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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

27. The Art of Governing

The Chief Executive of a republic is expected to govern in the public interest and not for his own enrichment or that of his family and friends. The art of governing consists simply of being honest, exercising common sense, following principle, and doing what is right and just.

"It behooves [a chief executive] to think and to act for [himself] and for [his] people. The great principles of right and wrong are legible to every reader; to pursue them requires not the aid of many counselors. The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest. [He need] only aim to do [his] duty, and mankind will give [him] credit where [he fails]." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774. (*) ME 1:209, Papers 1:134

"The organization of [government] may be thought [to entail great difficulties]. But follow principle, and the knot unties itself." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. (*) ME 15:37

"Principles being understood, their application will be less embarrassing." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Pinckney, 1792. ME 9:7

"There are no mysteries in [the public administration]. Difficulties indeed sometimes arise; but common sense and honest intentions will generally steer through them, and, where they cannot be surmounted, I have ever seen the well-intentioned part of our fellow citizens sufficiently disposed not to look for impossibilities." --Thomas Jefferson to Josephus B. Stuart, 1817. ME 15:112

"If ever you find yourself environed with difficulties and perplexing circumstances out of which you are at a loss how to extricate yourself, do what is right, and be assured that that will extricate you the best out of the worst situations. Though you cannot see when you take one step what will be the next, yet follow truth, justice and plain dealing, and never fear their leading you out of the labyrinth in the easiest manner possible. The knot which you thought a Gordian one will untie itself before you. Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming, by an untruth, by an injustice. This increases the difficulties tenfold; and those who pursue these methods get themselves so involved at length that they can turn no way but their infamy becomes more exposed." --Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1785. ME 5:83, Papers 8:406

"I have ever found in my progress through life, that, acting for the public, if we do always what is right, the approbation denied in the beginning will surely follow us in the end. It is from posterity we are to expect remuneration for the sacrifices we are making for their service, of time, quiet and good will." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1825. ME 16:99

"After the satisfaction of doing what is right, the greatest is that of having what we do approved by those whose opinions deserve esteem." --Thomas Jefferson to William Phillips, 1779. ME 4:302, Papers 3:44

27.1 Public Confidence

"Government [is] founded in opinion and confidence." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1792. ME 1:317

"It is not wisdom alone but public confidence in that wisdom which can support an administration." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1824. FE 10:316

"I wish support from no quarter longer than my object candidly scanned shall merit it; and especially not longer than I shall rigorously adhere to the Constitution." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Stoddart, 1801. ME 10:209

"The good opinion of mankind, like the lever of Archimedes, with the given fulcrum, moves the world." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Correa de Serra, 1814. ME 14:222

"Opinion is power." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1816. ME 14:39

27.2 Efforts to Win Confidence

"[Our government's] energy depending mainly on the confidence of the people in the Chief Magistrate, makes it his duty to spare nothing which can strengthen him with that confidence." --Thomas Jefferson to Horatio Turpin, 1807. ME 11:222

"I would be glad even to know, when any individual member [of Congress] thinks I have gone wrong in any instance. If I know myself, it would not excite ill blood in me, while it would assist to guide my conduct, perhaps to justify it, and to keep me to my duty, alert." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. ME 6:385

"Continue to go straight forward, pursuing always that which is right, as the only clue which can lead us out of the labyrinth. Let nothing be spared of either reason or passion to preserve the public confidence entire as the only rock of our safety." --Thomas Jefferson to Caesar Rodney, 1810. ME 12:359

27.3 Avoiding Pomp and Spectacle

"We have suppressed all those public forms and ceremonies which tended to familiarize the public eye to the harbingers of another form of government." --Thomas Jefferson to Thaddeus Kosciusko, 1802. ME 10:310

"We do not wish to set a precedent which may bind us hereafter to a single unnecessary ceremony." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Pinckney, 1792. ME 8:368

"I confess that I am not reconciled to the idea of a chief magistrate parading himself through the several States, as an object of public gaze, and in quest of an applause which, to be valuable, should be purely voluntary. I had rather acquire silent good-will by a faithful discharge of my duties, than owe expressions of it to my putting myself in the way of receiving them." --Thomas Jefferson to James Sullivan, 1807. ME 11:238

"Let us deserve well of our country by making her interests the end of all our plans, and not our own pomp, patronage and irresponsibility." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1802. ME 10:308

"I never doubted the propriety of our adopting as a system that of pomp and fulsome attentions by our citizens to their functionaries. I am decidedly against it, as it makes the citizen in his own eye exalting his functionary and creating a distance between the two, which does not tend to aid the morals of either. I think it a practice which we ought to destroy and must destroy and, therefore, must not adopt as a general thing even for a short time." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1800. ME 19:119

27.4 Informing the Public

"I have not been in the habit of mysterious reserve on any subject, nor of buttoning up my opinions within my own doublet. On the contrary, while in public service especially, I thought the public entitled to frankness, and intimately to know whom they employed." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:32

"I hope that to preserve this weather-gauge of public opinion and to counteract the slanders and falsehoods disseminated by the [foreign] papers, the government will make it a standing instruction to their ministers at foreign courts, to keep [their people] truly informed of occurrences here by publishing in their papers the naked truth always, whether favorable or unfavorable. For they will believe the good if we candidly tell them the bad also." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1815. (*) ME 14:227

"A fair and honest narrative of the bad is a voucher for the truth of the good." --Thomas Jefferson to Matthew Carr, 1813. ME 13:264

"Free people think they have a right to an explanation of the circumstances which give rise to the necessity under which they suffer." --Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Green, 1781. Papers 5:356

"True history, in which all will be believed, [is] preferable to unqualified panegyric, in which nothing is believed." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Delaplaine, 1816. ME 15:49

"No ground of support for the Executive will ever be so sure as a complete knowledge of their proceedings by the people; and it is only in cases where the public good would be injured, and because it would be injured, that proceedings should be secret. In such cases it is the duty of the Executive to sacrifice their personal interest (which would be promoted by publicity) to the public interest." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1793. ME 9:262

"Should circumstances arise which may offer advantage to our country in making [the acknowledged principles of our foreign relations] public, we shall avail ourselves of them. But as it is not usual nor agreeable to governments to bring their conversations before the public, I think it would be well [for officers] to consider [such matters] as confidential, leaving to the government to retain or make it public, as the general good may require." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert R. Livingston, 1808. ME 12:170

27.5 Influence of the President

"I was against writing letters to judiciary officers. I thought them independent of the Executive, not subject to its coercion and therefore not obliged to attend to its admonitions." --Thomas Jefferson: Anas, 1793. ME 1:399

"It is... proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe, a day of fasting and prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the United States an authority over religious exercises which the Constitution has directly precluded them from. It must be meant, too, that this recommendation is to carry some authority and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed?... Civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Miller, 1808. ME 11:428

"I do not mean... to arrogate to myself the merit of the measures [which I propose]; that is due, in the first place, to the reflecting character of our citizens at large, who, by the weight of public opinion, influence and strengthen the public measures; it is due to the sound discretion with which they select from among themselves those to whom they confide the legislative duties; it is due to the zeal and wisdom of the characters thus selected, who lay the foundations of public happiness in wholesome laws, the execution of which alone remains for others; and it is due to the able and faithful auxiliaries whose patriotism has associated with me in the executive functions." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Inaugural, 1805. ME 3:380

27.6 Burdens of Office

"Solicitations for office are the most painful incidents to which an executive magistrate is exposed. The ordinary affairs of a nation offer little difficulty to a person of any experience, but the gift of office is the dreadful burthen which oppresses him." --Thomas Jefferson to James Sullivan, 1808. ME 12:3

"A person who wishes to make [the bestowal of office] an engine of self-elevation may do wonders with it; but to one who wishes to use it conscientiously for the public good without regard to the ties of blood or friendship, it creates enmities without number, many open but more secret, and saps the happiness and peace of his life." --Thomas Jefferson to James Sullivan, 1808. ME 12:3

"I know well that no man will ever bring out of that office [i.e., the Presidency] the reputation which carries him into it." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, 1796. ME 9:353

"The helm of a free government is always arduous." --Thomas Jefferson to James Sullivan, 1797. ME 9:377

"I have no inclination to govern men. I should have no views of my own in doing it; and as to those of the governed, I had rather that their disappointment (which must always happen) should be pointed to any other cause, real or supposed, than to myself." --Thomas Jefferson to Constantin Francois Volney, 1797. ME 9:363

"I have never been so well pleased as when I could shift power from my own, on the shoulders of others; nor have I ever been able to conceive how any rational being could propose happiness to himself from the exercise of power over others." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811. ME 13:18

"I have no ambition to govern men. It is a painful and thankless office." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1796. ME 9:357

"I am tired of an office where I can do no more good than many others, who would be glad to be employed in it. To myself, personally, it brings nothing but unceasing drudgery and daily loss of friends. Every office becoming vacant, every appointment made, me donne un ingrat, et cent ennemis." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1807. ME 11:137

"No slave is so remote [from happiness] as the minister of a commonwealth." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1781. ME 4:185, Papers 6:112

"So totally is my time engrossed by the public concerns, that for mere want of time, many of them which I ought to attend to myself, if my time sufficed, I am obliged, for want of it, to refer to others. To withdraw myself from still more of them for any voluntary object would be a failure in duty." --Thomas Jefferson to James Main, 1808. ME 12:175

"I should have listened to [certain] solicitations [for a government project] with more patience, had it not been for the unworthy motives presented to influence me by some of those interested. Sometimes an opposition by force was held up, sometimes electioneering effects, as if I were to barter away, on such motives, a public trust committed to me for a different object." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1808. (*) ME 12:118

27.7 Inevitable Errors

"In the transaction of [the] business [of my fellow citizens] I cannot have escaped error. It is incident to our imperfect nature. But I may say with truth, my errors have been of the understanding, not of intention; and that the advancement of their rights and interests has been the constant motive of every measure." --Thomas Jefferson: 8th Annual Message, 1808. ME 3:485

"Men come into business at first, with visionary principles. It is practice alone which can correct and conform them to the actual current of affairs. In the meantime, those to whom their errors were first applied have been their victims." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1788. ME 7:42

"Nothing my friends can do is so dear to me, and proves to me their friendship so clearly, as the information they give me of their sentiments and those of others on interesting points where I am to act, and where information and warning is so essential to excite in me that due reflection which ought to precede action." --Thomas Jefferson to Wilson C. Nicholas, 1803. ME 10:420

"It is much easier to avoid errors by having good information at first, than to unravel and correct them after they are committed." --Thomas Jefferson to David Rittenhouse, 1790. ME 8:56

"I fear not that any motives of interest may lead me astray; I am sensible of no passion which could seduce me knowingly from the path of justice; but the weakness of human nature and the limits of my own understanding will produce errors of judgment sometimes injurious to [the nation's] interests." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Inaugural, 1805. ME 3:383

"Public misfortune may be produced as well by public poverty and private disobedience to the laws, as by the misconduct of the public servants." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1781. ME 4:185, Papers 6:112

"Although every reasonable man must be sensible that all [the President] can do is to order, that execution must depend on others and failures be imputed to them alone, yet I know that when such failures happen, they afflict even those who have done everything they could to prevent them." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1814. ME 14:194

"I may have erred at times -- no doubt I have erred; this is the law of human nature. For honest errors, however, indulgence may be hoped." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Lomax, 1801. ME 10:212

"It is our consolation and encouragement that we are serving a just public who will be indulgent to any error committed honestly and relating merely to the means of carrying into effect what they have manifestly willed to be a law." --Thomas Jefferson to William H. Cabell, 1807. ME 11:323

"It is impossible not to deplore our past follies and their present consequences, but let them at least be warnings against like follies in future." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1814. ME 14:189

"Only aim to do your duty and mankind will give you credit where you fail." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774. ME 1:210, Papers 1:134

27.8 Avoiding Nepotism

"In a government like ours, it is the duty of the Chief Magistrate, in order to enable himself to do all the good which his station requires, to endeavor by all honorable means to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people. This alone, in any case where the energy of the nation is required, can produce a union of the powers of the whole and point them in a single direction as if all constituted but one body and one mind, and this alone can render a weaker nation unconquerable by a stronger one. Towards acquiring the confidence of the people, the very first measure is to satisfy them of his disinterestedness, and that he is directing their affairs with a single eye to their good and not to build up fortunes for himself and family." --Thomas Jefferson to John Garland Jefferson, 1810. ME 12:353

"The public will never be made to believe that an appointment of a relative is made on the ground of merit alone, uninfluenced by family views; nor can they ever see with approbation offices, the disposal of which they entrust to their Presidents for public purposes, divided out as family property... It is true that this places the relations of the President in a worse situation than if he were a stranger, but the public good, which cannot be effected if its confidence be lost, requires this sacrifice." --Thomas Jefferson to George Jefferson, 1801. ME 10:249

"So prone are [the people] to suspicion, that where a President appoints a relation of his own however worthy, they will believe that favor and not merit was the motive. I therefore laid it down as a law of conduct for myself never to give an appointment to a relation." --Thomas Jefferson to John Garland Jefferson, 1810. ME 12:354

"I have thought it my duty [to exclude merit from office, merely because it was related to me], that my constituents may be satisfied that, in selecting persons for the management of their affairs, I am influenced by neither personal nor family interests, and especially, that the field of public office will not be perverted by me into a family property." --Thomas Jefferson to Horatio Turpin, 1807. ME 11:221

"In the course of the trusts I have exercised through life with powers of appointment, I can say with truth and with unspeakable comfort, that I never did appoint a relation to office, and that merely because I never saw the case in which someone did not offer, or occur, better qualified." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1824. ME 16:7

27.9 Avoiding Self-Interest and Enrichment

"When I first entered on the stage of public life (now twenty-four years ago), I came to a resolution never to engage while in public office in any kind of enterprise for the improvement of my fortune, nor to wear any other character than that of a farmer. I have never departed from it in a single instance; and I have in multiplied instances found myself happy in being able to decide and to act as a public servant, clear of all interest, in the multiform questions that have arisen, wherein I have seen others embarrassed and biased by having got themselves into a more interested situation." --Thomas Jefferson to [unknown], March 18, 1793. ME 9:44

"On coming into public office, I laid it down as a law of my conduct, while I should continue in it, to accept no present of any sensible pecuniary value. A pamphlet, a new book, or an article of new curiosity, have produced no hesitation, because below suspicion. But things of sensible value, however innocently offered in the first examples, may grow at length into abuse, for which I wish not to furnish a precedent... My desire, by a perseverance in the rule, [is] to retain that consciousness of a disinterested administration of the public trusts, which is essential to perfect tranquility of mind." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Hawkins, 1808. ME 12:203

"I had laid it down as a law for my conduct while in office, and hitherto scrupulously observed, to accept of no present beyond a book, a pamphlet, or other curiosity of minor value; as well to avoid imputation on my motives of action, as to shut out a practice susceptible of such abuse. But my particular esteem for the character of the Emperor [Alexander of Russia], places [a gift of] his image in my mind above the scope of law. I receive it, therefore, and shall cherish it with affection." --Thomas Jefferson to Levett Harris, 1806. ME 11:101

"[The] approbation of my fellow-citizens is the richest reward I can receive. I am conscious of having always intended to do what was best for them; and never, for a single moment, to have listened to any personal interest of my own." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard M. Johnson, 1808. ME 12:9

"Nothing personal or self-interested entered into my motives for continuing in the public service." --Thomas Jefferson to Augustus B. Woodward, 1809. ME 12:284

"If, in the course of my life, it has been in any degree useful to the cause of humanity, the fact itself bears its full reward." --Thomas Jefferson to David Barrow, 1815. ME 14:296

"Disapproving myself of transferring the honors and veneration for the great birthday of our republic to any individual, or of dividing them with individuals, I have declined letting my own birthday be known, and have engaged my family not to communicate it. This has been the uniform answer to every application of the kind." --Thomas Jefferson to Levi Lincoln, 1803. ME 10:416

"A consciousness that I feel no desire but to do what is best, without passion or predilection, encourages me to hope for an indulgent construction of what I do." --Thomas Jefferson to John Page, 1801. ME 10:234

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

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