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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

55. Revolution and Reformation

How can a people who have struggled long years under oppression throw off their oppressors and establish a free society? The problems are immense, but their solution lies in the education and enlightenment of the people and the emergence of a spirit that will serve as a foundation for independence and self-government.

"If Caesar had been as virtuous as he was daring and sagacious, what could he, even in the plenitude of his usurped power, have done to lead his fellow citizens into good government?... If their people indeed had been, like ourselves, enlightened, peaceable, and really free, the answer would be obvious. 'Restore independence to all your foreign conquests, relieve Italy from the government of the rabble of Rome, consult it as a nation entitled to self-government, and do its will.' But steeped in corruption, vice and venality, as the whole nation was,... what could even Cicero, Cato, Brutus have done, had it been referred to them to establish a good government for their country?... No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and their people were so demoralized and depraved as to be incapable of exercising a wholesome control. Their reformation then was to be taken up ab incunabulis. Their minds were to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and deterred from those of vice by the dread of punishments proportioned, indeed, but irremissible; in all cases, to follow truth as the only safe guide, and to eschew error, which bewilders us in one false consequence after another in endless succession. These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure of order and good government. But this would have been an operation of a generation or two at least, within which period would have succeeded many Neros and Commoduses, who would have quashed the whole process. I confess, then, I can neither see what Cicero, Cato and Brutus, united and uncontrolled could have devised to lead their people into good government, nor how this enigma can be solved." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1819. ME 15:233

55.1 Preparation Necessary for Self-Government

"Some preparation seems necessary to qualify the body of a nation for self-government." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1802. FE 8:179

"More than a generation will be requisite [for an unprepared people], under the administration of reasonable laws favoring the progress of knowledge in the general mass of the people, and their habituation to an independent security of person and property, before they will be capable of estimating the value of freedom, and the necessity of a sacred adherence to the principles on which it rests for preservation." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1815. ME 14:245

"The people of England, I think, are less oppressed than here [in France]. But it needs but half an eye to see, when among them, that the foundation is laid in their dispositions for the establishment of a despotism. Nobility, wealth, and pomp are the objects of their admiration." --Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, 1786. ME 5:397

"An enlightened people, and an energetic public opinion... will control and enchain the aristocratic spirit of the government." --Thomas Jefferson to Chevalier de Ouis, 1814. ME 14:130

"Instead of that liberty which takes root and growth in the progress of reason, if recovered by mere force or accident, it becomes with an unprepared people a tyranny still of the many, the few, or the one." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1815. ME 14:245

"In these countries [of Europe],... ignorance, superstition, poverty, and oppression of body and mind, in every form, are so firmly settled on the mass of the people, that their redemption from them can never be hoped. If the Almighty had begotten a thousand sons, instead of one, they would not have sufficed for this task. If all the sovereigns of Europe were to set themselves to work, to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance and prejudices, and that, as zealously as they now endeavor the contrary, a thousand years would not place them on that high ground, on which our common people are now setting out." --Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, 1786. ME 5:396

55.2 The Limits of Reform

"Should [reformers] attempt more than the established habits of the people are ripe for, they may lose all and retard indefinitely the ultimate object of their aim." --Thomas Jefferson to Mme de Tesse, Mar 20, 1787. (*) ME 6:105

"To be really useful, we must keep pace with the state of society, and not dishearten it by attempts at what its population, means, or occupations will fail in attempting." --Thomas Jefferson to G. C. de La Costa, 1807. ME 11:206

"No one, I hope, can doubt my wish to see... all mankind exercising self-government, and capable of exercising it. But the question is not what we wish, but what is practicable." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1817. ME 15:116

"It can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XVII, 1782. ME 2:224

55.3 Establishing Free Government

"What is practicable must often control what is pure theory; and the habits of the governed determine in a great degree what is practicable. Hence the same original principles, modified in practice according to the different habits of different nations, present governments of very different aspects." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1802.

"[If] the King can model the constitution at will... his government is a pure despotism. The question then arising is, whether a pure despotism in a single head, or one which is divided among a king, nobles, priesthood, and numerous magistracy, is the least bad. I should be puzzled to decide." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1788. ME 7:96

"An hereditary chief, strictly limited, the right of war vested in the legislative body, a rigid economy of the public contributions and absolute interdiction of all useless expenses will go far towards keeping the government honest and unoppressive." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823. ME 15:491

"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

"[In order to ensure] a successful reformation of government,... I [would urge] most strenuously an immediate compromise to secure what the [present] government was now ready to yield, and trust to future occasions for what might still be wanting,... [if it] would grant... 1. Freedom of the person by habeas corpus. 2. Freedom of conscience. 3. Freedom of the press. 4. Trial by jury. 5. A representative legislature, [with:] 6. Annual meetings. 7. The origination of laws. 8. The exclusive right of taxation and appropriation. And 9. The responsibility of ministers. And with the exercise of these powers they would obtain in future whatever might be further necessary to improve and preserve their constitution." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. (*) ME 1:139

"Let these [basic rights] work on the amelioration of the condition of the people, until they should have rendered them capable of more, when occasions would not fail to arise for communicating to them more." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1815. ME 14:246

"[Those who] thought more could still be obtained and borne... did not weigh the hazards of a transition from one form of government to another, the value of what they had already rescued from those hazards and might hold in security if they pleased, nor the imprudence of giving up certainty of such a degree of liberty under a limited monarch, for the uncertainty of a little more under the form of a republic." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1815. ME 14:246

"[In South America,] representative government, native functionaries, a qualified negative on their laws, with a previous security by compact for freedom of commerce, freedom of the press, habeas corpus and trial by jury, would make a good beginning. This last would be the school in which their people might begin to learn the exercise of civic duties as well as rights. For freedom of religion they are not yet prepared. The scales of bigotry have not sufficiently fallen from their eyes to accept it for themselves individually, much less to trust others with it." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1821. ME 15:309

"Though forbidden by my character to meddle in the internal affairs of an allied state, it is the wish of my heart that their troubles may have such an issue as will secure the greatest degree of happiness to the body of the people: for it is with the mass of the nation we are allied, and not merely with their governors." --Thomas Jefferson to C. W. F. Dumas, 1787. ME 6:342, Papers 12:360

55.4 Experimental Beginnings

"I think it would be better to wind up [the settlement of a new constitution] as quickly as possible, to consider it as a mere experiment to be amended hereafter when time and trial shall show where it is imperfect." --Thomas Jefferson to Comte de Moustier, 1790. ME 8:108

"A permanent constitution must be the work of quiet, leisure, much inquiry, and great deliberation." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823. ME 15:483

"The result of [our first experiment in government] was a want of such tone in the governing powers as might effect the good of those committed to their care. The nation become sensible of this, have changed its organization, made a better distribution of its powers, and given to them more energy and independence." --Thomas Jefferson to Chevalier Luis de Pinto, 1790. ME 8:74

55.5 The Reorganization of Government

"[The French Assembly's] first step should be, to get themselves divided into two chambers;... the Noblesse and the Commons separately. The second, to persuade the King, instead of choosing the deputies of the Commons himself, to summon those chosen by the people for the Provincial administrations. The third, as the Noblesse is too numerous to be all of the Assemblee, to obtain permission for that body to choose its own deputies. Two Houses, so elected, would contain a mass of wisdom which would make the people happy, and the King great; would place him in history where no other act can possibly place him. They would thus put themselves in the track of the best guide they can follow; they would soon overtake it, become its guide in turn, and lead to the wholesome modifications wanting in that model, and necessary to constitute a rational government." --Thomas Jefferson to Mme de Tesse, 1787. ME 6:105

"I have always been afraid their numbers might lead to confusion. Twelve hundred men in one room are too many." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Paine, 1789. ME 7:408

"Among a thousand projects, the best seems to me, that of dividing [the French States General] into two Houses, of Commons and Nobles; the Commons to be chosen by the Provincial Assemblies, who are chosen themselves by the people, and the Nobles by the body of Noblesse, as in Scotland." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1788. ME 6:450

"Make of [the Plenary court] a representative of the people by composing it of members sent from the Provincial Assemblies, and it becomes a valuable member of the constitution." --Thomas Jefferson to the Count de Moustier, 1788. ME 7:14

"The allotment of the State into subordinate governments, the administration of which is committed to persons chosen by the people, will work in time a very beneficial change in their constitution." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1787. ME 6:276

"The imperfection of their legislative body, I think, will be, that not a member of it will be chosen by the people directly." --Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael, 1789. ME 7:434

"The services [are needed] of [a] great leader whose talents and whose weight of character [are] peculiarly necessary to get the government so under way as that it may afterwards be carried on by subordinate characters." --Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, 1789. ME 7:324 (*)

"The moderation and virtue of a single character [i.e., George Washington] have probably prevented [the American] Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1784. ME 4:218, Papers 7:106

"If the President can be preserved a few years till habits of authority and obedience can be established generally, we have nothing to fear." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1790. ME 8:13

55.7 When Revolution is the Only Answer

"A single good government becomes... a blessing to the whole earth, its welcome to the oppressed restraining within certain limits the measure of their oppressions. But should even this be counteracted by violence on the right of expatriation, the other branch of our example then presents itself for imitation: to rise on their rulers and do as we have done." --Thomas Jefferson to George Flower, 1817. ME 15:141

"We surely cannot deny to any nation that right whereon our own government is founded, that every one may govern itself according to whatever form it pleases and change these forms at its own will... The will of the nation is the only thing essential to be regarded." --Thomas Jefferson to Gouverneur Morris, 1792. ME 9:36

"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established, should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience [has] shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce [the people] under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration of Independence, 1776. ME 1:29, Papers 1:429

"Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate, systematic plan of reducing [a people] to slavery." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774. (*) ME 1:193, Papers 1:125

"When patience has begotten false estimates of its motives, when wrongs are pressed because it is believed they will be borne, resistance becomes morality." --Thomas Jefferson to M. deStael, 1807. ME 11:282

"Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." --Thomas Jefferson: his motto.

"If ever there was a holy war, it was that which saved our liberties and gave us independence." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. ME 13:430

"The oppressed should rebel, and they will continue to rebel and raise disturbance until their civil rights are fully restored to them and all partial distinctions, exclusions and incapacitations are removed." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Religion, 1776. Papers 1:548

"As revolutionary instruments (when nothing but revolution will cure the evils of the State) [secret societies] are necessary and indispensable, and the right to use them is inalienable by the people." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1803. FE 8:256

"If the appeal to arms is made, it will depend entirely on the disposition of the army whether it issue in liberty or despotism." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, 1788.

"War... is not the most favorable moment for divesting the monarchy of power. On the contrary, it is the moment when the energy of a single hand shows itself in the most seducing form." --Thomas Jefferson to Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, 1788. ME 7:115

55.8 Consequences of Revolution

"It is unfortunate that the efforts of mankind to recover the freedom of which they have been so long deprived, will be accompanied with violence, with errors, and even with crimes. But while we weep over the means, we must pray for the end." --Thomas Jefferson to Francois D'Ivernois, 1795. ME 9:300

"Can it be believed that a grateful people will suffer [individuals] to be consigned to execution, whose sole crime has been the developing and asserting their rights" --Thomas Jefferson to William Small, 1775. ME 4:27, Papers 1:166

"In the struggle which was necessary [in France], many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as anybody, and shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1793. ME 9:9

"We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather-bed." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1790. ME 8:13

"Politics, like religion, holds up the torches of martyrdom to the reformers of error." --Thomas Jefferson to James Ogilvie, 1811. ME 13:68

"My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed I would have seen half the earth desolated; were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1793. ME 9:10

55.9 Prospects for Reformation

"The public mind, [oppressed by despotism,] is manifestly advancing on the abusive prerogatives of their governors and bearing them down. No force in the government can withstand this in the long run." --Thomas Jefferson to Comte de Moustier, 1788.

"If there be a God and He is just, His day will come. He will never abandon the whole race of man to be eaten up by the leviathans and mammoths of a day." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1811.

"A first attempt to recover the right of self-government may fail, so may a second, a third, etc. But as a younger and more instructed race comes on, the sentiment becomes more and more intuitive, and a fourth, a fifth, or some subsequent one of the ever renewed attempts will ultimately succeed... To attain all this, however, rivers of blood must yet flow, and years of desolation pass over; yet the object is worth rivers of blood and years of desolation. For what inheritance so valuable can man leave to his posterity?" --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1823. ME 15:465

"The way to Heaven... has always been said to be strewed with thorns." --Thomas Jefferson to the Duchesse d'Auville, 1790. ME 8:17

"The generation which commences a revolution rarely complete it. Habituated from their infancy to passive submission of body and mind to their kings and priests, they are not qualified when called on to think and provide for themselves; and their inexperience, their ignorance and bigotry make them instruments often in the hands of the Bonapartes and Iturbides to defeat their own rights and purposes." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1823. ME 15:464

"Alliances, holy or hellish, may be formed and retard the epoch of deliverance, may swell the rivers of blood which are yet to flow, but their own will close the scene and leave to mankind the right of self-government." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823. ME 15:490

"The public mind is manifestly advancing on the abusive prerogatives of their governors and bearing them down. No force in the government can withstand this in the long run. Courtiers had rather give up power than pleasures; they will barter, therefore, the usurped prerogatives of the King for the money of the people. This is the agent by which modern nations will recover their rights." --Thomas Jefferson to the Count de Moustier, 1788. ME 7:14

"The monarch is the last person in his kingdom who yields to the progress of philanthropy and civilization." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1788. ME 7:17

"[In] the progress of society from its rudest state to that it has now attained,... barbarism has... been receding before the steady step of amelioration, and will in time, I trust, disappear from the earth." --Thomas Jefferson to William Ludlow, 1824. ME 16:75

"Instead of considering what is past, however, we are to look forward and prepare for the future." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Stevens, 1780. ME 4:99, Papers 3:593

"Postpone to the great object of Liberty every smaller motive and passion." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Huntington, 1780. FE 2:298, Papers 3:289

"The advance of liberalism... [encourages] the hope that the human mind will some day get back to the freedom it enjoyed two thousand years ago." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1821. ME 15:308

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

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