Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government


2. Securing Rights

The purpose of government is to maintain a society which secures to every member the inherent and inalienable rights of man, and promotes the safety and happiness of its people. Protecting these rights from violation, therefore, is its primary obligation.

"To secure these [inalienable] rights [to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed... 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." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration of Independence, 1776. ME 1:29, Papers 1:429

"The principles of government... [are] founded in the rights of man." --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:51

"It is to secure our rights that we resort to government at all." --Thomas Jefferson to Francois D'Ivernois, 1795. FE 7:4

"The idea is quite unfounded that on entering into society we give up any natural right." --Thomas Jefferson to Francis Gilmer, 1816. ME 15:24

"[These are] the rights which God and the laws have given equally and independently to all." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774. ME 1:185, Papers 1:121

"[Montesquieu wrote in Spirit of the Laws, VIII,c.3:] 'In the state of nature, indeed, all men are born equal; but they cannot continue in this equality. Society makes them lose it, and they recover it only by the protection of the laws.'" --Thomas Jefferson: copied into his Commonplace Book.

"For the ordinary safety of the citizens of the several States, whether against dangers from within or without, reliance has been placed either on the domestic means of the individuals or on those provided by the respective States." --Thomas Jefferson to James Brown, 1808.

"[It is the obligation] of every government to yield protection to their citizens as the consideration for their obedience." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1785. ME 5:172, Papers 8:607

2.1 The Endeavor to Secure Rights

"The spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless. A single zealot may commence persecutor, and better men be his victims. 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. From the conclusion of [their] war [for independence, a nation begins] going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of [that] war will remain on [them] long, will be made heavier and heavier, till [their] rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XVII, 1782. (*) ME 2:225

"What a cruel reflection that a rich country cannot long be a free one." --Thomas Jefferson: Travels in France, 1787. ME 17:162

"[If] a positive declaration of some essential rights could not be obtained in the requisite latitude, [the] answer [is], Half a loaf is better than no bread. If we cannot secure all our rights, let us secure what we can." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:310

"Circumstances sometimes require, that rights the most unquestionable should be advanced with delicacy." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1791. ME 8:219

"In endeavors to improve our situation, we should never despair." --Thomas Jefferson to John Quincy Adams, 1817. ME 15:148

"The ground of liberty is to be gained by inches, [and] we must be contented to secure what we can get from time to time and eternally press forward for what is yet to get. It takes time to persuade men to do even what is for their own good." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Clay, 1790. ME 8:4

"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

"Most [revolutions] have been [closed] by a subversion of that liberty [they were] intended to establish." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1784. ME 4:218, Papers 7:106

2.2 Restrictions on Natural Rights

"All... natural rights may be abridged or regulated in [their] exercise by law." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Residence Bill, 1790. ME 3:64

"Our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XVII, 1782. ME 2:221

"Every man, and every body of men on earth, possesses the right of self-government... This, like all other natural rights, may be abridged or modified in its exercise by their own consent, or by the law of those who depute them, if they meet in the right of others." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Residence Bill, 1790. ME 3:60

"Were [a right] to be refused, or to be so shackled by regulations, not necessary for... peace and safety... as to render its use impracticable,... it would then be an injury, of which we should be entitled to demand redress." --Thomas Jefferson: Report on Navigation of the Mississippi, 1792. ME 3:178

"Measures against right should be mollified in their exercise, if it be wished to lengthen them to the greatest term possible." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1791. ME 8:219

"I had hoped that [nations were] familiarized to such a degree of liberty, that they might without difficulty or danger fill up the measure to its maximum; a term which, though in the insulated man, bounded only by his natural powers, must in society be so far restricted as to protect himself against the evil passions of his associates and consequently, them against him." --Thomas Jefferson to Francois d'Ivernois, 1795. (*) ME 9:299

"Laws abridging the natural right of the citizen should be restrained by rigorous constructions within their narrowest limits." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson, 1813. ME 13:327

2.3 Protecting the Rights of the People

"It had become an universal and almost uncontroverted position in the several States, that the purposes of society do not require a surrender of all our rights to our ordinary governors; that there are certain portions of right not necessary to enable them to carry on an effective government, and which experience has nevertheless proved they will be constantly encroaching on, if submitted to them; that there are also certain fences which experience has proved peculiarly efficacious against wrong, and rarely obstructive of right, which yet the governing powers have ever shown a disposition to weaken and remove. Of the first kind, for instance, is freedom of religion; of the second, trial by jury, habeas corpus laws, free presses." --Thomas Jefferson to Noah Webster, 1790. ME 8:112

"If we are made in some degree for others, yet in a greater are we made for ourselves. It were contrary to feeling and indeed ridiculous to suppose that a man had less rights in himself than one of his neighbors, or all of them put together. This would be slavery, and not that liberty which the bill of rights has made inviolable, and for the preservation of which our government has been charged." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1782. ME 4:196, Papers 6:185

"No one has a right to obstruct another exercising his faculties innocently for the relief of sensibilities made a part of his nature." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:490

"No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him." --Thomas Jefferson to Francis Gilmer, 1816. ME 15:24

"We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. ME 13:270

"[As to] the question whether, by the laws of nature, one generation of men can, by any act of theirs, bind those which are to follow them? I say, by the laws of nature, there being between generation and generation, as between nation and nation, no other obligatory law." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1814. ME 14:67

"I may err in my measures, but never shall deflect from the intention to fortify the public liberty by every possible means, and to put it out of the power of the few to riot on the labors of the many." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804. ME 11:33

"[Oppose] with manly firmness [any] invasions on the rights of the people." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft Virginia Constitution, 1776. (*) Papers 1:338

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

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