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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

20. Against Consolidated Government

The separation of powers was essential to prevent the consolidation of government and the formation of centralized, authoritarian tyranny to which all governments are prone. Jefferson has often been referred to as a proponent of "States Rights," but his main interest was not so much in the rights of States in and of themselves, but rather in a division of powers in order to prevent the destruction of liberty that would inevitably result from a national government that gathered all powers unto itself.

"An elective despotism was not the government we fought for, but one which should not only be founded on true free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among general bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIII, 1782. ME 2:163

"I wish to preserve the line drawn by the Federal Constitution between the general and particular governments as it stands at present, and to take every prudent means of preventing either from stepping over it." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, 1791. ME 8:276

"I am for preserving to the States the powers not yielded by them to the Union, and to the legislature of the Union its constitutional share in the division of powers; and I am not for transferring all the powers of the States to the General Government, and all those of that government to the executive branch." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799. ME 10:77

"[We have seen] the importance of preserving to the State authorities all that vigor which the Constitution foresaw would be necessary, not only for their own safety, but for that of the whole." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Tiffin, 1807. ME 11:146

20.1 Consolidation Destroys Liberty

"What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or of the aristocrats of a Venetian Senate. And I do believe that if the Almighty has not decreed that man shall never be free (and it is blasphemy to believe it), that the secret will be found to be in the making himself the depository of the powers respecting himself, so far as he is competent to them, and delegating only what is beyond his competence by a synthetical process, to higher and higher orders of functionaries, so as to trust fewer and fewer powers in proportion as the trustees become more and more oligarchical." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1816. ME 14:421

"When all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Hammond, 1821. ME 15:332

"The greatest [calamity] which could befall [us would be] submission to a government of unlimited powers." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration and Protest of Virginia, 1825. ME 17:445

"[We are] determined... to submit to undelegated, and consequently unlimited powers in no man or body of men on earth." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft Kentucky Resolutions, 1798. ME 17:386

"We are willing to sacrifice to [union with our sister States, and to the instrument and principles by which we are united] everything but the rights of self-government in those important points which we have never yielded, and in which alone we see liberty, safety, and happiness." --Thomas Jefferson to Wilson C. Nicholas, 1799. ME 10:131

20.2 Consolidation is Anti-Republican

"The truth is that finding that monarchy is a desperate wish in this country, [the enemies of republicanism] rally to the point which they think next best: a consolidated government. Their aim is now therefore to break down the rights reserved by the Constitution to the States as a bulwark against that consolidation, the fear of which produced the whole of the opposition to the Constitution at its birth... But I trust they will fail... and that the friends of the real Constitution and Union will prevail against consolidation as they have done against monarchism. I scarcely know myself which is most to be deprecated, a consolidation or dissolution of the States. The horrors of both are beyond the reach of human foresight." --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, Oct 27, 1822. (*)

"In the convention which formed our government, [the monarchists] endeavored to draw the cords of power as tight as they could obtain them, to lessen the dependence of the general functionaries on their constituents, to subject to them those of the States, and to weaken their means of maintaining the steady equilibrium which the majority of the convention had deemed salutary for both branches, general and local." --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:441

"Consolidation is the present principle of distinction between republicans and the pseudo-republicans." --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:421

"The support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies, I deem [one of] the essential principles of our Government, and consequently [one of] those which ought to shape its administration." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801. ME 3:321

20.3 Consolidation Leads to Corruption

"I wish... to see maintained that wholesome distribution of powers established by the Constitution for the limitation of both [the State and General governments], and never to see all offices transferred to Washington where, further withdrawn from the eyes of the people, they may more secretly be bought and sold as at market." --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:450

"What an augmentation of the field for jobbing, speculating, plundering, office-building and office-hunting would be produced by an assumption of all the State powers into the hands of the General Government!" --Thomas Jefferson to Gideon Granger, 1800. ME 10:168

"Our government is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction; to wit: by consolidation first and then corruption, its necessary consequence. The engine of consolidation will be the Federal judiciary; the two other branches the corrupting and corrupted instruments." --Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Macon, 1821. ME 15:341

20.4 Consolidation Usurps the Rights of States

"Monarchy, to be sure, is now defeated,... yet the spirit is not done away. The same party takes now what they deem the next best ground, the consolidation of the government; the giving to the federal member of the government, by unlimited constructions of the Constitution, a control over all the functions of the States, and the concentration of all power ultimately at Washington." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1825. ME 16:95

"I see,... and with the deepest affliction, the rapid strides with which the federal branch of our government is advancing towards the usurpation of all the rights reserved to the States, and the consolidation in itself of all powers, foreign and domestic; and that, too, by constructions which, if legitimate, leave no limits to their power... It is but too evident that the three ruling branches of [the Federal government] are in combination to strip their colleagues, the State authorities, of the powers reserved by them, and to exercise themselves all functions foreign and domestic." --Thomas Jefferson to William Branch Giles, 1825. ME 16:146

"[We] disavow and declare to be most false and unfounded, the doctrine that the compact, in authorizing its federal branch to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States, has given them thereby a power to do whatever they may think or pretend would promote the general welfare, which construction would make that, of itself, a complete government, without limitation of powers; but that the plain sense and obvious meaning were, that they might levy the taxes necessary to provide for the general welfare by the various acts of power therein specified and delegated to them, and by no others." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration and Protest of Virginia, 1825. ME 17:444

"Though the experiment has not yet had a long enough course to show us from which quarter encroachments are most to be feared, yet it is easy to foresee, from the nature of things, that the encroachments of the State governments will tend to an excess of liberty which will correct itself,... while those of the General Government will tend to monarchy, which will fortify itself from day to day instead of working its own cure, as all experience shows." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, 1791. ME 8:276

"I am firmly persuaded that it is by giving due tone to the particular governments that the general one will be preserved in vigor also, the Constitution having foreseen its incompetency to all the objects of government and therefore confined it to those specially described." --Thomas Jefferson to James Sullivan, 1791. FE 5:369

"Can it be believed that under the jealousies prevailing against the General Government at the adoption of the Constitution, the States meant to surrender the authority of preserving order or enforcing moral duties and restraining vice within their own territory?... Can any good be effected by taking from the States the moral rule of their citizens and subordinating it to the general authority?" --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:449

"[Since] no power over the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, or freedom of the press [was] delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the States, all lawful powers respecting the same did of right remain and were reserved to the States or the people... Thus was manifested their determination to retain to themselves the right of judging how far the licentiousness of speech and of the press may be abridged without lessening their useful freedom, and how far those abuses which cannot be separated from their use should be tolerated rather than the use be destroyed." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft Kentucky Resolutions, 1798. ME 17:381

"Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise or to assume authority in religious discipline has been delegated to the General Government. It must then rest with the States, as far as it can be in any human authority." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Miller, 1808. ME 11:428

"[We] believe that to take from the States all the powers of self-government and transfer them to a general and consolidated government without regard to the special delegations and reservations solemnly agreed to in [the Federal] compact, is not for the peace, happiness or prosperity of these States." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft Kentucky Resolutions, 1798. ME 17:386

20.5 The Federal Judiciary's Role

"The [federal] judiciary branch is the instrument which, working like gravity, without intermission, is to press us at last into one consolidated mass." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Thweat, 1821. ME 15:307

"There is no danger I apprehend so much as the consolidation of our government by the noiseless and therefore unalarming instrumentality of the Supreme Court." --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:421

"We already see the [judiciary] power, installed for life, responsible to no authority (for impeachment is not even a scare-crow), advancing with a noiseless and steady pace to the great object of consolidation. The foundations are already deeply laid by their decisions for the annihilation of constitutional State rights and the removal of every check, every counterpoise to the engulfing power of which themselves are to make a sovereign part." --Thomas Jefferson to William T. Barry, 1822. ME 15:388

"After twenty years' confirmation of the federated system by the voice of the nation, declared through the medium of elections, we find the judiciary on every occasion, still driving us into consolidation." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1819. ME 15:212

"The judges... are practicing on the Constitution by inferences, analogies, and sophisms, as they would on an ordinary law. They do not seem aware that it is not even a Constitution, formed by a single authority and subject to a single superintendence and control, but that it is a compact of many independent powers, every single one of which claims an equal right to understand it and to require its observance. However strong the cord of compact may be, there is a point of tension at which it will break. A few such doctrinal decisions... happening to bear immediately on two or three of the large States may induce them to join in arresting the march of government, and in arousing the co-States to pay some attention to what is passing, to bring back the compact to its original principles or to modify it legitimately by the express consent of the parties themselves, and not by the usurpation of their created agents. They imagine they can lead us into a consolidated government, while their road leads directly to its dissolution." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Livingston, 1825. ME 16:113

"Of all the doctrines which have ever been broached by the federal government, the novel one of the common law being in force and cognizable as an existing law in their courts, is to me the most formidable. All their other assumptions of un-given powers have been in the detail... -- solitary, inconsequential, timid things, in comparison with the audacious, barefaced and sweeping pretension to a system of law for the United States, without the adoption of their Legislature, and so infinitely beyond their power to adopt. If this assumption be yielded to, the State courts may be shut up, as there will then be nothing to hinder citizens of the same State suing each other in the federal courts in every case, as on a bond for instance, because the common law obliges payment of it, and the common law they say is their law." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Randolph, 1799. ME 10:125

"I do verily believe that if the principle were to prevail of a common law being in force in the United States (which principle possesses the general government at once of all the powers of the state governments, and reduces us to a single consolidated government), it would become the most corrupt government on the earth." --Thomas Jefferson to Gideon Granger, 1800. 10:168

20.6 States Must Resist Consolidation

"I have been blamed for saying that a prevalence of the doctrines of consolidation would one day call for reformation or revolution. I answer by asking if a single State of the union would have agreed to the Constitution had it given all powers to the General Government? If the whole opposition to it did not proceed from the jealousy and fear of every State of being subjected to the other States in matters merely its own? And if there is any reason to believe the States more disposed now than then to acquiesce in this general surrender of all their rights and powers to a consolidated government, one and undivided?" --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:444

"Every State has a natural right in cases not within the compact (casus non faederis) to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of power by others within their limits. Without this right, they would be under the dominion, absolute and unlimited, of whosoever might exercise this right of judgment for them." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft Kentucky Resolutions, 1798. ME 17:387

"If Congress fails to shield the States from dangers so palpable and so imminent, the States must shield themselves and meet the invader foot to foot." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Thweat, 1821. ME 15:307

"This branch of government [i.e., the State Judiciary] will have the weight of the conflict [between the general and the particular governments] on their hands, because they will be the last appeal of reason." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, 1791. ME 8:277

"It is important to strengthen the State governments; and as this cannot be done by any change in the Federal Constitution (for the preservation of that is all we need contend for), it must be done by the States themselves, erecting such barriers at the constitutional line as cannot be surmounted either by themselves of by the General Government. The only barrier in their power is a wise government. A weak one will lose ground in every contest." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald Stuart, 1791. ME 8:276

20.7 Dissolution is a Last Resort

"If every infraction of a compact of so many parties is to be resisted at once as a dissolution, none can ever be formed which would last one year. We must have patience and longer endurance then with our brethren while under delusion; give them time for reflection and experience of consequences; keep ourselves in a situation to profit by the chapter of accidents; and separate from our companions only when the sole alternatives left are the dissolution of our Union with them or submission to a government without limitation of powers. Between these two evils, when we must make a choice, there can be no hesitation. But in the meanwhile, the States should be watchful to note every material usurpation on their rights; to denounce them as they occur in the most peremptory terms; to protest against them as wrongs to which our present submission shall be considered, not as acknowledgments or precedents of right, but as a temporary yielding to the lesser evil, until their accumulation shall overweigh that of separation." --Thomas Jefferson to William Branch Giles, 1825. ME 16:148

"We should never think of separation but for repeated and enormous violations." --Thomas Jefferson to Wilson C. Nicholas, 1799. ME 10:131

"We will breast... every misfortune save that only of living under a government of unlimited powers. We owe every other sacrifice to ourselves, to our federal brethren, and to the world at large to pursue with temper and perseverance the great experiment which shall prove that man is capable of living in society, governing itself by laws self-imposed, and securing to its members the enjoyment of life, liberty, property and peace; and further to show that even when the government of its choice shall manifest a tendency to degeneracy, we are not at once to despair, but that the will and the watchfulness of its sounder parts will reform its aberrations, recall it to original and legitimate principles, and restrain it within the rightful limits of self-government." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration and Protest of Virginia, 1825. ME 17:445

"A single government... of the most extensive corruption, indifferent and incapable of a wholesome care over so wide a spread of surface... will not be borne, and you will have to choose between reformation and revolution. If I know the spirit of this country, the one or the other is inevitable. Before the canker is become inveterate, before its venom has reached so much of the body politic as to get beyond control, remedy should be applied." --Thomas Jefferson to William T. Barry, 1822. ME 15:389

"The only greater [evil] than separation... [is] living under a government of discretion." --Thomas Jefferson to William Gordon, 1826. ME 10:358

"If the States look with apathy on this silent descent of their government into the gulf [of consolidation] which is to swallow all, we have only to weep over the human character formed uncontrollable but by a rod of iron, and the blasphemers of man as incapable of self-government become his true historians." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Hammond, 1821. ME 15:332

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

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