Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826)

compiled & edited by Daniel Hagadorn

One of America’s greatest intellects who thoroughly understood our country’s past and wisely predicted the steps which would be required to secure its future.

…ON WHAT BASIS WAS OUR GOVERNMENT CONCEIVED AND FROM WHERE DOES IT DERIVE IT’S AUTHORITY?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to 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.”[1]

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…WHAT CONSTITUTIONAL PROVISION PROTECTS THESE FUNDAMENTAL LIBERTIES?

“I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground: That ‘all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people.’ To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.”[2]

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…HOW IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF GOVERNANCE DIVIDED BETWEEN THE STATE AND FEDERAL GOVERNMENT?

“With respect to our state and federal governments, I do not think their relations correctly understood by foreigners. They generally suppose the former subordinate to the latter. But this is not the case. They are co-ordinate departments of one simple and integral whole. To the state governments are reserved all legislation administration, in affairs which concern their own citizens only; and to the federal government is given whatever concerns foreigners and citizens of other states; these functions alone being made federal. The one is the domestic, the other the foreign branch of the same government–neither having control over the other, but within its own department.”[3]

“The States supposed that by their tenth amendment, they had secured themselves against constructive powers. They (did not learn from the past), nor (were they) aware of the slipperiness of the eels of the law. I ask for no straining of words against the General Government, nor yet against the States. I believe the States can best govern our home concerns, and the General Government our foreign ones. I wish, therefore, to see maintained that wholesome distribution of powers established by the constitution for the limitation of both; 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.”[4]

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…WHAT ROLE DOES GOVERNMENT DEBT PLAY IN LIMITING OUR CONSTITUTIONAL FREEDOMS?

“I, however, place economy among the first and most important republican virtues, and public debt as the greatest of the dangers to be feared.”[5]

“To preserve [the] independence [of the people,] we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude. If we run into such debts as that we must be taxed in our meat and in our drink, in our necessaries and our comforts, in our labors and our amusements, for our callings and our creeds, as the people of England are, our people, like them, must come to labor sixteen hours in the twenty-four, give the earnings of fifteen of these to the government for their debts and daily expenses, and the sixteenth being insufficient to afford us bread, we must live, as they now do, on oatmeal and potatoes, have no time to think, no means of calling the miss-managers to account, but be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow-sufferers… And this is the tendency of all human governments. A departure from principle in one instance becomes a precedent for [another]…till the bulk of society is reduced to be mere automatons of misery… And the fore-horse of this frightful team is public debt. Taxation follows that, and in its train wretchedness and oppression.”[6]


[1] Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1775.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, “Opinion on the Constitutionality of the Bill for Establishing a National Bank,” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian P. Boyd, ed., Vol. 19 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950) p. 276. Letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 15 February 1791.

[3] Thomas Jefferson, The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia: a Comprehensive Collection of the Views of Thomas Jefferson, John P. Foley, ed. (New York & London: Funk & Wagnall’s Company, 1900). Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Major John Cartwright, 5 June 1824.

[4] Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., Vol. 12 (New York & London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-5). Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Supreme Court Justice William Johnson, 12 June 1823.

[5] Manuscript Division, The Thomas Jefferson Papers (Washington, DC: Library of Congress). Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Plumer, 21 July 1816.

[6] Andrew A. Lipscomb & Albert E. Bergh, eds., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 15 (Washington, DC: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904-1905), p. 39. Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 12 July 1816.

One Response

  1. Thanks for the article. I thought it was interesting.

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