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:45

"No invasions of the Constitution are fundamentally so dangerous as the tricks played on [Congress'] numbers, apportionment, and other circumstances respecting themselves, and affecting their legal qualifications to legislate for the union." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Apportionment Bill, 1792. ME 3:211

"It seems that the opinion is fairly launched into public that [the Senate] should be placed under the control of a more frequent recurrence to the will of their constituents. This seems requisite to complete the experiment, whether they do more harm or good." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1794. ME 9:289

"In some of the American States the delegates and senators are so chosen as that the first represent the persons and the second the property of the State. But with us [in Virginia], wealth and wisdom have equal chance for admission into both houses. We do not, therefore, derive from the separation of our legislature into two houses those benefits which a proper complication of principles is capable of producing, and those which alone can compensate the evils which may be produced by their dissensions." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIII, 1782. ME 2:162

"Reduce [the] legislature to a convenient number for full but orderly discussion. Let every man who fights or pays exercise his just and equal right in their election. Submit them to approbation or rejection at short intervals." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:36

"The [State] Senate shall consist of... members who shall be appointed by the House of Representatives. One-third of them shall be removed out of office... annually at the end of every three years according to seniority. When once removed, they shall be forever incapable of being reappointed to that House." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft Virginia Constitution, 1776. Papers 1:358

"To obtain a wise and an able [State] government,... render the legislature a desirable station by lessening the number of representatives (say to 100) and lengthening somewhat their term, and proportion them equally among the electors." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, 1791. (*) ME 8:277

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

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