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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

53. Duties of Citizens

What duty does a citizen owe to the government that secures the society in which he lives? What can it expect and rightly demand of him in support of itself? A nation that rests on the will of the people must also depend on individuals to support its institutions in whatever ways are appropriate if it is to flourish. Persons qualified for public office should feel some obligation to make that contribution. If not, public service will be left to those of lesser qualification, and the government may more easily become corrupted.

"No government can be maintained without the principle of fear as well as duty. Good men will obey the last, but bad ones the former only. If our government ever fails, it will be from this weakness." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1814.

"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." --Thomas Jefferson to Francis Gilmer, 1816. ME 15:24

"A good citizen should take his stand where the public authority marshals him." --Thomas Jefferson to Mme D'Auville, 1790. ME 8:16

"That a man owes no duty to which he is not urged by some impulsive feeling... is correct, if referred to the standard of general feeling in the given case, and not to the feeling of a single individual." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814. ME 14:144

"Private charities as well as contributions to public purposes in proportion to everyone's circumstances are certainly among the duties we owe to society." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Christian, 1812. ME 13:134

"I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties." --Thomas Jefferson to Danbury Baptists, 1802. ME 16:282

53.1 Public Service

"There is a debt of service due from every man to his country, proportioned to the bounties which nature and fortune have measured to him." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, 1796. ME 9:354

"No interests are dearer to men than those which ought to be secured to them by their form of government, and none deserve better of them than those who contribute to the amelioration of that form." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Ruelle, 1809.

"I never thought of questioning the free exercise of the right of my fellow citizens to marshal those whom they call into their service according to their fitness, nor ever presumed that they were not the best judges of that." --Thomas Jefferson to James Sullivan, 1797. ME 9:376

"Some men are born for the public. Nature by fitting them for the service of the human race on a broad scale, has stamped them with the evidences of her destination and their duty." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1803. ME 10:345

"There is sometimes an eminence of character on which society have such peculiar claims as to control the predilections of the individual for a particular walk of happiness, and restrain him to that alone arising from the present and future benedictions of mankind." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792. ME 8:348

"[I have] an ardent zeal to see this government (the idol of my soul) continue in good hands." --Thomas Jefferson to William Wirt, 1808. ME 11:424

"Though I... am myself duly impressed with a sense of the arduousness of government and the obligation those are under who are able to conduct it, yet I am also satisfied there is an order of geniuses above that obligation and therefore exempted from it. Nobody can conceive that nature ever intended to throw away a Newton upon the occupations of a crown. It would have been a prodigality for which even the conduct of Providence might have been arraigned, had he been by birth annexed to what was so far below him. Cooperating with nature in her ordinary economy, we should dispose of and employ the geniuses of men according to their several orders and degrees." --Thomas Jefferson to David Rittenhouse, 1778. Papers 2:202

"I do not mean... to testify a disposition to render no service but what is rigorously within my duty. I am the farthest in the world from this; it is a question I shall never ask myself; nothing making me more happy than to render any service in my power, of whatever description. But I wish only to be excused from intermeddling in business in which I have no skill, and should do more harm than good." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Osgood, 1785. ME 5:163, Papers 8:590

"I profess... so much of the Roman principle as to deem it honorable for the general of yesterday to act as a corporal today if his services can be useful to his country, holding that to be false pride which postpones the public good to any private or personal considerations." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1812. ME 13:186

"It will remain... to those now coming on the stage of public affairs to perfect what has been so well begun by those going off it." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., 1787. ME 6:165

"The first of all our consolations is that of having faithfully fulfilled our duties; the next, the approbation and good will of those who have witnessed it." --Thomas Jefferson to James Fishback, 1809. ME 12:316

53.2 Demands of Public Service

"In a virtuous government... public offices are what they should be: burthens to those appointed to them, which it would be wrong to decline, though foreseen to bring with them intense labor and great private loss." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard Henry Lee, 1779. Papers 2:298

"I acknowledge that such a debt [of service to my fellow-citizens] exists, that a tour of duty in whatever line he can be most useful to his country, is due from every individual. It is not easy perhaps to say of what length exactly that tour should be, but we may safely say of what length it should not be. Not of our whole life, for instance, for that would be to be born a slave--not even of a very large portion of it." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1793. ME 9:118

"Whether the state may command the political service of all its members to an indefinite extent, or if these be among the rights never wholly ceded to the public power, is a question which I do not find expressly decided in England... Nothing could so completely divest us of that liberty [which the bill of rights has made inviolable, and for the preservation of which our government has been charged] as the establishment of the opinion that the state has a perpetual right to the services of all its members. This to men of certain ways of thinking would be to annihilate the blessing of existence and to contradict the Giver of life, who gave it for happiness and not for wretchedness; and certainly, to such it were better that they had never been born." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1782. ME 4:196, Papers 6:185

53.3 Advantages of Public Service

"I will not say that public life is the line for making a fortune. But it furnishes a decent and honorable support, and places one's children on good grounds for public favor. The family of a beloved father will stand with the public on the most favorable ground of competition. Had General Washington left children, what would have been denied them?" --Thomas Jefferson to William Wirt, 1808. ME 11:424

"There are minds which can be pleased by honors and preferments; but I see nothing in them but envy and enmity. It is only necessary to possess them, to know how little they contribute to happiness, or rather how hostile they are to it." --Thomas Jefferson to Alexander Donald, 1788. ME 6:427

53.4 Disadvantages of Public Service

"Public offices were [not] made for private convenience." --Thomas Jefferson to the Duchesse d'Auville, 1790. ME 8:16

"The general idea is, that those who receive annual compensations should be constantly at their posts. Our constituents might not in the first moment consider: 1st, that we all have property to take care of, which we cannot abandon for temporary salaries; 2nd, that we have health to take care of, which at this season [i.e., summer] cannot be preserved at Washington; 3rd, that while at our separate homes our public duties are fully executed, and at much greater personal labor than while we are together, when a short conference saves a long letter." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1807. ME 11:351

"Politics [is] a subject I never loved and now hate." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1796.

53.5 Specific Areas of Service

"There [are moments] in which the aid of an able pen [is] important to place things in their just attitude." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1798. (*)

"It is the duty of every good citizen to use all the opportunities which occur to him for preserving documents relating to the history of our country." --Thomas Jefferson to Hugh P. Taylor, 1823. ME 15:473

53.6 In Difficult Times

"The man who loves his country on its own account, and not merely for its trappings of interest or power, can never be divorced from it, can never refuse to come forward when he finds that she is engaged in dangers which he has the means of warding off." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1797. ME 9:407

"The patriot, like the Christian, must learn that to bear revilings and persecutions is a part of his duty; and in proportion as the trial is severe, firmness under it becomes more requisite and praiseworthy. It requires, indeed, self-command. But that will be fortified in proportion as the calls for its exercise are repeated." --Thomas Jefferson to James Sullivan, 1805. ME 11:73

53.7 Maintaining Vigilance

"Lethargy [is] the forerunner of death to the public liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 1787.

"Let the eye of vigilance never be closed." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1821. ME 15:326

"We, I hope, shall adhere to our republican government and keep it to its original principles by narrowly watching it." --Thomas Jefferson to ------, March 18, 1793. ME 9:45

"It behooves our citizens to be on their guard, to be firm in their principles, and full of confidence in themselves. We are able to preserve our self-government if we will but think so." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., 1800. ME 10:151

"Very many and very meritorious were the worthy patriots who assisted in bringing back our government to its republican tack. To preserve it in that will require unremitting vigilance." --Thomas Jefferson to William T. Barry, 1822. ME 15:388

"If our fellow-citizens, now solidly republican, will sacrifice favoritism towards men for the preservation of principle, we may hope that no divisions will again endanger a degeneracy in our government." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard M. Johnson, 1808. ME 12:10

"Our duty to ourselves, to posterity, and to mankind, call on us by every motive which is sacred or honorable, to watch over the safety of our beloved country during the troubles which agitate and convulse the residue of the world, and to sacrifice to that all personal and local considerations." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to New York Legislature, 1809. ME 16:362

"Come forward, then, and give us the aid of your talents and the weight of your character towards the new establishment of republicanism." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert Livingston, 1800.

"Love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than yourself." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Smith, 1825. ME 16:110

"Love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than life." --Thomas Jefferson to T. J. Grotjan, 1824.

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

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