Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

 


Section 5: The Sovereignty of the People

The purpose of government is to enable the people of a nation to live in safety and happiness. Government exists for the interests of the governed, not for the governors. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, "In free governments the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns." The ultimate powers in a society, therefore, rest in the people themselves, and they should exercise those powers, either directly or through representatives, in every way they are competent and that is practicable.


"The whole body of the nation is the sovereign legislative, judiciary, and executive power for itself. The inconvenience of meeting to exercise these powers in person, and their inaptitude to exercise them, induce them to appoint special organs to declare their legislative will, to judge and to execute it. It is the will of the nation which makes the law obligatory; it is their will which creates or annihilates the organ which is to declare and announce it. They may do it by a single person, as an emperor of Russia (constituting his declarations evidence of their will), or by a few persons, as the aristocracy of Venice, or by a complication of councils, as in our former regal government or our present republican one. The law being law because it is the will of the nation, is not changed by their changing the organ through which they choose to announce their future will; no more than the acts I have done by one attorney lose their obligation by my changing or discontinuing that attorney." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Randolph, 1799. ME 10:126

"Every nation has a right to govern itself internally under what forms it pleases, and to change these forms at its own will; and externally to transact business with other nations through whatever organ it chooses, whether that be a King, Convention, Assembly, Committee, President, or whatever it be. The only thing essential is, the will of the nation." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Pinckney, 1792. ME 9:7

"[The people] are in truth the only legitimate proprietors of the soil and government." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1813. ME 19:197

"[It is] the people, to whom all authority belongs." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1821. ME 15:328

"The constitutions of most of our States assert that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves in all cases to which they think themselves competent (as in electing their functionaries executive and legislative, and deciding by a jury of themselves in all judiciary cases in which any fact is involved), or they may act by representatives, freely and equally chosen; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed; that they are entitled to freedom of person, freedom of religion, freedom of property, and freedom of the press." --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:45

"We think experience has proved it safer for the mass of individuals composing the society to reserve to themselves personally the exercise of all rightful powers to which they are competent and to delegate those to which they are not competent to deputies named and removable for unfaithful conduct by themselves immediately." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:487

"The ultimate arbiter is the people of the Union." --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:451

"I consider the people who constitute a society or nation as the source of all authority in that nation; as free to transact their common concerns by any agents they think proper; to change these agents individually, or the organization of them in form or function whenever they please; that all the acts done by these agents under the authority of the nation are the acts of the nation, are obligatory on them and enure to their use, and can in no wise be annulled of affected by any change in the form of the government or of the persons administering it." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on French Treaties, 1793. ME 3:227

"When, by the Declaration of Independence, [the nation of Virginia] chose to abolish their former organs of declaring their will, the acts of will already formally and constitutionally declared, remained untouched. For the nation was not dissolved, was not annihilated; its will, therefore, remained in full vigor; and on the establishing the new organs, first of a convention, and afterwards a more complicated legislature, the old acts of national will continued in force, until the nation should, by its new organs, declare its will changed." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Randolph, 1799. ME 10:126

"Louis XIV, having established the Coutumes de Paris as the law of Louisiana, this was not changed by the mere act of transfer; on the contrary, the laws of France continued and continues to be the law of the land, except where specially altered by some subsequent edict of Spain or act of Congress." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1808. ME 12:58

"Indeed in no case are the laws of a nation changed, of natural right, by their passage from one to another denomination. The soil, the inhabitants, their property, and the laws by which they are protected go together. Their laws are subject to be changed only in the case, and extent which their new legislature shall will." --Thomas Jefferson: Batture at New Orleans, 1812. ME 18:31

"When a question arises, whether any particular law or appointment is still in force, we are to examine, not whether it was pronounced by the ancient or present organ, but whether it has been at any time revoked by the authority of the nation, expressed by the organ competent at the time." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792. ME 8:302

"From the nature of things, every society must at all times possess within itself the sovereign powers of legislation." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774. Papers 1:132

"[If the] representative houses [are dissolved,]... the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, [return] to the people at large for their exercise." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration of Independence, 1776. ME 1:31, Papers 1:430

"Necessities which dissolve a government do not convey its authority to an oligarchy or a monarchy. They throw back into the hands of the people the powers they had delegated, and leave them as individuals to shift for themselves." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIII, 1782. ME 2:175

"There is an error into which most of the speculators on government have fallen, and which the well-known state of society of our Indians ought, before now, to have corrected. In their hypothesis of the origin of government, they suppose it to have commenced in the patriarchal or monarchical form. Our Indians are evidently in that state of nature which has passed the association of a single family... The Cherokees, the only tribe I know to be contemplating the establishment of regular laws, magistrates, and government, propose a government of representatives, elected from every town. But of all things, they least think of subjecting themselves to the will of one man." --Thomas Jefferson to Francis W. Gilmer, 1816. ME 15:25

"Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration of Independence, 1776. ME 1:29, Papers 1:429

"I consider the source of authority with us to be the Nation. Their will, declared through its proper organ, is valid till revoked by their will declared through its proper organ again also." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792. ME 8:301

"Independence of the will of the nation is a solecism, at least in a republican government." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Ritchie, 1820. ME 15:298

"What government [a nation] can bear depends not on the state of science, however exalted, in a select band of enlightened men, but on the condition of the general mind." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1817. (*) ME 15:114

"The government of a nation may be usurped by the forcible intrusion of an individual into the throne. But to conquer its will so as to rest the right on that, the only legitimate basis, requires long acquiescence and cessation of all opposition." --Thomas Jefferson to ----, 1825. ME 16:127

"Independence can be trusted nowhere but with the people in mass. They are inherently independent of all but moral law." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1819.

"I have such reliance on the good sense of the body of the people and the honesty of their leaders that I am not afraid of their letting things go wrong to any length in any cause." --Thomas Jefferson to C. W. F. Dumas, 1788. ME 6:430

"Whenever our affairs go obviously wrong, the good sense of the people will interpose and set them to rights." --Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, 1789. ME 7:322

"Our fellow citizens have been led hoodwinked from their principles by a most extraordinary combination of circumstances. But the band is removed, and they now see for themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson, 1801. ME 10:217

"Reflection,... with information, is all which our countrymen need, to bring themselves and their affairs to rights." --Thomas Jefferson to James Lewis, Jr., 1798. ME 10:37

"The revolution of 1800... was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form; not effected indeed by the sword, as that, but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1819. ME 15:212

"There is a steady, good sense in the Legislature, and in the body of the nation, joined with good intentions, which will lead them to discern and to pursue the public good under all circumstances which can arise, and... no ignis fatuus [misleading ideal] will be able to lead them long astray." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1806. ME 11:108

"I am sensible that there are defects in our federal government, yet they are so much lighter than those of monarchies, that I view them with much indulgence. I rely, too, on the good sense of the people for remedy, whereas the evils of monarchical government are beyond remedy." --Thomas Jefferson to David Ramsay, 1787. ME 6:226

"Time alone [will] bring round an order of things more correspondent to the sentiments of our constituents." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1798. ME 10:45

"My confidence is that there will for a long time be virtue and good sense enough in our countrymen to correct abuses." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, 1788. ME 7:81

"Manfully maintain our good old principle of cherishing and fortifying the rights and authorities of the people in opposition to those who fear them, who wish to take all power from them and to transfer all to Washington." --Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Macon, 1826. FE 10:378

"The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823. ME 15:491

"Ministers... cannot in any country be uninfluenced by the voice of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1786. ME 5:452

"A court has no affections; but those of the people whom they govern influence their decisions, even in the most arbitrary governments." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1785. ME 5:12, Papers 8:228

"Public opinion... [is] a censor before which the most exalted tremble for their future as well as present fame." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1816. ME 14:393

"Public opinion [is the] lord of the universe." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1820. ME 15:246

"More attention should be paid to the general opinion." --Thomas Jefferson to George Mason, 1791.

"The advantage of public opinion is like that of the weather-gauge in a naval action." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1815. ME 14:226

"When public opinion changes, it is with the rapidity of thought." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, 1816. ME 14:382

"The opinions and dispositions of our people in general, which, in governments like ours, must be the foundation of measures, will always be interesting to me." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard Henry Lee, 1786. ME 5:294

"Government being founded on opinion, the opinion of the public, even when it is wrong, ought to be respected to a certain degree." --Thomas Jefferson to Nicholas Lewis, 1791. FE 5:282

"Opinions... constitute, indeed, moral facts, as important as physical ones to the attention of the public functionary." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard Rush, 1820. ME 15:284

"The people cannot be all, and always, well-informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 1787. ME 6:372, Papers 12:356

"The people have a right to petition, but not to use that right to cover calumniating insinuations." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1808. ME 12:166

"I like to see the people awake and alert. The good sense of the people will soon lead them back if they have erred in a moment of surprise." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1786.

"What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them." --Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 1787. ME 6:373, Papers 12:356

"Governments, wherein the will of every one has a just influence... has its evils,... the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. But weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing. Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietam servitutem. [I prefer the tumult of liberty to the quiet of servitude.] Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. ME 6:64

"The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere." --Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, 1787.

"God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion... We have had thirteen States independent for eleven years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half, for each State. What country before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion?" --Thomas Jefferson to William S. Smith, 1787. ME 6:372

"Most codes extend their definitions of treason to acts not really against one's country. They do not distinguish between acts against the government, and acts against the oppressions of the government. The latter are virtues, yet have furnished more victims to the executioner than the former, because real treasons are rare; oppressions frequent. The unsuccessful strugglers against tyranny have been the chief martyrs of treason laws in all countries." --Thomas Jefferson: Report on Spanish Convention, 1792.

"If our country, when pressed with wrongs at the point of the bayonet, had been governed by its heads instead of its hearts, where should we have been now? Hanging on a gallows as high as Haman's." --Thomas Jefferson to Maria Cosway, 1786. ME 5:444

"The commotions that have taken place in America, as far as they are yet known to me, offer nothing threatening. They are a proof that the people have liberty enough, and I could not wish them less than they have. If the happiness of the mass of the people can be secured at the expense of a little tempest now and then, or even of a little blood, it will be a precious purchase. 'Malo libertatem periculosam quam quietem servitutem.' Let common sense and common honesty have fair play, and they will soon set things to rights." --Thomas Jefferson to Ezra Stiles, 1786. ME 6:25

"The tumults in America I expected would have produced in Europe an unfavorable opinion of our political state. But it has not. On the contrary, the small effect of these tumults seems to have given more confidence in the firmness of our governments. The interposition of the people themselves on the side of government has had a great effect on the opinion here [in Europe]." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:57

"The late rebellion in Massachusetts has given more alarm than I think it should have done. Calculate that one rebellion in thirteen states in the course of eleven years, is but one for each state in a century and a half. No country should be so long without one. Nor will any degree of power in the hands of government prevent insurrections." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. ME 6:391

"[An occasional insurrection] will not weigh against the inconveniences of a government of force, such as are monarchies and aristocracies." --Thomas Jefferson to T. B. Hollis, July 2, 1787. (*) ME 6:155

"Cherish... the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:58

"There are extraordinary situations which require extraordinary interposition. An exasperated people who feel that they possess power are not easily restrained within limits strictly regular." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774. ME 1:196, Papers 1:127

"[The] uneasiness [of the people] has produced acts absolutely unjustifiable; but I hope they will provoke no severities from their governments. A consciousness of those in power that their administration of the public affairs has been honest may, perhaps, produce too great a degree of indignation; and those characters wherein fear predominates over hope, may apprehend too much from these instances of irregularity. They may conclude too hastily, that nature has formed man insusceptible of any other government than that of force, a conclusion not founded in truth nor experience." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, Jan. 30, 1787. ME 6:64

"The arm of the people [is] a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1793. ME 9:10

"I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms are in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people, which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is medicine necessary for the sound health of government." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. ME 6:65

"[No] degree of power in the hands of government [will] prevent insurrections." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. Papers 12:442.

"The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard Rush, 1820. ME 15:283

"What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." --Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 1787. ME 6:373, Papers 12:356

"Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [i.e., securing inherent and inalienable rights, with powers derived from the consent of the governed], 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." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration of Independence, 1776. ME 1:29, Papers 1:315

"In no country on earth is [a disposition to oppose the law by force] so impracticable as in one where every man feels a vital interest in maintaining the authority of the laws, and instantly engages in it as in his own personal cause." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Smith, 1808. ME 12:62

"In a country whose constitution is derived from the will of the people directly expressed by their free suffrages, where the principal executive functionaries and those of the legislature are renewed by them at short periods, where under the character of jurors they exercise in person the greatest portion of the judiciary powers, where the laws are consequently so formed and administered as to bear with equal weight and favor on all, restraining no man in the pursuits of honest industry and securing to every one the property which that acquires, it would not be supposed that any safeguards could be needed against insurrection or enterprise on the public peace or authority. The laws, however, aware that these should not be trusted to moral restraints only, have wisely provided punishments for these crimes when committed." --Thomas Jefferson: 6th Annual Message, 1806. ME 3:418

"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; but to admit them as ordinary and habitual instruments as a part of the machinery of the Constitution, would be to change that machinery by introducing moving powers foreign to it, and to an extent depending solely on local views, and, therefore, incalculable." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1803. FE 8:256

"The paradox with me is how any friend to the union of our country can, in conscience, contribute a cent to the maintenance of anyone who perverts the sanctity of his desk to the open inculcation of rebellion, civil war, dissolution of government, and the miseries of anarchy." --Thomas Jefferson to William Plumer, 1815. ME 14:235

"I acknowledge the right of voluntary associations for laudable purposes and in moderate numbers. I acknowledge, too, the expediency for revolutionary purposes of general associations coextensive with the nation. But where, as in our case, no abuses call for revolution, voluntary associations so extensive as to grapple with and control the government, should such be or become their purpose, are dangerous machines and should be frowned down in every well regulated government." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1822.

"Private associations... whose magnitude may rivalize and jeopardize the march of regular government [may become] necessary [in] the case where the regular authorities of the government [combine] against the rights of the people, and no means of correction [remains] to them but to organize a collateral power which, with their support, might rescue and secure their violated rights. But such is not the case with our government. We need hazard no collateral power which, by a change of its original views and assumption of others we know not how virtuous or how mischievous, would be ready organized and in force sufficient to shake the established foundations of society and endanger its peace and the principles on which it is based." --Thomas Jefferson to Jedediah Morse, 1822. ME 15:357

"Military assemblies will not only keep alive the jealousies and fears of the civil government, but give ground for these fears and jealousies. For when men meet together, they will make business if they have none; they will collate their grievances, some real, some imaginary, all highly painted; they will communicate to each other the sparks of discontent; and these may engender a flame which will consume their particular, as well as the general happiness." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:90

"Where an enterprise is meditated by private individuals against a foreign nation in amity with the United States, powers of prevention to a certain extent are given by the laws; would they not be as reasonable and useful were the enterprise preparing against the United States?" --Thomas Jefferson: 6th Annual Message, 1806. ME 3:419

"The framers of our constitution certainly supposed they had guarded, as well their government against destruction by treason, as their citizens against oppression under pretence of it; and if these ends are not attained, it is of importance to inquire by what means, more effectual, they may be secured." --Thomas Jefferson: 7th Annual Message, 1807. ME 3:452

"Looking forward with anxiety to [the] future destinies [of my fellow citizens], I trust that, in their steady character unshaken by difficulties, in their love of liberty, obedience to law, and support of the public authorities, I see a sure guaranty of the permanence of our republic." --Thomas Jefferson: 8th Annual Message, 1808. ME 3:485

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


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