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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

28. Duties of the Executive

The chief duties of the President are to diligently uphold the Constitution and administer the laws enacted thereunder, to inform the people, maintain their confidence, protect their rights and adhere to republican and to moral principles.

"To inform the minds of the people, and to follow their will, is the chief duty of those placed at their head." --Thomas Jefferson to C. W. F. Dumas, 1787. ME 6:342, Papers 12:360

"My chief object is to let the good sense of the nation have fair play, believing it will best take care of itself." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1802. FE 8:181

28.1 Eliminating Formalities

"I have ever thought that forms should yield to whatever should facilitate business." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1801. ME 10:267

"A rule, wise and necessary for a legislative body, [does] not suit an executive one, which, being governed by events, must change their purposes as those change." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:52

"By sending a message [to Congress], instead of making a speech at the opening of the session, I have prevented the bloody conflict to which the making an answer would have committed them. They consequently were able to set into real business at once, without losing ten or twelve days in combating an answer." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, 1801. ME 10:303

"Averse to receive addresses, yet unable to prevent them, I have generally endeavored to turn them to some account, by making them the occasion, by way of answer, of sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets." --Thomas Jefferson to Levi Lincoln, 1802. ME 10:305

28.2 Executing the Laws

"The road to that glory which never dies is to use power for the support of the laws and liberties of our country, not for their destruction." --Thomas Jefferson to the Earl of Buchan, 1803. ME 10:401

"We [are] bound to administer to others the same measure of law, not which they had meted to us, but we to ourselves, and to extend to all equally the protection of the same constitutional principles." --Thomas Jefferson to Gideon Granger, 1814. ME 14:116

"Freedom of religion, freedom of the press, trial by jury, habeas corpus, and a representative legislature... I consider as the essentials constituting free government, and... the organization of the executive is interesting as it may insure wisdom and integrity in the first place, but next as it may favor or endanger the preservation of these fundamentals." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1815. ME 14:255

"It was well known to have been a tenet of the republican portion of our fellow citizens, that the sedition law was contrary to the Constitution and therefore void. On this ground I considered it as a nullity wherever I met it in the course of my duties; and on this ground I directed nolle prosequis in all the prosecutions which had been instituted under it, and as far as the public sentiment can be inferred from the occurrences of the day, we may say that this opinion had the sanction of the nation." --Thomas Jefferson to Gideon Granger, 1814. ME 14:116

"The sedition law was unconstitutional and null, and... my obligation to execute what was law involved that of not suffering rights secured by valid laws to be prostrated by what was no law." --Thomas Jefferson to Wilson Nicholas, 1809. ME 12:289

28.3 Executive Decisions

"It is well known that on every question the lawyers are about equally divided, and were we to act but in cases where no contrary opinion of a lawyer can be had, we should never act." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1808. ME 12:168

"A monarchical head should confide the execution of its will to departments, consisting each of a plurality of hands who would warp that will as much as possible towards wisdom and moderation, the two qualities it generally wants. But a republican head, founding these decrees originally in these two qualities, should commit them to a single hand for execution, giving them thereby a promptitude which republican proceedings generally want." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:54

"An instant of delay in executive proceedings may be fatal to the whole nation." --Thomas Jefferson to James Barbour, 1812. ME 13:128

28.4 Leadership for Reform

"I am sensible how far I should fall short of effecting all the reformation which reason would suggest and experience approve were I free to do whatever I thought best; but when we reflect how difficult it is to move or inflect the great machine of society, how impossible to advance the notions of a whole people suddenly to ideal right, we see the wisdom of Solon's remark that no more good must be attempted than the nation can bear, and that all will be chiefly to reform the waste of public money and thus drive away the vultures who prey upon it, and improve some little upon old routines. Some new fences for securing constitutional rights may, with the aid of a good Legislature, perhaps be attainable." --Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1801. ME 10:235

"It is fortunate that our first executive magistrate is purely and zealously republican. We cannot expect all his successors to be so, and therefore should avail ourselves the present day to establish principles and examples which may fence us against future heresies preached now, to be practised hereafter." --Thomas Jefferson to James Innes, 1791. ME 8:145

"The friends of reform, while they remain firm, [should] avoid every act and threat against the peace of the Union... Reason, not rashness, is the only means of bringing our fellow citizens to their true minds." --Thomas Jefferson to Nicholas Lewis, 1799. ME 10:92

"Firmness on our part, but a passive firmness, is the true course." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1799. ME 10:94

"The strictures on slavery and on the constitution of Virginia [contained in my Notes on Virginia]... are the parts which I do not wish to have made public, at least till I know whether their publication would do most harm or good. It is possible that in my own country, these strictures might produce an irritation which would indispose the people towards the two great objects I have in view; that is, the emancipation of their slaves and the settlement of their constitution on a firmer and more permanent basis. If I learn from thence that they will not produce that effect, I have printed and reserved just copies enough to be able to give one to every young man at the College. It is to them I look, to the rising generation, and not to the one now in power, for these great reformations." --Thomas Jefferson to General Chastellux, 1785. ME 5:3, Papers 8:184

28.5 Appointment Powers of the Executive

"I am of opinion that the Constitution has made the President the sole competent judge to what places circumstances render it expedient that ambassadors or other public ministers should be sent and of what grade they should be; and that it has ascribed to the Senate no executive act but the single one of giving or withholding their consent to the person nominated." --Thomas Jefferson: For President's Message, 1792. FE 5:415

"Nomination to office is an executive function. To give it to the legislature... is a violation of the principle of the separation of powers. It swerves the members from correctness by temptations to intrigue for office themselves and to a corrupt barter of votes; and destroys responsibility by dividing it among a multitude. By leaving nomination in its proper place among executive functions, the principle of distribution of powers is preserved and responsibility weighs with its heaviest force on a single head." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:37

"The Senate is not supposed by the Constitution to be acquainted with the concerns of the Executive Department. It was not intended that these should be communicated to them, nor can they therefore be qualified to judge of the necessity which calls for a mission to any particular place or of the particular grade, more or less marked, which special and secret circumstances may call for. All this is left to the President. They are only to see that no unfit person be employed." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Powers of Senate, 1790. ME 3:17

28.6 Presidential Appointments

"The House of Representatives having... concluded their choice of a person for the chair of the United States and willed me that office, it now becomes necessary to provide an administration composed of persons whose qualifications and standing have possessed them of the public confidence, and whose wisdom may ensure to our fellow-citizens the advantages they sanguinely expect." --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Dearborn, 1801. ME 10:204

"There is nothing I am so anxious about as making the best possible appointments, and no case in which the best men are more liable to mislead us, by yielding to the solicitations of applicants." --Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Macon, 1801. ME 10:261

"In appointments to public offices of mere profit, I have ever considered faithful service in either our first or second revolution as giving preference of claim, and that appointment on that principle would gratify the public and strengthen confidence so necessary to enable the Executive to direct the whole public force to the best advantage of the nation." --Thomas Jefferson to John Page, 1807. ME 11:285

"The safety of the government absolutely [requires] that its direction in its higher departments should be taken into friendly hands." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1802. FE 8:169

"It is certain that those of the Cabinet Council of the President should be of his bosom confidence." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Dexter, 1801. ME 10:208

"It is not for an individual to choose his post. [The President is] to marshal us as may best be for the public good." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1789. ME 8:2

"There is nothing I am so anxious about as good nominations, conscious that the merit as well as reputation of an administration depends as much on that as on its measures." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, 1801. ME 10:257

"Should I be placed in office, nothing would be more desirable to me than the recommendations of those in whom I have confidence, of persons fit for office; for if the good withhold their testimony, we shall be at the mercy of the bad." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin S. Barton, 1801. ME 10:199

"Of the various executive duties, no one excites more anxious concern than that of placing the interest of our fellow citizens in the hands of honest men with understanding sufficient for their stations. No duty, at the same time, is more difficult to fulfil. The knowledge of characters possessed by a single individual is, of necessity, limited. To seek out the best through the whole Union, we must resort to other information, which, from the best of men, acting disinterestedly and with the purest motives, is sometimes incorrect." --Thomas Jefferson to a New Haven Committee, 1801. ME 10:269

"I have firmly refused to follow the counsels of those who have desired the giving offices to some of [the opposition's] leaders, in order to reconcile. I have given, and will give only to republicans, under existing circumstances." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1801. ME 10:220

"I shall... return with joy to that state of things, when the only questions concerning a candidate shall be, is he honest? Is he capable? Is he faithful to the Constitution?" --Thomas Jefferson to a New Haven Committee, 1801. ME 10:273

"An officer who is entrusted by the law with the sacred duty of naming judges of life and death for his fellow citizens and who selects them exclusively from among his political and party enemies ought never to have in his power a second abuse of that tremendous magnitude." --Thomas Jefferson to Mrs. Sarah Mease, 1801. FE 8:35

"An officer... who selects judges for principles which necessarily lead to condemnation might as well lead his culprits to the scaffold at once without the mockery of trial." --Thomas Jefferson to Mrs. Sarah Mease, 1801. FE 8:35

"In a government like ours it was necessary to embrace in its administration as great a mass of confidence as possible, by employing those who had a character with the public of their own, and not merely a secondary one through the Executive." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1806. ME 1:449

"I had endeavored to compose an administration whose talents, integrity, names, and dispositions, should at once inspire unbounded confidence in the public mind, and insure a perfect harmony in the conduct of the public business." --Thomas Jefferson to Aaron Burr, 1800. ME 10:182

"I did not think the public offices confided to me to give away as charities." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1802. ME 10:332

"Justice to [government] officers forbids us to give credit to... imputations [of wrongdoing] till proved; but justice... requires us so far to attend to them as to make them the subject of inquiry." --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Dearborn, 1808. (*) ME 12:116

"My usage is to make the best appointment my information and judgment enable me to do, and then fold myself up in the mantle of conscience, and abide unmoved the peltings of the storm. And oh! for the day when I shall be withdrawn from it." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, 1808. ME 11:412

28.7 Regulating Commerce with the Embargo

"I place immense value in the experiment being fully made, how far an embargo may be an effectual weapon in future." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1808. ME 12:56

"My principle is that the conveniences of our citizens shall yield reasonably, and their taste greatly to the importance of giving the present experiment so fair a trial that on future occasions our legislators may know with certainty how far they may count on it as an engine for national purposes." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1808. ME 12:83

"[By issuing a certificate for needed internal shipping during an embargo,] we may secure a supply of the real wants of our citizens, and at the same time prevent those wants from being made a cover for the crimes against their country which unprincipled adventurers are in the habit of committing." --Thomas Jefferson to the State Governors, 1808. ME 12:51

"The laws enacted by the general government will have made it our duty to have the embargo strictly observed for the general good; and we are sworn to execute the laws. If clamor ensue, it will be from the few only who will clamor whatever we do." --Thomas Jefferson to James Sullivan, 1808. ME 12:129

"Individuals ought to yield their private interests to this great public object." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1808. ME 12:53

"[It is our] desire... that inconveniences encountered cheerfully by [our worthy citizens] for the interests of their country, shall not be turned merely to the unlawful profits of the most worthless part of society." --Thomas Jefferson to the State Governors, 1808. ME 12:52

"Our good citizens having submitted to such sacrifices under the present experiment, I am determined to exert every power the law has vested in me for its rigorous fulfilment; that we may know the full value and effect of this measure on any future occasion on which a resort to it might be contemplated." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Pinckney, 1808. ME 12:104

"I do not wish a single citizen in any of the States to be deprived of a meal of bread, but I set down the exercise of commerce, merely for profit, as nothing when it carries with it the danger of defeating the objects of the embargo... Our course should be to sacrifice everything to secure the effect of the law, and nothing beyond that." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1808. ME 12:66

"The life of a citizen is never to be endangered but as the last melancholy effort for the maintenance of order and obedience to the laws." --Thomas Jefferson: Circular Letter, 1809. ME 12:233

"[The embargo] has demonstrated to foreign nations the moderation and firmness which govern our councils, and to our citizens the necessity of uniting in support of the laws and the rights of their country." --Thomas Jefferson: 8th Annual Message, 1808. ME 3:477

"This embargo law is certainly the most embarrassing one we have ever had to execute. I did not expect a crop of so sudden and rank growth of fraud and open opposition by force could have grown up in the United States. I am satisfied... that if orders and decrees are not repealed, and a continuance of the embargo is preferred to war, (which sentiment is universal here,) Congress must legalize all means which may be necessary to obtain its end." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1808. ME 12:122

"[By] a repeal of the embargo... were we driven by treason among ourselves from the high and wise ground we had taken, and which, had it been held, would have either restored us our free trade, or have established manufactures among us." --Thomas Jefferson to William Pinckney, 1810. ME 18:265

28.8 The Presidential Veto

"I like the negative given [by the Constitution] to the Executive with a third of either house, though I should have liked it better had the Judiciary been associated for that purpose, or invested with a similar and separate power." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. ME 6:387

"The negative of the President can never be used more pleasingly to the public than in the protection of the Constitution." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Apportionment Bill, 1792. ME 3:211

"The negative of the President is the shield provided by the Constitution to protect against the invasion of the legislature: 1. The right of the Executive. 2. Of the Judiciary. 3. Of the States and State legislatures... The case of a right remaining exclusively with the States... [is] one of those intended by the Constitution to be placed under its protection. It must be added, however, that unless the President's mind on a view of everything which is urged for and against [a] bill, is tolerably clear that it is unauthorized by the Constitution, if the pro and the con hang so even as to balance his judgment, a just respect for the wisdom of the legislature would naturally decide the balance in favor of their opinion. It is chiefly for cases where they are clearly misled by error, ambition, or interest, that the Constitution has placed a check in the negative of the President." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on a National Bank, 1791. (*) ME 3:152

"On my part, [Congress] may count on a cordial concurrence in every measure for the public good, and on all the information I possess which may enable [them] to discharge to advantage the high functions with which [they] are invested by [their] country." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Annual Message, 1802. ME 3:348

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

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