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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

54. The Spread of Self-Government

The American example introduced the principle of national self-government to the world and proved that it was not only possible, it was also quite practicable, and that it promised peace and happiness to those people in other lands who might choose to imitate it.

"I am entirely persuaded that the agitations of the public mind advance its powers, and that at every vibration between the points of liberty and despotism, something will be gained for the former. As men become better informed, their rulers must respect them the more." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1802. ME 10:341

"The people of every country are the only safe guardians of their own rights, and are the only instruments which can be used for their destruction. And certainly they would never consent to be so used were they not deceived. To avoid this they should be instructed to a certain degree." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wyche, 1809.

"No one more sincerely wishes the spread of information among mankind than I do, and none has greater confidence in its effect towards supporting free and good government." --Thomas Jefferson to Hugh L. White, 1810. ME 12:387

54.1 Throughout the World

"We have chanced to live in an age which will probably be distinguished in history for its experiments in government on a larger scale than has yet take place. But we shall not live to see the result. The grosser absurdities, such as hereditary magistracies, we shall see exploded in our day, long experience having already pronounced condemnation against them. But what is to be the substitute? This our children or grandchildren will answer. We may be satisfied with the certain knowledge that none can ever be tried, so stupid, so unrighteous, so oppressive, so destructive of every end for which honest men enter into government, as that which their forefathers had established, and their fathers alone venture to tumble headlong from the stations they have so long abused." --Thomas Jefferson to Francois d'Ivernois, 1795. ME 9:300

"The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God." --Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman, 1826. ME 16:182

"[The] mind [of suffering man] has been opening and advancing, a sentiment of his wrongs has been spreading, and it will end in the ultimate establishment of his rights. To effect this nothing is wanting but a general concurrence of will, and some fortunate accident will produce that." --Thomas Jefferson to Dugald Stewart, 1824. ME 18:331

"It would seem impossible that an intelligent people with the faculty of reading and right of thinking should continue much longer to slumber under the pupilage of an interested aristocracy of priests and lawyers, persuading them to distrust themselves and to let them think for them... Awaken them from this voluntary degradation of mind! Restore them to a due estimate of themselves and their fellow citizens, and a just abhorrence of the falsehoods and artifices which have seduced them!" --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Seymour, 1807. (*) ME 11:156

"Whether the blinds of bigotry, the shackles of the priesthood, and the fascinating glare of rank and wealth, give fair play to the common sense of the mass of their people, so far as to qualify them for self-government, is what we do not know. Perhaps our wishes may be stronger than our hopes." --Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, 1817. ME 15:127

54.2 The Example of Representative Government

"A just and solid republican government maintained here will be a standing monument and example for the aim and imitation of the people of other countries; and I join... in the hope and belief that they will see from our example that a free government is of all others the most energetic; that the inquiry which has been excited among the mass of mankind by our revolution and its consequences will ameliorate the condition of man over a great portion of the globe." --Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson, 1801. ME 10:217

"The advantages of representative government exhibited in England and America and recently in other countries will procure its establishment everywhere in a more or less perfect form; and this will insure the amelioration of the condition of the world. It will cost years of blood and be well worth them." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1823.

"The ball of liberty is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe." --Thomas Jefferson to Tench Coxe, 1795.

"The tide of liberty [is] no more to be arrested by human efforts." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823. ME 15:491

"Though celebrated writers of this [i.e., France] and other countries had already sketched good principles on the subject of government, yet the American war seems first to have awakened the thinking part of this nation in general from the sleep of despotism in which they were sunk." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price, 1789. ME 7:253

54.3 The Advancement of Knowledge

"Even in Europe a change has sensibly taken place in the mind of Man. Science had liberated the ideas of those who read and reflect, and the American example had kindled feelings of right in the people. An insurrection has consequently begun of science, talents and courage against rank and birth, which have fallen into contempt... Science is progressive, and talents and enterprise on the alert. Resort may be had to the people of the country, a more governable power from their principles and subordination; and rank and birth and tinsel-aristocracy will finally shrink into insignificance even there. This, however, we have no right to meddle with." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:402

"What a satisfaction have we in the contemplation of the benevolent effects of our efforts, compared with those of the leaders on the other side, who have discountenanced all advances in science as dangerous innovations, have endeavored to render philosophy and republicanism terms of reproach, to persuade us that man cannot be governed but by the rod, etc." --Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson, 1801. ME 10:217

"The generation now in place... are wiser than we were, and their successors will be wiser than they, from the progressive advance of science." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1819. ME 15:215

"When I contemplate the immense advances in science and discoveries in the arts which have been made within the period of my life, I look forward with confidence to equal advances by the present generation, and have no doubt they will consequently be as much wiser than we have been as we than our fathers were, and they than the burners of witches." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, 1818. ME 15:164

"The light which has been shed on the mind of man through the civilized world has given it a new direction from which no human power can divert it. The sovereigns of Europe who are wise or have wise counselors see this and bend to the breeze which blows; the unwise alone stiffen and meet its inevitable crush." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1820. ME 15:299

54.4 The Recognition of Human Rights

"Nations hitherto in slavery have descried... a glimmering of their own rights, have dared to open their eyes and to see that their own power and their own will suffice for their emancipation. Their tyrants must now give them more moderate forms of government, and they seem now to be sensible of this themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to William Bentley, 1815. ME 14:364

"The general insurrection of the world against its tyrants will ultimately prevail by pointing the object of government to the happiness of the people, and not merely to that of their self-constituted governors." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1822.

"An insurrection... of science, talents, and courage, against rank and birth... has failed in its first effort, because the mobs of the cities, the instrument used for its accomplishment, debased by ignorance, poverty, and vice, could not be restrained to rational action. But the world will recover from the panic of this first catastrophe." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:402

"The scenes of havoc and horror... will end, nevertheless, in a representative government, in a government in which the will of the people will be an effective ingredient. This important element has taken root in the European mind and will have its growth; their despots, sensible of this, are already offering this modification of their governments as if on their own accord... But the object is fixed in the eye of nations and they will press on to its accomplishment and to the general amelioration of the condition of man. What a germ have we planted, and how faithfully should we cherish the parent tree at home!" --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Austin, 1816. (*) ME 14:388

"The disease of liberty is catching." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1820. ME 15:300

54.5 In South America

"In Spanish America, I fear the degrading ignorance into which their priests and kings have sunk them, has disqualified them from the maintenance or even knowledge of their rights, and that much blood may be shed for little improvement in their condition. Should their new rulers honestly lay their shoulders to remove the great obstacles of ignorance, and press the remedies of education and information, they will still be in jeopardy until another generation comes into place, and what may happen in the interval cannot be predicted." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1811. ME 13:40

"The danger is that the cruel arts of their oppressors have enchained their minds, have kept them in the ignorance of children, and as incapable of self-government as children. If the obstacles of bigotry and priest-craft can be surmounted, we may hope that common sense will suffice to do everything else." --Thomas Jefferson to Thaddeus Kosciusko, 1811. ME 13:43

"The glimmerings which reach us from South America enable us to see that its inhabitants are held under the accumulated pressure of slavery, superstition and ignorance." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.VI, 1782. ME 2:96

"[In] South America... ignorance and superstition will chain their minds and bodies under religious and military despotism. I do believe it would be better for them to obtain freedom by degrees only, because that would by degrees bring on light and information and qualify them to take charge of themselves understandingly, with more certainty if in the meantime under so much control only as may keep them at peace with one another. Surely it is our duty to wish them independence and self-government, because they wish it themselves, and they have the right and we none to choose for themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1818. ME 15:170

54.6 The Danger of Military Tyrannies

"I feared from the beginning that these people were not yet sufficiently enlightened for self-government; and that after wading through blood and slaughter, they would end in military tyrannies, more or less numerous. Yet as they wished to try the experiment, I wished them success in it." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1821. ME 15:309

"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

"Mexico, where we learn... that men of science are not wanting, may revolutionize itself under better auspices than the Southern provinces. These last, I fear, must end in military despotisms. The different castes of their inhabitants, their mutual hatreds and jealousies, their profound ignorance and bigotry, will be played off by cunning leaders, and each be made the instrument of enslaving the others." --Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, 1813. ME 14:21

"If... the ignorance and bigotry of the mass be [great], I doubt their capacity to understand and to support a free government, and fear that their emancipation from [a] foreign tyranny... will result in a military despotism at home... [Their leaders] may be great; but 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

"The office of reformer of the superstitions of a nation is ever dangerous." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1820. ME 15:260

54.7 Relations to the Mother Country

"[The] safest road will be an accommodation with the Mother country, which shall hold them together by the single link of the same chief magistrate, leaving to him power enough to keep them in peace with one another, and to themselves the essential power of self-government and self-improvement, until they shall be sufficiently trained by education and habits of freedom to walk safely by themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1821. ME 15:309

"I do believe the best thing for [a people freeing themselves from a colonial power] would be for themselves to come to an accord with [that power] under the guarantee of [other disinterested powers], allowing to [the colonial power] a nominal supremacy with authority only to keep the peace among them, leaving them otherwise all the powers of self-government until their experience in them, their emancipation from their priests and advancement in information shall prepare them for complete independence." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1817. (*) ME 15:117

"If the Mother country has not the magnanimity to part with the colonies in friendship, thereby making them what they would certainly be, her natural and firmest allies, these will emancipate themselves, after exhausting her strength and resources in ineffectual efforts to hold them in subjection. They will be rendered enemies of the Mother country, as England has rendered us by an unremitting course of insulting injuries and silly provocations." --Thomas Jefferson to Chevalier de Ouis, 1814. ME 14:131

"In policy, if not in justice, [colonial powers] should be disposed to avoid oppression, which, falling on us as well as on their colonies, might tempt us to act together." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1791. ME 8:220

"The habitual violation of the equal rights of the colonist by the dominant (for I will not call them the mother) countries of Europe, the invariable sacrifice of their highest interests to the minor advantages of any individual trade or calling at home, are as immoral in principle as the continuance of them is unwise in practice, after the lessons they have received. What, in short, is the whole system of Europe towards America but an atrocious and insulting tyranny? One hemisphere of the earth, separated from the other by wide seas on both sides, having a different system of interests flowing from different climates, different soils, different productions, different modes of existence, and its own local relations and duties, is made subservient to all the petty interests of the other, to their laws, their regulations, their passions and wars, and interdicted from social intercourse, from the interchange of mutual duties and comforts with their neighbors, enjoined on all men by the laws of nature. Happily, these abuses of human rights are drawing to a close on both our continents." --Thomas Jefferson to Clement Caine, 1811. ME 13:89

"The sentiments which should be unauthoritatively expressed by our agents to influential persons in Cuba and Mexico [are:] If you remain under the dominion of the kingdom and family of Spain, we are contented; but we should be extremely unwilling to see you pass under the dominion or ascendancy of France or England. In the latter cases should you choose to declare independence, we cannot now commit ourselves by saying we would make common cause with you, but must reserve ourselves according to the then existing circumstances; but in our proceedings we shall be influence by friendship to you, by a firm belief that our interests are intimately connected, and by the strongest repugnance to see you under subordination to either France or England, either politically or commercially." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1808. ME 1:484

"[It is] my private opinion... that a successful revolution was still at a distance with them [i.e., Mexico]; that I feared they must begin by enlightening and emancipating the minds of their people." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1787. ME 6:121

"Although we have no right to intermeddle with the form of government of other nations, yet it is lawful to wish to see no emperors nor kings in our hemisphere." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1823.

54.8 Prospects for the Hemisphere

"I fear [that some nations] are too heavily oppressed by ignorance and superstition for self-government, and whether a change from foreign to domestic despotism will be to their advantage remains to be seen." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Brown, 1813. (*) ME 13:311

"[Montesquieu wrote in his Spirit of the Laws, XIX,c.27:] 'A free nation may have a deliverer: a nation enslaved can have only another oppressor. For whoever is able to dethrone an absolute prince has a power sufficient to become absolute himself.'" --Thomas Jefferson: copied into his Commonplace Book.

"What a colossus shall we be when the southern continent comes up to our mark! What a stand will it secure as a ralliance for the reason and freedom of the globe! I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1816. ME 15:59

"My theory has always been, that if we are to dream, the flatteries of hope are as cheap, and pleasanter than the gloom of despair." --Thomas Jefferson to Francois de Marbois, 1817. ME 15:131

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

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