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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

34. Public Works & Public Assistance

Public works undertaken by the national government are restricted by the concept of "limited government." That term means, however, government LIMITED BY THE CONSTITUTION, not government that is restricted on principle from doing any sort of public works. If Congress were to have additional powers to initiate programs of public works which were not granted by the Constitution, then that document should be amended to grant those powers. The national government will leave to the states most domestic concerns affecting their own citizens.

"A people, occupied as we are, in opening rivers, digging navigable canals, making roads, building public schools, establishing academies, erecting busts and statues to our great men, protecting religious freedom, abolishing sanguinary punishments, reforming and improving our laws in general... --these are... the occupations of a people at their ease." --Thomas Jefferson to Maria Cosway, 1786. ME 5:438

34.1 Avoiding Waste

"A most powerful objection always arises to propositions of [public works]. It is that public undertakings are carelessly managed and much money spent to little purpose." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1784. Papers 7:27

"If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1802. ME 10:342

"I view [a proposition respecting post roads] as a source of boundless patronage to the executive, jobbing to members of Congress and their friends, and a bottomless abyss of public money. You will begin by only appropriating the surplus of the post office revenues; but the other revenues will soon be called into their aid, and it will be a source of eternal scramble among the members, who can get the most money wasted in their State; and they will always get most who are meanest. We have thought, hitherto, that the roads of a State could not be so well administered even by the State legislature as by the magistracy of the county, on the spot. How will they be when a member of New Hampshire is to mark out a road for Georgia? Does the power to establish post roads given you by the Constitution mean that you shall make the roads, or only select from those already made, those on which there shall be a post? If the term be equivocal (and I really do not think it so), which is the safest construction? That which permits a majority of Congress to go to cutting down mountains and bridging of rivers, or the other, which if too restricted may be referred to the States for amendment, securing still due measures and proportion among us, and providing some means of information to the members of Congress tantamount to that ocular inspection, which, even in our county determinations, the magistrate finds cannot be supplied by any other evidence?" --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1796. ME 9:324

"The same prudence which in private life would forbid our paying our own money for unexplained projects, forbids it in the disposition of the public moneys. It is not enough that an individual and an unknown one says and even thinks he has made a discovery of [great] magnitude... Not only explanation, but the actual experiment must be required before we can cease to doubt whether the inventor is not deceived by some false or imperfect view of his subject." --Thomas Jefferson to Shelton Gilliam, 1808. ME 12:73

34.2 Employing Surplus Funds

"The fondest wish of my heart ever was that the surplus portion of [those] taxes destined for the payment of that debt [contracted in the Revolutionary war] should, when that object was accomplished, be continued by annual or biennial re-enactments and applied in time of peace to the improvement of our country by canals, roads and useful institutions, literary or others; and in time of war to the maintenance of the war." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. ME 13:354

"The probable accumulation of the surpluses of revenue beyond what can be applied to the payment of the public debt... merits the consideration of Congress. Shall it lie unproductive in the public vaults? Shall the revenue be reduced? Or shall it rather be appropriated to the improvements of roads, canals, rivers, education, and other great foundations of prosperity and union, under the powers which Congress may already possess, or such amendment of the Constitution as may be approved by the States? While uncertain of the course of things, the time may be advantageously employed in the obtaining the powers necessary for a system of improvement, should that be thought best." --Thomas Jefferson: 8th Annual Message, 1808. ME 3:484

"For authority to apply the surplus [of taxes] to objects of improvement, an amendment of the Constitution would have been necessary." --Thomas Jefferson to John W. Eppes, 1813. ME 13:354

"I experience great satisfaction at seeing my country proceed to facilitate the intercommunications of its several parts, by opening rivers, canals and roads. How much more rational is this disposal of public money, than that of waging war." --Thomas Jefferson to James Ross, 1786. ME 5:320

"We consider the employment of the contributions which our citizens can spare, after feeding, and clothing, and lodging themselves comfortably, as more useful, more moral, and even more splendid, than that preferred by Europe, of destroying human life, labor and happiness." --Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, 1817. ME 15:128

34.3 Regulations for the Public Good

"So careful is the law [in England] against permitting a deterioration of the land, that though it will permit such improvement in the same line, as manuring arable lands, leading water into pasture lands, etc., yet it will not permit improvements in a different line, such as erecting buildings, converting pasture into arable, etc., lest this should lead to a deterioration. Hence we might argue in Virginia, that though the cutting down of forest in Virginia is, in our husbandry, rather an improvement generally, yet it is not so always, and therefore it is safer never to admit it." --Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1792. ME 8:384

"The General Government of the United States has considered it their duty and interest to extend their care and patronage over the Indian tribes within their limits, and to endeavor to render them friends, and in time perhaps useful members of the nation. Perceiving the injurious effects produced by their inordinate use of spirituous liquors, they passed laws authorizing measures against the vending or distributing such liquors among them. Their introduction by traders was accordingly prohibited, and for some time was attended with the best effects." --Thomas Jefferson to [State Governor], 1808.

34.4 Promoting the Arts

"How is a taste in [the] beautiful art [of architecture] to be formed in our countrymen unless we avail ourselves of every occasion when public buildings are to be erected of presenting to them models for their study and imitation?" --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1785. ME 5:136, Papers 8:535

"I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile to them the respect of the world, and procure them its praise." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1785. ME 5:137, Papers 8:535

"My zealous good wishes... [are] that, embellishing with taste a country already overflowing with the useful productions, [the society of artists of the United States] may be able to give an innocent and pleasing direction to accumulations of wealth, which would otherwise be employed in the nourishment of coarse and vicious habits." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Sully, 1812. ME 13:120

34.5 Helping Those in Need

"It is a duty certainly to give our sparings to those who want; but to see also that they are faithfully distributed and duly apportioned to the respective wants of those receivers. And why give through agents whom we know not, to persons whom we know not, and in countries from which we get no account, when we can do it at short hand to objects under our eye, through agents we know and to supply wants we see?" --Thomas Jefferson to Michael Megear, 1823. ME 15:434

"If each portion of the [residents of a] State... will apply its aids and its attentions exclusively to those nearest around them, all will be better taken care of. Their support, their conduct, and the best administration of their funds, will be under the inspection and control of those most convenient to take cognizance of them, and most interested in their prosperity." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1810. ME 12:342

"The poor who have neither property, friends, nor strength to labor are boarded in the houses of good farmers, to whom a stipulated sum is annually paid. To those who are able to help themselves a little or have friends from whom they derive some succor, inadequate however to their full maintenance, supplementary aids are given which enable them to live comfortably in their own houses or in the houses of their friends. Vagabonds without visible property or vocation, are placed in work houses, where they are well clothed, fed, lodged, and made to labor." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782. ME 2:184

"With respect to marine hospitals... such establishments have been made by the General Government in the several States,... a portion of seaman's wages is drawn for their support, and the government furnishes what is deficient." --Thomas Jefferson to James Ronaldson, 1813. ME 13:205

"This world abounds indeed with misery; to lighten its burthen, we must divide it with one another." --Thomas Jefferson to Maria Cosway, 1786. ME 5:441

"Among the first of [nature's] laws, is that which bids us to succor those in distress." --Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael, 1790. ME 8:22

"Though we cannot relieve all the distressed, we should relieve as many as we can." --Thomas Jefferson to Maria Copway, 1786. ME 5:443

"Those who want the dispositions to give, easily find reasons why they ought not to give." --Thomas Jefferson to Maria Cosway, 1786. ME 5:444

34.6 Limits of Governmental Aid and Assistance

"Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XVII, 1782. ME 2:222

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

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