Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government


1. Inalienable Rights

The government of the United States is the result of a revolution in thought. It was founded on the principle that all persons have equal rights, and that government is responsible to, and derives its powers from, a free people. To Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers, these ideas were not just a passing intellectual fad, but a recognition of something inherent in the nature of man itself. The very foundation of government, therefore, rests on the inalienable rights of the people and of each individual composing their mass. The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, is the fundamental statement of what government is and from what source it derives its powers. It begins with a summary of those inalienable rights that are the self-evident basis for a free society and for all the powers to protect those rights that a just government exercises.


"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." --Declaration of Independence as originally written by Thomas Jefferson, 1776. ME 1:29, Papers 1:315

"[Our] principles [are] founded on the immovable basis of equal right and reason." --Thomas Jefferson to James Sullivan, 1797. ME 9:379

"An equal application of law to every condition of man is fundamental." --Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, 1807. ME 11:341

"The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens." --Thomas Jefferson: Note in Destutt de Tracy, "Political Economy," 1816. ME 14:465

"To unequal privileges among members of the same society the spirit of our nation is, with one accord, adverse." --Thomas Jefferson to Hugh White, 1801. ME 10:258

"In America, no other distinction between man and man had ever been known but that of persons in office exercising powers by authority of the laws, and private individuals. Among these last, the poorest laborer stood on equal ground with the wealthiest millionaire, and generally on a more favored one whenever their rights seem to jar." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:8

"Of distinction by birth or badge, [Americans] had no more idea than they had of the mode of existence in the moon or planets. They had heard only that there were such, and knew that they must be wrong." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:89

"[The] best principles [of our republic] secure to all its citizens a perfect equality of rights." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to the Citizens of Wilmington, 1809. ME 16:336

"The principles on which we engaged, of which the charter of our independence is the record, were sanctioned by the laws of our being, and we but obeyed them in pursuing undeviatingly the course they called for. It issued finally in that inestimable state of freedom which alone can ensure to man the enjoyment of his equal rights." --Thomas Jefferson to Georgetown Republicans, 1809. ME 16:349

"Man [is] a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights and with an innate sense of justice." --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:441

"A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774. ME 1:209, Papers 1:134

"Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the Author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance." --Thomas Jefferson: Legal Argument, 1770. FE 1:376

"What is true of every member of the society, individually, is true of them all collectively; since the rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights of the individuals." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789.

"Nothing... is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man." --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:48

"The evidence of [the] natural right [of expatriation], like that of our right to life, liberty, the use of our faculties, the pursuit of happiness, is not left to the feeble and sophistical investigations of reason, but is impressed on the sense of every man. We do not claim these under the charters of kings or legislators, but under the King of Kings." --Thomas Jefferson to John Manners, 1817. ME 15:124

"Natural rights [are] the objects for the protection of which society is formed and municipal laws established." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1797. ME 9:422

"Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?" --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XVIII, 1782. ME 2:227

"Questions of natural right are triable by their conformity with the moral sense and reason of man." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on French Treaties, 1793. ME 3:235

"It is a principle that the right to a thing gives a right to the means without which it could not be used, that is to say, that the means follow their end." --Thomas Jefferson: --Thomas Jefferson: Report on Navigation of the Mississippi, 1792. ME 3:180

"The right to use a thing comprehends a right to the means necessary to its use, and without which it would be useless." --Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael, 1790. ME 8:72

"The Declaration of Independence... [is the] declaratory charter of our rights, and of the rights of man." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Adams Wells, 1819. ME 15:200

"Some other natural rights... [have] not yet entered into any declaration of rights." --Thomas Jefferson to John W. Eppes, 1813. ME 13:272

"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: Reply to Danbury Baptists, 1802. ME 16:282

"The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774. ME 1:211, Papers 1:135

"Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law,' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1819.

"That liberty [is pure] which is to go to all, and not to the few or the rich alone." --Thomas Jefferson to Horatio Gates, 1798. ME 9:441

"In a government bottomed on the will of all, the life and liberty of every individual citizen becomes interesting to all." --Thomas Jefferson: 5th Annual Message, 1805. ME 3:390

"I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, 1791. ME 8:276

"Being myself a warm zealot for the attainment and enjoyment by all mankind of as much liberty as each may exercise without injury to the equal liberty of his fellow citizens, I have lamented that... the endeavors to obtain this should have been attended with the effusion of so much blood." --Thomas Jefferson to Jean Nicholas Demeunier, 1795. FE 7:13

"The Giver of life gave it for happiness and not for wretchedness." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1782. ME 4:196, Papers 6:186

"If [God] has made it a law in the nature of man to pursue his own happiness, He has left him free in the choice of place as well as mode, and we may safely call on the whole body of English jurists to produce the map on which nature has traced for each individual the geographical line which she forbids him to cross in pursuit of happiness." --Thomas Jefferson to John Manners, 1817. ME 15:124

"Perfect happiness, I believe, was never intended by the Deity to be the lot of one of his creatures in this world; but that he has very much put in our power the nearness of our approaches to it, is what I as steadfastly believe." --Thomas Jefferson to John Page, 1763. ME 4:10, Papers 1:10

"The freedom and happiness of man... [are] the sole objects of all legitimate government." --Thomas Jefferson to Thaddeus Kosciusko, 1810. ME 12:369

"The only orthodox object of the institution of government is to secure the greatest degree of happiness possible to the general mass of those associated under it." --Thomas Jefferson to M. van der Kemp, 1812. ME 13:135

"I sincerely pray that all the members of the human family may, in the time prescribed by the Father of us all, find themselves securely established in the enjoyment of life, liberty, and happiness." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Ellicot Thomas, et al., 1807. ME 16:290

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


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