Site Home

Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

56. The Future of Democracy in America

The Founding Fathers knew well the kind of government they were trying to avoid, but could only project what their own experiment in government would become. They based this projection on their analysis of governments in the past, on principles derived from natural rights, and on an assessment of the nature of man. Jefferson always maintained a great faith in the American people and their capacity for self-government. The success of the Founding Fathers' experiment only attests to their wisdom and genius.

"The spirit of our citizens,... rising with a strength and majesty which show the loveliness of freedom, will make this government in practice what it is in principle, a model for the protection of man in a state of freedom and order." --Thomas Jefferson to Thaddeus Kosciusko, 1799. ME 10:116

"We can no longer say there is nothing new under the sun. For this whole chapter in the history of man is new. The great extent of our republic is new. Its sparse habitation is new. The mighty wave of public opinion which has rolled over it is new." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1801. ME 10:229

"The main body of our citizens... remain true to their republican principles; the whole landed interest is republican, and so is a great mass of talents. Against us are... all timid men who prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty... We are likely to preserve the liberty we have obtained only by unremitting labors and perils. But we shall preserve it, and our mass of weight and wealth on the good side is so great as to leave no danger that force will ever be attempted against us." --Thomas Jefferson to Philip Mazzei, 1796. ME 9:336

"My confidence in our present high functionaries, as well as in my countrymen generally, leaves me without much fear for the future." --Thomas Jefferson to James Fishback, 1809. ME 12:315

56.1 Trusting the Wisdom of the Future

"The daily advance of science will enable [the existing generation] to administer the commonwealth with increased wisdom." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823. ME 15:494

"Those who will come after us will be as wise as we are, and as able to take care of themselves as we have been." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1811. ME 13:40

"The rising race are all republicans. We were educated in royalism; no wonder, if some of us retain that idolatry still. Our young people are educated in republicanism; an apostasy from that to royalism is unprecedented and impossible." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:312

56.2 When the Nation is Duped

"Every nation is liable to be under whatever bubble, design, or delusion may puff up in moments when off their guard." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, 1816. ME 14:381

"The spirit of 1776 is not dead. It has only been slumbering. The body of the American people is substantially republican. But their virtuous feelings have been played on by some fact with more fiction; they have been the dupes of artful maneuvers, and made for a moment to be willing instruments in forging chains for themselves. But times and truth dissipated the delusion, and opened their eyes." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Lomax, 1799. ME 10:123

"The unquestionable republicanism of the American mind will break through the mist under which it has been clouded, and will oblige its agents to reform the principles and practices of their administration." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799. ME 10:83

56.3 Strengths of Republican Character

"The order and good sense displayed in this recovery from delusion, and in the momentous crisis which lately arose [preceding the Presidential election of 1800], really bespeak a strength of character in our nation which augurs well for the duration of our Republic; and I am much better satisfied now of its stability than I was before it was tried." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestly, 1801. ME 10:229

"The resistance which our republic has opposed to a course of operation for which it was not destined, shows a strength of body which affords the most flattering presage of duration." --Thomas Jefferson to Gen. James Warren, 1801. ME 10:231

"Our experience so far has satisfactorily manifested the competence of a republican government to maintain and promote the best interests of its citizens; and every future year, I doubt not, will contribute to settle a question on which reason and a knowledge of the character and circumstances of our fellow citizens could never admit a doubt, and much less condemn them as fit subjects to be consigned to the dominion of wealth and force." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Connecticut Republicans, 1808. ME 16:322

"It was by the sober sense of our citizens that we were safely and steadily conducted from monarchy to republicanism, and it is by the same agency alone we can be kept from falling back." --Thomas Jefferson to Arthur Campbell, 1797. ME 9:421

"I do believe we shall continue to [grow], to multiply and prosper until we exhibit an association powerful, wise and happy beyond what has yet been seen by men." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1812. ME 13:123

56.4 The Promise of America

"As in philosophy and war, so in government, in oratory, in painting, in the plastic art, we might show that America, though but a child of yesterday, has already given hopeful proofs of genius, as well as of the nobler kinds, which arouse the best feelings of man, which call him into action, which substantiate his freedom, and conduct him to happiness, as of the subordinate, which serve to amuse him only." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.VI, 1782. ME 2:95

"We are all... in agitation, even in our peaceful country. For in peace as well as in war, the mind must be kept in motion." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823. ME 15:491

"We contemplate [our] rapid growth, and the prospect it holds up to us, not with a view to the injuries it may enable us to do to others in some future day, but to the settlement of the extensive country still remaining vacant within our limits, to the multiplications of men susceptible of happiness, educated in the love of order, habituated to self-government, and valuing its blessings above all price." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Annual Message, 1801. ME 16:322

"In a state of the world unparalleled in times past, and never again to be expected, according to human probabilities, no form of government has, so far, better shielded its citizens from the prevailing afflictions." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Connecticut Republicans, 1808. ME 16:322

"We, too, shall encounter follies; but if great, they will be short, if long, they will be light; and the vigor of our country will get the better of them." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Digges, 1806. ME 11:113

"We may still believe with security that the great body of the American people must for ages yet be substantially republican." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert R. Livingston, 1799. ME 10:119

"I fear nothing for our liberty from the assaults of force; but I have seen and felt much, and fear more from English books, English prejudices, English manners, and the apes, the dupes, and designs among our professional crafts. When I look around me for security against these seductions, I find it in the wide spread of our agricultural citizens, in their unsophisticated minds, their independence and their power, if called on, to crush the Humists of our cities, and to maintain the principles which severed us from England." --Thomas Jefferson to Horatio G. Spafford, 1814. ME 14:120

"To cultivate peace and maintain commerce and navigation in all their lawful enterprises; to foster our fisheries and nurseries of navigation and for the nurture of man, and protect the manufactures adapted to our circumstances; to preserve the faith of the nation by an exact discharge of its debts and contracts, expend the public money with the same care and economy we would practise with our own, and impose on our citizens no unnecessary burden; to keep in all things within the pale of our constitutional powers, and cherish the federal union as the only rock of safety--these, fellow citizens, are the landmarks by which we are to guide ourselves in all our proceedings. By continuing to make these our rule of action, we shall endear to our countrymen the true principles of their constitution, and promote a union of sentiment and of action equally auspicious to their happiness and safety." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Annual Message, 1802. ME 3:348

56.5 Guarding Against Corruption

"Our lot has been cast by the favor of heaven in a country and under circumstances highly auspicious to our peace and prosperity, and where no pretense can arise for the degrading and oppressive establishments of Europe. It is our happiness that honorable distinctions flow only from public approbation, and that finds no object in titled dignitaries and pageants. Let us, then, endeavor carefully to guard this happy state of things by keeping a watchful eye over the disaffection of wealth and ambition to the republican principles of our Constitution, and by sacrificing all our local and personal interests to the cultivation of the Union and maintenance of the authority of the laws." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Pennsylvania Democratic-Republicans, 1809.

"The new government... has shown genuine dignity, in my opinion, in exploding adulatory titles; they are the offerings of abject baseness, and nourish that degrading vice in the people." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:450

"I hope the terms of Excellency, Honor, Worship, Esquire, forever disappear from among us... I wish that of Mr. would follow them." --Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael, 1789. ME 7:433

"Time indeed changes manners and notions, and so far we must expect institutions to bend to them. But time produces also corruption of principles, and against this it is the duty of good citizens to be ever on the watch, and if the gangrene is to prevail at last, let the day be kept off as long as possible." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1821. ME 15:325

"We are to guard against ourselves; not against ourselves as we are, but as we may be; for who can imagine what we may become under circumstances not now imaginable?" --Thomas Jefferson to Jedidiah Morse, 1822. ME 15:360

"What person... would have believed that within so short a period, not only the jealous spirit of liberty which shaped every operation of our revolution, but even the common principles of English whigism would be scouted, and the tory principle of passive obedience under the new-fangled names of confidence and responsbility become entirely triumphant?" --Thomas Jefferson to Robert R. Livingston, 1799. ME 10:118

"I have never dreamed that all opposition was to cease. The clergy, who have missed their union with the State, the Anglomen, who have missed their union with England, and the political adventurers, who have lost the chance of swindling and plunder in the waste of public money, will never cease to bawl on the breaking up of their sanctuary." --Thomas Jefferson to Gideon Granger, 1801. ME 10:259

"The boisterous sea of liberty indeed is never without a wave." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1820. ME 15:300

"[It is] in maintenance of [our] principles... I verily believe the future happiness of our country essentially depends." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1819. ME 15:216

"Whenever our own dissensions shall let [monarchism and Anglicism] in upon us, the last ray of free government closes on the horizon of the world." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1811. ME 13:66

"So long as [the principles of our revolution] prevail, we are safe from everything which can assail us from without or within." --Thomas Jefferson to William Lambert, 1810. ME 12:397

"[We] should look forward to a time, and that not a distant one, when corruption in this as in the country from which we derive our origin will have seized the heads of government and be spread by them through the body of the people; when they will purchase the voices of the people and make them pay the price. Human nature is the same on every side of the Atlantic and will be alike influenced by the same causes." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIII, 1782. ME 2:164

"How long we can hold our ground, I do not know. We are not incorruptible; on the contrary, corruption is making sensible though silent progress." --Thomas Jefferson to Tench Coxe, 1799.

"Even in this, the birth of our government, some members [of the Legislature] were found sordid enough to bend their duty to their interests and to look after personal rather than public good." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1818. ME 1:271

"[When] corruption.. has prevailed in those offices [of]... government and [has] so familiarized itself as that men otherwise honest could look on it without horror,... [then we must] be alive to the suppression of this odious practice and... bring to punishment and brand with eternal disgrace every man guilty of it, whatever be his station." --Thomas Jefferson to W. C. C. Claiborne, 1804. (*)

"[Montesquieu wrote in Spirit of the Laws, VIII,c.12:] 'When once a republic is corrupted, there is no possibility of remedying any of the growing evils but by removing the corruption and restoring its lost principles; every other correction is either useless or a new evil.'" --Thomas Jefferson: copied into his Commonplace Book.

"The time to guard against corruption and tyranny is before they shall have gotten hold of us. It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold, than to trust to drawing his teeth and talons after he shall have entered." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIII, 1782. ME 2:165

"It is better to correct error while new and before it becomes inveterate by habit and custom." --Thomas Jefferson: Report to Congress, 1777. FE 2:136

"It is safer to suppress an error in its first conception than to trust to any after-correction." --Thomas Jefferson: Circular to Foreign Ministers, 1793. ME 9:19

"We are always told that things are going on well; why change them? "Chi sta bene, non si muove," said the Italian, "let him who stands well, stand still." This is true; and I verily believe they would go on well with us under an absolute monarch, while our present character remains of order, industry and love of peace, and restrained, as he would be, by the proper spirit of the people. But it is while it remains such, we should provide against the consequences of its deterioration. And let us rest in the hope that it will yet be done, and spare ourselves the pain of evils which may never happen." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816. ME 15:22

"We... owe it to mankind as well as to ourselves to restrain wrong by resistance and to defeat those calculations of which justice is not the basis." --Thomas Jefferson: 7th Annual Message, 1807. FE 9:146

"To save permanent rights, temporary sacrifices [are] necessary." --Thomas Jefferson to William Eustis, 1809.

"The happiness of governments like ours wherein the people are truly the mainspring is that they are never to be despaired of. When an evil becomes so glaring as to strike them generally, they arouse themselves, and it is redressed. He only is then the popular man and can get into office who shows the best dispositions to reform the evil. This truth was obvious on several occasions during the [Revolutionary] war, and this character in our government saved us. Calamity [is] our best physician." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price, 1785. Papers 7:630

"It is part of the American character to consider nothing as desperate, to surmount every difficulty by resolution and contrivance." --Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson, 1787.

"The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1788. ME 7:37

"If we find our government in all its branches rushing headlong... into the arms of monarchy, if we find them violating our dearest rights, the trial by jury, the freedom of the press, the freedom of opinion, civil or religious, or opening on our peace of mind or personal safety the sluices of terrorism, if we see them raising standing armies, when the absence of all other danger points to these as the sole objects on which they are to be employed, then indeed let us withdraw and call the nation to its tents. But while our functionaries are wise, and honest, and vigilant, let us move compactly under their guidance, and we have nothing to fear. Things may here and there go a little wrong. It is not in their power to prevent it. But all will be right in the end, though not perhaps by the shortest means." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1811. ME 13:29

56.6. Guarding Against Secession

"It is a momentous truth, and happily of universal impression on the public mind, that our safety rests on the preservation of our Union." --Thomas Jefferson: to Rhode Island Assembly, 1801. ME 10:262

"Certain States from local and occasional discontents might attempt to secede from the Union. This is certainly possible; and would be befriended by this regular organization [of the Union into States]. But it is not probable that local discontents can spread to such an extent as to be able to face the sound parts of so extensive an 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. And even the States in which local discontents might engender a commencement of fermentation, would be paralyzed and self-checked by that very division into parties into which we have fallen, into which all States must fall wherein men are at liberty to think, speak, and act freely according to the diversities of their individual conformations, and which are, perhaps, essential to preserve the purity of the government by the censorship which these parties habitually exercise over each other." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811. ME 13:20

"A spirit which should... countenance the advocates for a dissolution of the Union and for setting in hostile array one portion of our citizens against another... would prove indeed that it is high time for every friend to his country, in a firm and decided manner, to express his sentiments of the measures which government has adopted to avert the impending evils, unhesitatingly to pledge himself for the support of the laws, liberties and independence of his country; and... to resolve that for the preservation of the Union, the support and enforcement of the laws, and for the resistance and repulsion of every enemy, they will hold themselves in readiness and put at stake if necessary their lives and fortunes on the pledge of their sacred honor." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Connecticut Republicans, 1809. ME 16:365

"I can scarcely contemplate a more incalculable evil than the breaking of the Union into two or more parts." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792. ME 8:346

"I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776 to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves and of treason against the hopes of the world." --Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, 1820. ME 15:250

"It is time for all good citizens to rally round the constituted authorities by a public expression of their determination to support the laws and government of their choice, and to frown into silence all disorganizing movements. Strong in our numbers, our position and resources, we can never be endangered but by schisms at home." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Citizens of Wilmington, 1809. ME 16:335

56.7 A Geographical Separation

"The coincidence of a marked principle, moral and political, with a geographical line, once conceived, I feared would never more be obliterated from the mind; that it would be recurring on every occasion and renewing irritations, until it would kindle such mutual and mortal hatred, as to render separation preferable to eternal discord. I have been among the most sanguine in believing that our Union would be of long duration. I now doubt it much, and see the event at no great distance, and the direct consequence of this question; not by the line which has been so confidently counted on -- the laws of nature control this; but by the Potomac, Ohio and Missouri, or more probably, the Mississippi upwards to our northern boundary. My only comfort and confidence is, that I shall not live to see this; and I envy not the present generation the glory of throwing away the fruits of their fathers' sacrifices of life and fortune, and of rendering desperate the experiment which was to decide ultimately whether man is capable of self-government. This treason against human hope will signalize their epoch in future history as the counterpart of the medal of their predecessors." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1820. ME 15:247

"Whether a dispassionate discussion before the public of the advantages and disadvantages of separation to both parties would be the best medicine for this dialytic fever, or to consider it as sacrilege ever to touch the question, may be doubted. I am, myself, generally disposed to indulge and to follow reason." --Thomas Jefferson to James Martin, 1813. ME 13:383

"The idea of a geographical line once suggested will brood in the minds of all those who prefer the gratification of their ungovernable passions to the peace and union of their country." --Thomas Jefferson to Mark Langdon Hill, 1820. ME 15:243

"The line of division lately marked out between different portions of our confederacy, is such as will never, I fear, be obliterated." --Thomas Jefferson to James Breckinridge, 1821. ME 15:315

"Should... schism be pushed to separation, it will be for a short term only; two or three years' trial will bring them back, like quarreling lovers, to renewed embraces and increased affections. The experiment of separation would soon prove to both that they had mutually miscalculated their best interests. And even were the parties in Congress to secede in a passion, the soberer people would call a convention and cement again the severance attempted by the insanity of their functionaries. With this consoling view, my greatest grief would be for the fatal effect of such an event on the hopes and happiness of the world." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard Rush, 1820. ME 15:283

56.8 The American Example

"We feel that we are acting under obligations not confined to the limits of our own society. It is impossible not to be sensible that we are acting for all mankind; that circumstances denied to others but indulged to us have imposed on us the duty of proving what is the degree of freedom and self-government in which a society may venture to leave its individual members." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1802. ME 10:324

"It is indeed an animating thought that while we are securing the rights of ourselves and posterity, we are pointing out the way to struggling nations who wish, like us, to emerge from their tyrannies also." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Address, 1790. ME 8:7, Papers 16:225

"The example we have given to the world is single: that of changing our form of government under the authority of reason only, without bloodshed." --Thomas Jefferson to Ralph Izard, 1788. ME 7:73, Papers 13:373

"I hope that peace and amity with all nations will long be the character of our land, and that its prosperity under the Charter will react on the mind of Europe, and profit her by the example." --Thomas Jefferson to the Earl of Buchan, 1803. ME 10:400

"[We] owe to republicanism, and indeed to the future hopes of man, a faithful record of the march of this government, which may encourage the oppressed to go and do so likewise." --Thomas Jefferson to Joel Barlow, 1810. ME 12:351

"The system of government which shall keep us afloat amidst the wreck of the world, will be immortalized in history." --Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1810. ME 12:372

"With all the imperfections of our present government, it is without comparison the best existing, or that ever did exist." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:227

"In the hour of death we shall have the consolation to see established in the land of our fathers the most wonderful work of wisdom and disinterested patriotism that has ever yet appeared on the globe." --Thomas Jefferson to George Clinton, 1803. ME 10:440

"Possessing ourselves the combined blessing of liberty and order, we wish the same to other countries." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823. ME 15:481

"That we should wish to see the people of other countries free is as natural and at least as justifiable as that one King should wish to see the Kings of other countries maintained in their despotism." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1817. ME 15:132

"The preservation of the holy fire [of liberty] is confided to us by the world, and the sparks which will emanate from it will ever serve to rekindle it in other quarters of the globe." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Knox, 1810. ME 12:361

"We exist and are quoted as standing proofs that a government so modeled as to rest continually on the will of the whole society is a practicable government. Were we to break in pieces, it would damp the hopes and the efforts of the good and give triumph to those of the bad [throughout] the whole enslaved world. As members, therefore, of the universal society of mankind and standing in high and responsible relation with them, it is our sacred duty to suppress passion among ourselves and not to blast the confidence we have inspired of proof that a government of reason is better than one of force." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard Rush, 1820. ME 15:284

"I hope and firmly believe that the whole world will sooner or later feel benefit from the issue of our assertion of the rights of man. Although the horrors of the French Revolution have damped for awhile the ardor of the patriots in every country, yet it is not extinguished--it will never die. The sense of right has been excited in every breast, and the spark will be rekindled by the very oppressions of that detestable tyranny employed to quench it. The errors of the honest patriots of France and the crimes of her Dantons and Robespierres will be forgotten in the more encouraging contemplation of our sober example and steady march to our object. Hope will strengthen the presumption that what has been done once may be done again." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Galloway, 1812. ME 13:130

"[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.

"We can surely boast of having set the world a beautiful example of a government reformed by reason alone without bloodshed." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, 1788. ME 7:81

"A government regulating itself by what is wise and just for the many, uninfluenced by the local and selfish views of the few who direct their affairs, has not been seen, perhaps, on earth. Or if it existed for a moment at the birth of ours, it would not be easy to fix the term of its continuance. Still, I believe it does exist here in a greater degree than anywhere else; and for its growth and continuance... I offer sincere prayers." --Thomas Jefferson to William H. Crawford, 1816. ME 15:31

"I hope... the good sense and patriotism of the friends of free government of every shade will spare us the painful, the deplorable spectacle of brethren sacrificing to small passions the great, the immortal and immutable rights of men." --Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson, 1801.

"When we reflect that the eyes of the virtuous all over the earth are turned with anxiety on us as the only depositories of the sacred fire of liberty, and that our falling into anarchy would decide forever the destinies of mankind and seal the political heresy that man is incapable of self-government, the only contest between divided friends should be who will dare farthest into the ranks of the common enemy." --Thomas Jefferson to John Hollins, 1811. ME 13:58

"I will not believe our labors are lost. I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1821. ME 15:334

"We have no interests nor passions different from those of our fellow citizens. We have the same object: the success of representative government. Nor are we acting for ourselves alone, but for the whole human race. The event of our experiment is to show whether man can be trusted with self-government. The eyes of suffering humanity are fixed on us with anxiety as their only hope, and on such a theatre, for such a cause, we must suppress all smaller passions and local considerations." --Thomas Jefferson to Gov. Hall, 1802.

"The last hope of human liberty in this world rests on us. We ought, for so dear a stake, to sacrifice every attachment and every enmity." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1811. ME 13:29

"May [our Declaration of Independence] be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government... All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man." --Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman, 1826. ME 16:181

"The flames kindled on the Fourth of July, 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume these engines and all who work them." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1821. ME 15:334

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

Cross References

To other sections in Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government:-

Other resources on this subject


Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

Top | Previous Section | Table of Contents | Politics Home