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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

24. The Legislators

Elected representatives are the means by which the people institute changes in government peaceably, without having to resort to violent revolution. Keeping the legislature honest and uncorrupted by private interests is necessary if the representative bodies are to reflect the interests of their constituents. This is accomplished by the establishment of constitutional limitations on the legislative powers, the careful oversight of the legislator's performance, and short intervals of election.

"I will say there never was a time when the services of those who possess talents, integrity, firmness and sound judgment were more wanted in Congress. Some one of that description is particularly wanted to take the lead in the House of Representatives, to consider the business of the nation as his own business, to take it up as if he were singly charged with it, and carry it through. I do not mean that any gentleman, relinquishing his own judgment, should implicitly support all the measures of the administration; but that, where he does not disapprove of them, he should not suffer them to go off in sleep, but bring them to the attention of the House, and give them a fair chance. Where he disapproves, he will of course leave them to be brought forward by those who concur in the sentiment." --Thomas Jefferson to Barnabas Bidwell, 1806. ME 11:115

"Come into Congress. That is the great commanding theatre of this nation, and the threshold to whatever department of office a man is qualified to enter." --Thomas Jefferson to William Wirt, 1808. ME 11:423

"All [reforms] 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

"I proposed the representatives (and not the people) should choose the [State] Senate... However, I should have no objection to the mode of election proposed... to wit, that the people of each county should choose twelve electors who should meet those of the other counties in the same district and choose a senator... To make them independent I had proposed that they should hold their places for nine years and then go out (one third every three years) and be incapable forever of being re-elected to that house. My idea was that if they might be re-elected, they would be casting their eye forward to the period of election (however distant) and be currying favor with the electors and consequently dependent on them. My reason for fixing them in office for a term of years rather than for life was that they might have an idea that they were at a certain period to return into the mass of the people and become the governed instead of the governor, which might still keep alive that regard to the public good that otherwise they might perhaps be induced by their independence to forget. Yet I could submit, though not so willingly, to an appointment for life or to anything rather than a mere creation by and dependence on the people." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Pendleton, 1776. Papers 1:503

24.1 Qualifications for Congressmen

"[Can] the States... add any qualifications to those which the Constitution has prescribed for their members of Congress?... Had the Constitution been silent, nobody can doubt but that the right to prescribe all the qualifications and disqualifications of those they would send to represent them would have belonged to the State. So also the Constitution might have prescribed the whole and excluded all others. It has exercised the power in part,... but it does not declare, itself, that the member shall not be a lunatic, a pauper, a convict of treason, or murder, of felony, or other infamous crime, or a non-resident of his district; nor does it prohibit to the State the power of declaring these, or any other disqualifications which its particular circumstances may call for; and these may be different in different States... Caution requires us not to be too confident, and that we admit this to be one of the doubtful questions on which honest men may differ with the purest motives." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1814. ME 14:82

"Every political measure will, forever, have an intimate connection with the laws of the land; and he who knows nothing of these will always be perplexed and often foiled by adversaries having the advantage of that knowledge over him." --Thomas Jefferson to T. M. Randolph, Jr., 1787. ME 6:167

24.2 Congressional Conduct

"[Congressional] procrastination is unavoidable." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Leiper, 1815. ME 14:310

"If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise in a body to which the people send one hundred and fifty lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour?" --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. ME 1:87

"Some [members of Congress] think that independence requires them to follow always their own opinion without respect for that of others. This has never been my opinion nor my practice when I have been of that or any other body. Differing on a particular question from those whom I knew to be of the same political principles with myself and with whom I generally thought and acted, a consciousness of the fallibility of the human mind and of my own in particular, with a respect for the accumulated judgment of my friends, has induced me to suspect erroneous impressions in myself, to suppose my own opinion wrong, and to act with them on theirs. The want of this spirit of compromise, or of self-distrust, proudly but falsely called independence, is what gives [some opponents] victories which they could never obtain if these brethren could learn to respect the opinions of their friends more than of their enemies, and prevents many able and honest men from doing all the good they otherwise might do... These considerations... have often quieted my own conscience in voting and acting on the judgment of others against my own... All honest and prudent men [should] sacrifice a little of self-confidence, and... go with their friends, although they may sometimes think they are going wrong." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1811. (*) ME 13:50

24.3 The Corruption of the Legislature

"History has informed us that bodies of men as well as individuals are susceptible of the spirit of tyranny." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774. ME 1:190, Papers 1:124

"Withdrawn such a distance from the eye of their constituents, and these so dispersed as to be inaccessible to public information, and particularly to that of the conduct of their own representatives, they will form the most corrupt government on earth if the means of their corruption be not prevented." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792. ME 8:345

"Our [legislators should not] be deluded by the integrity of their own purposes and conclude that... unlimited powers will never be abused because themselves are not disposed to abuse them. They should look forward to a time, and that not a distant one, when corruption in this as in the country from which we derive our origin will have seized the heads of government and be spread by them through the body of the people; when they will purchase the voices of the people and make them pay the price. Human nature is the same on each side of the Atlantic, and will be alike influenced by the same causes." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIII, 1782. (*) ME 2:164

"Members of the legislature... [having an interest] in a question [by which] themselves [might] profit [should withdraw], as those interested in a question ever should... [If they do not,] these [are] no longer the votes of the representatives of the people, but of deserters from the rights and interests of the people: and it [is] impossible to consider their decisions, which had nothing in view but to enrich themselves, as the measures of the fair majority, which ought always to be respected." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792. (*) ME 8:397

"It was a cause of just uneasiness when we saw a legislature legislating for their own interests in opposition to those of the people." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1792. ME 1:311

"I have always observed that in questions of expense, where members may hope either for offices or jobs for themselves or their friends, some few will be debauched, and that is sufficient to turn the decision where a majority is, at most, but small." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1794. ME 9:282

"The capital employed in paper speculation... has furnished effectual means of corrupting such a portion of the Legislature as turns the balance between the honest voters, whichever way it is directed. This corrupt squadron deciding the voice of the Legislature have manifested their dispositions to get rid of the limitations imposed by the Constitution on the general Legislature, limitations on the faith of which the States acceded to that instrument." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792. ME 8:344

"I told [President Washington that]... my wish was to see both Houses of Congress cleansed of all persons interested in the bank or public stocks; and that a pure Legislature being given us, I should always be ready to acquiesce under their determinations even if contrary to my own opinions; for that I subscribe to the principle that the will of the majority honestly expressed should give law." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1793. ME 1:332

24.4 Correcting Congressional Abuse

"Submit [the Legislature] to approbation or rejection at short intervals." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:36

"A representative government, responsible at short intervals of election... produces the greatest sum of happiness to mankind." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to the Legislature of Vermont, 1807. ME 16:293

"It is not from [the Legislative] branch of government we have most to fear. Taxes and short elections will keep them right." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Ritchie, 1820. ME 15:297

"The disposition [of the people]... to transfer their confidence from the legislature to the executive branch... would soon sap our Constitution." --Thomas Jefferson tp John Wayles Eppes, 1810. ME 12:343

"When the representative body have lost the confidence of their constituents, when they have notoriously made sale of their most valuable rights, when they have assumed to themselves powers which the people never put into their hands, then, indeed, their continuing in office becomes dangerous to the State, and calls for an exercise of the power of dissolution." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774. ME 1:204, Papers 1:131

"I indulge myself on one political topic only, that is, in declaring to my countrymen the shameless corruption of a portion of the representatives [in Congress]... I think I do good in this, because it may produce exertions to reform the evil, on the success of which the form of the government is to depend." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Randolph, 1794. (*) FE 6:498

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

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