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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

8. Majority Rule

The only way a republican government can function, and the only way a people's voice can be expressed to effect a practicable control of government, is through a process in which decisions are made by the majority. This is not a perfect way of controlling government, but the alternatives--decisions made by a minority, or by one person--are even worse and are the source of great evil. To be just, majority decisions must be in the best interest of all the people, not just one faction.

"The first principle of republicanism is that the lex majoris partis is the fundamental law of every society of individuals of equal rights; to consider the will of the society enounced by the majority of a single vote as sacred as if unanimous is the first of all lessons in importance, yet the last which is thoroughly learnt. This law once disregarded, no other remains but that of force, which ends necessarily in military despotism." --Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, 1817. ME 15:127

"The will of the people... is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waring, 1801. ME 10:236

"The measures of the fair majority... ought always to be respected." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792. ME 8:397

"I subscribe to the principle, that the will of the majority honestly expressed should give law." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1793. ME 1:332

"All... being equally free, no one has a right to say what shall be law for the others. Our way is to put these questions to the vote, and to consider that as law for which the majority votes." --Thomas Jefferson: Address to the Cherokee Nation, 1809. ME 16:456

"[We acknowledge] the principle that the majority must give the law." --Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael, 1788. ME 7:28

"This... [is] a country where the will of the majority is the law, and ought to be the law." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:85

"Civil government being the sole object of forming societies, its administration must be conducted by common consent." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.VIII, 1782. ME 2:120

"The fundamental principle of [a common government of associated States] is that the will of the majority is to prevail." --Thomas Jefferson to William Eustis, 1809.

"The voice of the majority decides. For the lex majoris partis is the law of all councils, elections, etc., where not otherwise expressly provided." --Thomas Jefferson: Parliamentary Manual, 1800. ME 2:420

"It is the multitude which possess force, and wisdom must yield to that." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:492

8.1 The Natural Law by which Self-Government is Exercised

"Every man, and every body of men on earth, possesses the right of self-government. They receive it with their being from the hand of nature. Individuals exercise it by their single will; collections of men by that of their majority; for the law of the majority is the natural law of every society of men." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Residence Bill, 1790. ME 3:60

"The Lex majoris partis, founded in common law as well as common right, [is] the natural law of every assembly of men whose numbers are not fixed by any other law." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIII, 1782. ME 2:172

"The people of [a] country [that have] never been in the habit of self-government [will] not [be] in the habit of acknowledging that fundamental law of nature by which alone self-government can be exercised by a society, I mean the lex majoris partis. Of the sacredness of this law, our countrymen are impressed from their cradle so that with them it is almost innate. This single circumstance may possibly decide the fate of [a nation]." --Thomas Jefferson to John Breckenridge, Jan. 29, 1800. (*)

"If we are faithful to our country, if we acquiesce, with good will, in the decisions of the majority, and the nation moves in mass in the same direction, although it may not be that which every individual thinks best, we have nothing to fear from any quarter." --Thomas Jefferson to Virginia Baptists, 1808. ME 16:321

"On no question can a perfect unanimity be hoped." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Inhabitants of Boston, 1808. ME 16:315

"We cannot always do what is absolutely best. Those with whom we act, entertaining different views, have the power and the right of carrying them into practice."--Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1814. ME 14:200

"[With a majority] having declared against [our proposal], we must suppose we are wrong, according to the fundamental law of every society, the lex majoris partis, to which we are bound to submit." --Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, 1789. ME 7:324

8.2 The Only Source of Just Power

"And where else will [Hume,] this degenerate son of science, this traitor to his fellow men, find the origin of just powers, if not in the majority of the society? Will it be in the minority? Or in an individual of that minority?" --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:44

"Where the law of the majority ceases to be acknowledged, there government ends, the law of the strongest takes its place, and life and property are his who can take them." --Thomas Jefferson to Annapolis Citizens, 1809. ME 16:337

"Absolute acquiescence in the decision of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism, I deem [one of] the principles of our Government, and consequently [one of] those which ought to shape its administration." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801. ME 3:321

"[Bear] always in mind that a nation ceases to be republican only when the will of the majority ceases to be the law." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to the Citizens of Adams County, Pa., 1808. ME 12:18

"[A faction's] newspapers say rebellion, and that they will not remain united with us unless we will permit them to govern the majority. If this be their purpose, their anti-republican spirit, it ought to be met at once. But a government like ours should be slow in believing this, should put forth its whole might when necessary to suppress it, and promptly return to the paths of reconciliation. The extent of our country secures it, I hope, from the vindictive passions of the petty incorporations of Greece." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1812. ME 13:162

8.3 Living Majorities Decide for Themselves

"This corporeal globe, and everything upon it, belong to its present corporeal inhabitants during their generation. They alone have a right to direct what is the concern of themselves alone, and to declare the law of that direction; and this declaration can only be made by their majority. That majority, then, has a right to depute representatives to a convention, and to make the constitution what they think will be the best for themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:43

"If this avenue [i.e., the expression of the voice of the whole people] be shut to the call of sufferance, it will make itself heard through that of force, and we shall go on as other nations are doing in the endless circle of oppression, rebellion, reformation; and oppression, rebellion, reformation again; and so on forever." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:43

"That our Creator made the earth for the use of the living and not of the dead; that those who exist not can have no use nor right in it, no authority or power over it; that one generation of men cannot foreclose or burthen its use to another, which comes to it in its own right and by the same divine beneficence; that a preceding generation cannot bind a succeeding one by its laws or contracts; these deriving their obligation from the will of the existing majority, and that majority being removed by death, another comes in its place with a will equally free to make its own laws and contracts; these are axioms so self-evident that no explanation can make them plainer; for he is not to be reasoned with who says that non-existence can control existence, or that nothing can move something. They are axioms also pregnant with salutary consequences." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Earle, 1823. ME 15:470

"The rights of one generation will scarcely be considered hereafter as depending on the paper transactions of another." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington (?), 1794. ME 9:284

"We who have gone before have performed an honest duty by putting in the power of our successors a state of happiness which no nation ever before had within their choice. If that choice is to throw it away, the dead will have neither the power nor the right to control them." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, 1820. ME 15:281

8.4 When the Majority is Wrong

"We are sensible of the duty and expediency of submitting our opinions to the will of the majority, and can wait with patience till they get right if they happen to be at any time wrong." --Thomas Jefferson to John Breckenridge, 1800.

"I readily... suppose my opinion wrong, when opposed by the majority... however, I should have done it with more complete satisfaction, had we all judged from the same position." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1788. ME 7:99

"It is my principle that the will of the majority should prevail. If they approve the proposed constitution in all its parts, I shall concur in it cheerfully, in hopes that they will amend it whenever they shall find it works wrong. This reliance cannot deceive us, as long as we remain virtuous." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. (Forrest version) ME 6:392

"It is an encouraging observation that no good measure was ever proposed which, if duly pursued, failed to prevail in the end." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Coles, 1814.

"I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." --Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820. ME 15:278

"Against such a majority we cannot effect [the gathering them into the fold of truth] by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XVII, 1782. ME 2:223

8.5 The Rights and Duties of the Minority

"If the measures which have been pursued are approved by the majority, it is the duty of the minority to acquiesce and conform." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1811. ME 13:51

"Every man's reason [is] his own rightful umpire. This principle, with that of acquiescence in the will of the majority, will preserve us free and prosperous as long as they are sacredly observed." --Thomas Jefferson to John F. Watson, 1814. ME 14:136

"It is a rule in all countries that what is done by the body of a nation must be submitted to by all its members." --Thomas Jefferson: Address to Miami and Delaware Nations, 1803. ME 16:398

"Laws made by common consent must not be trampled on by individuals." --Thomas Jefferson to Garret Vanmeter, 1781. ME 4:417, Papers 5:566

"Bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801. ME 3:318

"The majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:490

"Great innovations should not be forced on a slender majority." --Thomas Jefferson to John Armstrong, 1808. ME 12:42

"[Sometimes] the minorities are too respectable, not to be entitled to some sacrifice of opinion, in the majority." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1788. ME 7:184

"Those who bear equally the burthens of Government should equally participate of its benefits." --Thomas Jefferson: Virginia Resolutions, 1775. Papers 1:172

"A geographical division... is a most fatal of all divisions, as no authority will submit to be governed by a majority acting merely on a geographical principle." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel H. Smith, 1821. FE 10:191

"It is not probable that local discontents can spread to such an extent as to be able to faze the sound parts of so extensive a Union; and if ever they should reach the majority, they would then become the regular government, acquire the ascendency in Congress and be able to redress their own grievances by laws peaceably and constitutionally passed." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811. ME 13:20

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

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