An Imaginary Letter
The President of the United States
Dear Sir,—This letter is being written midway in your third term and somewhat in advance of my own birthday, when I should be two hundred years old had I continued on earth. To you it may seem unnatural for me to speak now, but the times are strange. On April 13 there may be some celebrations in my honor, as there have been in the past, and at one of these you may speak, if the onerous burdens of your high office will permit. I do not presume to suggest that you read these words of mine in public, but if you should do this, you would do it much better than I ever could. My voice was never as good as yours and I always preferred a written message to a speech. That is one reason why I abandoned the custom of addressing the Congress in person, though there were some other motives in my mind a hundred and forty-two years ago. I had a horror of seeming to dictate to anyone, and I generally tried to make my thoughts and wishes known in informal ways.
Next to unhurried conversation with understanding friends I always liked letters best. A large number of those I wrote in years long past have been preserved, I believe. One that I sent to a French friend in 1793 comes to mind just now. In this I said: “I continue eternally attached to the principles of your Revolution. I hope it will end in the establishment of some firm government, friendly to liberty, and capable of maintaining it. If it does, the world will become inevitably free.” I understand that, after a century and a half, a revolution of another sort is raging on earth and that our own Republic is one of the few remaining governments friendly to liberty and capable of maintaining it. For this reason I am constrained to speak.
Your times are strikingly like and strikingly unlike my own. I also lived in a momentous age of change. As you know, I began my career by participating actively in the struggle for American independence. This was a relatively mild upheaval as revolutions go, but it served to stimulate the far-reaching movement which spread from France, I was in that country when the storm began to gather there; I heard of its later fury from personal friends after I had returned home; and I lived to read of Bonaparte’s rise and fall. There was no real peace until after I had retired to my hilltop in Virginia and become old.
You have lived in an even more cataclysmic period. You have witnessed a transformation in the mechanics of civilization, and of destruction, the like of which I never dreamed of, though I was an enthusiastic votary of natural philosophy, which, in its maturity, men now call science. You have witnessed the rise of Hitler, who seems more powerful and more dangerous than Bonaparte, just as the reign of terror which he has imposed far surpasses anything that ever occurred in France; and you have seen emerge from Pacific islands war lords more treacherous than anyone I knew. Having survived one world war, you have been cast into the midst of another that is even more crucial and more terrible. The difference between the two eras, however, is not merely one of degree: it is a difference in kind. The violence of my day was an incident in the struggle for new freedoms; in your day it seems to have begun with the design to make men slaves.
Throughout the early part of my career, when my major immediate concern was the winning of human liberty, I was deeply sympathetic with the revolutionary movements of the age, for they were directed toward the ends to which my own life was dedicated. I was by no means averse to the use of violence in such a cause. You may recall a saying of mine that has been often quoted in this connection: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is their natural manure.” This was at the dawn of the French Revolution. In later years my utterances were more restrained. One reason for this, besides my advancing age, was that, as a responsible public official, I was confronted with the problem of preserving the measure of freedom that this country had already gained. In your case, the chronological order is reversed. Your immediate problem, in a time of worldwide conflict, is the preservation of the Republic and its existing liberties, insufficient though these may seem; but you have expressed the strong desire to extend them as you can, at home and in other lands. You must first check a revolution aimed at the overthrow of freedom, but you must remain ever mindful of the necessity that the revolution of freedom shall be resumed.
My comrades and I, as we struggled for the overthrow of ancient tyrannies and the establishment of a government that should be more just, thought of ourselves as living in an era of beginnings, and our faith was fresh as the light of dawn. To you it must often have seemed that you have labored through the pitiless heat of noonday and that you are now witnessing the setting of some sun. I will not pretend to claim that the unrolling of the nineteenth century, with all its splendors and triumphs, has fully satisfied the hopes of one who saw the new era born, for new tyrannies have appeared to replace the old and against these I should have struggled had I lived on. Some of the methods that I used in my own time may now seem as antiquated as the clothes I wore and the coaches I rode in, but the spirit of liberty which burned within my breast is, I believe, an undying flame. So I will voice to you my faith that what seems to you an end will prove to be another beginning, and that those peoples who have the will to struggle are destined to see the dawn of a better day.
In this perpetually recurring battle to win, to maintain, and to extend human liberty, I venture to hope that my countrymen can gain some inspiration and guidance from the things I did and said. I deem it important, however, that they see me as I was, and not merely as I have been reported and described. Accordingly, with your consent, I will present certain mature reflections upon my own career. Rarely have I been so subjective.
At the outset I want to state frankly that I am glad that I am not now the President of the United States. This is not primarily because, in my own time, I thought that two terms were enough for anybody, for, much as I always feared the perpetuation of political power, I abide by the principle stated in my first inaugural: absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority is the vital principle of republics. This, I hope, no American will ever forget.
The most important reason for being glad that I am not President instead of you is that I never was temperamentally suited to executive office, and least of all in time of military crisis. I was governor of Virginia in the American Revolution, when Tarleton’s raiders drove the legislators and me from Richmond, and then forced me to flee from Monticello to Poplar Forest, another plantation of mine. My enemies were unjust in seeing any personal cowardice in this or any dereliction of duty, but my contemporaries were right in believing that in such stormy times the helm of state required another hand. I had been much happier and more useful as a legislator, designing a new government for the Commonwealth or drafting papers for the Continental Congress, such as the Declaration of Independence, of which doubtless you sometimes speak.
When I was first nominated for the presidency a couple of decades later, by the informal methods which then prevailed, I told one of my friends that my private gratifications would be most indulged by that issue which would leave me most at home. When my old friend John Adams was declared the victor and, according to the laws then in operation, I became vice-president, many people did not believe me when I said that I was glad. The government was then in Philadelphia and the unexacting duties of the second office left me ample leisure to engage in scientific conversations at the American Philosophical Society with the successors of the great Dr. Franklin. Then and afterward the first magistracy seemed to me but splendid misery.
When I was elected four years later, at the dawn of the nineteenth century, I was less reluctant, for more vital issues were at stake. My election didn’t constitute a political revolution exactly, as my friends and I sometimes claimed, but it seemed to us that the victory of our party was a significant event. The Federalists had become aristocratic and intolerant while we spoke for a larger group; they looked backward but we looked ahead.
We called ourselves Republicans because we thought our opponents monarchists. They tell me that on the eve of your Civil War the name was revived by another party, in the effort to restore doctrines of human equality and freedom such as had been advocated by me. I am sure that one of their standard bearers, Mr. Lincoln, understood these principles, whether or not all of his successors did. The doctrines of popular rule which people were also so kind as to identify with me were perpetuated in the name of the other party, the Democratic, though at a later time many Demo? crats actively identified themselves with the institution of human slavery, to which I was consistently opposed. At the outset both parties declared their loyalty to me, so I may be pardoned the hope that both of them will remember the principles with which they began.
My reelection was generally attributed at the time to the Louisiana Purchase, which was undoubtedly the most momentous event of my presidency, though I could not claim that the credit was solely mine. This relieved the young Republic immeasurably by removing the menace of Bonaparte from our shores. I detested that unprincipled tyrant and shudder to think that in your own day new despots have arisen to invoke his name. The acquisition of the imperial domain of Louisiana also provided room in which republican government could spread. Like the vast majority of our people, I believed profoundly in the spread of our political institutions, and I attributed the opposition of the Federalists in this instance to narrowness, provincialism, and complacency. If they had had their way they would have confined and insulated republicanism and thus insured its decline and death. If I were living in your day I should doubtless be opposed to further territorial expansion if this should involve any considerable degree of human exploitation; but it is not inappropriate to remind you that in my time we believed that our institutions deserved adoption elsewhere, and that the spread of them constituted the fullest guarantee of their persistence here.
Unfortunately, the purchase of Louisiana was accompanied by disturbing circumstances. We could not consult the Congress at the crucial point in the negotiations, and in acquiring this territory I had to go beyond the letter of the Constitution by which the actions of the federal government were restricted and restrained. The natural charge of inconsistency was deeply embarrassing to me, even though it was raised chiefly by men who opposed me on other grounds.
In form, this action was not compatible with certain things that I had previously said, but who can now doubt that by means of it the empire of freedom was extended.
During my second term the government, in the sincere effort to secure the country against foreign dangers, adopted certain restrictions on private commerce in the form of an Embargo. On the one hand, these seemed preferable to war, and, on the other, to abject submission to the contending banditti of the time, the English and the French, who were so flagrantly infringing on our neutral rights. Unfortunately, however, events proved this law to be the most embarrassing one we were called upon to enforce. Many citizens seemed to set their private gain above the peace and honor of the Republic and were openly defiant. The processes of enforcement involved greater infringements upon the liberty of individuals than I had anticipated, and the cost of safe abstention from the affairs of Europe proved greater than certain vocal elements in our society were willing to endure. From the moment that this became apparent I could see no system which would keep us entirely free from the European agents of destruction. In the end the Embargo had to be repealed, much to my chagrin.
It was then, on the eve of my return to Monticello, where throughout life all my wishes ended, that I wrote to my friend Du Pont de Nemours: “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight.” I had said some years before that no man would ever bring out of the presidency the reputation which carried him into it. Since my temperament was sanguine, the mood of depression did not linger; and in the perspective of history the temporary decline in my personal reputation seems unimportant; but, in my own final judgment, my most valuable services were performed, not as an administrator, but as a herald of freedom and enlightenment.
I was convinced that if misfortunes should befall the country under my successor, Mr. Madison, it would be because no human wisdom could avert them. Actually, he suffered from foreign invasion. From the turmoil of world war we did not escape, much as we had wanted to. It was ironical that such a fate should have befallen him, for he was as un-suited to military leadership as I was. He had shared with me and others the struggle against the Colossus of the Federalists, Mr. Hamilton, but that brilliant statesman found greater joy in battle for its own sake. Had we lived in your day, it is entirely possible that neither Mr. Madison nor I would have been in political life at all. 1 should have loved to experiment in one of your wonderful laboratories, though I shouldn’t have wanted to do only that, and he woidd have been supremely happy in the library of one of your schools of law. As I said with entire sincerity in my old age, “No man ever had less desire of entering into public offices than myself.” During my extended tour of duty I often longed for my books, my friends, my farms; but there was a tradition then which I fear grew weaker at a later time, when men were more absorbed in the pursuit of wealth, that a good citizen owed a debt of public service, in whatever line he could be useful.
I also served my country as a party leader, but I was never a politician in the full modern sense. I was a Patriot against the Loyalists, and a Democratic-Republican against the Federalists; but politics was not my profession any more ’ than it was the profession of General Washington, and I hated the bickerings of partisan strife. But a man of my position could not afford to resist the challenge of public life at the dawn of our national history when there were so many great things to be done.
To all those who have described me as a political philosopher, spinning fine theories in the rarefied air of Monticello, I should like to state that such I never had the opportunity to become. I had thought and studied much about the principles of human government before I became a member of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, and I continued to muse upon them throughout my long life, but I never wrote anything approaching a treatise on political philosophy. Indeed, except for my “Notes on the State of Virginia,” I never wrote a book and I didn’t really intend to publish that. I drafted state papers in great number, I drew up party manifestoes, and I wrote hundreds of letters to my associates and to correspondents in other lands. It is these writings that friends and enemies have quoted in succeeding years, and it is from these that my political philosophy has been deduced.
Without retracting anything, let me issue to you and to my countrymen a word of warning about the use of these sayings and writings of mine, which were so generally directed toward some specific situation and designed to meet some specific end. I hope that I had the power, which has been attributed to me, of discerning the universal in the particular, as in the Declaration of Independence; but I must insist that my words be judged in the light of the conditions that called them forth and that my philosophy be perceived, not in isolated sayings, many of which are inconsistent, but in the trend of my policies as a whole. Human nature being what it is, I could hardly be expected to speak just the same way about newspapers when I was trying to encourage them as instruments against Alexander Hamilton, as when they were maliciously attacking me as President of the United States. My emphasis could not be exactly the same when I was leading the opposition against the Alien and Sedition Acts, as when, in the capacity of President, I was trying to enforce the Embargo. Anyone who reads the letters that I wrote during those years ought to use his common sense in separating immediate opinions from abiding convictions. I am fully aware of the fact that since my death careless and unscrupulous men have quoted me for their own particular purposes, without regard to the major trends of my thought and life.
Let me illustrate from the history of the doctrine of state rights, which has been so often identified with me. For a long generation after my death my southern compatriots regarded my emphasis on the importance of the individual states in the Federal Union as the outstanding feature of my political philosophy. Some of them went so far as to trace the doctrine of secession straight back to me, despite my just claim to be one of the founders of the Republic. The War between the States may be presumed to have settled this particular question for all time, and it may now seem to be of only academic interest. None the less, there are abiding issues here and I want to set the record straight. I don’t care to be quoted in defense of positions to which I was opposed.
On close examination it will appear that my strongest utterances in favor of the states, and in opposition to the increasing power of the federal government, grew out of my struggle against the Federalists when they were in power. The one most often quoted, perhaps, was in the Kentucky Resolutions, when I was protesting against the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts. As the spokesman of the opposition, I rightly condemned the tyranny of the ruling majority; and I hope that under similar conditions men will continue to protest until the end of time. The doctrine of state rights, as I invoked it then, was designed to safeguard the minority and to uphold eternal principles of individual freedom. It is not surprising that the New England Federalists reversed themselves by using similar arguments when Mr. Madison and I were in power and seemed to be encroaching upon the states. On both sides there was unquestionable inconsistency, though this seems to have bothered them less than it did me. It would appear that the doctrine of state rights has generally been invoked in behalf of minority groups and that, in itself, it is an incomplete philosophy of government. In its nature it is negative, and I myself discovered as President that it constituted a distinct embarrassment when positive action was required.
I do not mean to deny that the doctrine was characteristic of me, for few men have been so attached to their locality as I was. My heart was always in Albemarle County and even in old age I sometimes referred to Virginia as “my country.” Local institutions always seemed important to me. In the main, however, I emphasized the state as the best available means of combatting the political tyranny that I always feared. I never thought of setting up a shield for inequality and injustice.
At a later time many of my southern compatriots adopted part of my doctrines, in their outward form. They ignored the fact that I had opposed slavery and its extension into the West, and some of them characterized the egalitarian phrases of the Declaration of Independence as glittering generalities. Convinced that they were falling into the minority, they emphasized the rights of the state against the federal government. What they were really attempting to do was to buttress the social system in which they lived. Of their surpassingly difficult social problem I was and am fully aware, but it is hard for me to forgive those among them who viewed slavery and a system of social caste, not as evils to be gradually overcome, but as positive goods to be safeguarded and extended. As you know, the doctrine of state rights proved a serious handicap when they themselves set up a government. The President of the ill-fated Confederacy was hampered throughout his tragic career as an executive by the selfish bickering of the states he sought to unite in a common cause.
Long before the secession of the southern states, however, the political and social philosophy of the slave-owners had crystallized into a rigidity which never characterized my thought. It assumed classic form in the syllogisms of Calhoun, whose powerful but gloomy mind looked backward, not forward. My enthusiasm was ever for the future and, however I may have emphasized the states against the encroachments of the federal government when protests seemed to be required, as a responsible statesman I was forced to adjust myself to circumstances, and I always tried to put the interests of the entire country first. If I were living now, I am sure that I should not forget the importance of the smaller local units of government, but, as a practical man, I should certainly be foolish if I failed to recast my thinking in terms of the extraordinary changes that have taken place. In my time it took three days to drive the hundred-odd miles from Washington to Monticello, and we had no telegraph or telephone. It would be absurd to talk as though there had been no change.
I hope I shall be remembered most, not as an advocate of particular measures, which may be ill adapted to another age, but as a lifelong devotee of human liberty. An oft-quoted sentence from one of my letters to Dr. Benjamin Rush sums up my essential philosophy as few of my sayings do: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” My efforts were naturally and properly directed against those tyrannies which seemed most menacing in my own time. Thus, when I wrote the Declaration of Independence I was thinking of the despotism of kings. In your day there is little to be feared from crowned monarchs, but the principle remains that government should rest upon the consent of the governed and not be imposed upon men against their will. In my struggle against the established church in Virginia I was particularly aware of the tyranny of clergymen and priests. I understand that the danger of this has lessened with the years, but the truth remains that in conscience men are free.
I was prejudiced against political rulers in general and feared the encroachments of governmental power on the freedom of the individual, which I always valued most. It seemed to me that the natural tendency is for liberty to yield and for government to gain ground. I suspected my rival Mr. Hamilton, of valuing governmental power for itself, and not merely as a means to human happiness and well-being. To those persons in the world today who value force and power for their own sake, I should be unalterably opposed.
One danger was less obvious in my time than it has been in yours. There was nothing in my lifelong insistence on minority rights which can be held to justify the dominance of a powerful minority against the interests of the country as a whole. Some have pointed out that I was suspicious of a group which has come to be termed capitalistic and which, it is held, Mr. Hamilton favored. At the beginning of our government under the Constitution there were men who speculated in securities and lined their nests with paper, and for these men I had scant respect; but the enormous growth of financial power in this country came along afterward. To use language which is more common now than it was then, I feared capitalists, dreaded industrialization, and distrusted the urban working class as I had observed it in Europe. My hopes were centered on the tillers of the soil. But I sought to limit the privileges of the landed aristocrats of Virginia and for this some of them never forgave me. My preference for a land of small, independent farmers is an index of my distrust of the concentration of private wealth and power. The growth of industry has been greater and more rapid than I even dreamed and certain of my fears have been more than realized. What measures should now be taken to correct the ills to which industrialism has given rise I am not prepared to say, but the logic of my entire career points to an emphasis, not on machines or on money, but on men.
In individuals I always believed and to them I always sought to give opportunity. It is not correct to say that I believed all men to be alike or intrinsically equal, for no one realized more than I that gifts and natural endowments vary. It was my thought to remove all artificial obstacles, such as inherited privilege, and thus to free men to win such positions as they deserved. If, since my day, there has been any crystallization of economic classes, serving to impede the free movement of talent, this I should deplore.
Besides removing obstacles, I favored the granting of opportunities, in proportion to natural abilities and individual desert. My plans for public education in Virginia were not carried out in my time, but the development of public schools of all grades, the establishment of libraries, the development of science and the arts, were second in my thought only to the overthrow of tyranny itself. These represented my program in its most positive form.
If I were living now, you may be sure that I should oppose with all the force at my command whatever should seem to be the greatest tyrannies of the age, the chief obstacles to the free life of the human spirit; and I should favor what seem to be the most effective means of bringing appropriate opportunity within the reach of all, regardless of race or economic status. If there are those who quote me in regard to the limitations of government and the dangers of its power, proper inquiry may be made about the objects they have in mind. If they are sincerely concerned for the well-being of the individual citizen, however humble he may be, and are not disposed to buttress some existing inequality, their judgment about the means to be employed should be listened to with respect. But I must protest against the use of my name in defense of purposes that are alien to my spirit. If there is anything eternal about me it is the purposes that I voiced and the spirit that I showed. So far as methods are concerned, the supreme law of life is the law of change. It must not be forgotten that I was regarded in my day as a revolutionary. I was never a defender of an imperfect and unjust status quo. The road to human perfection has proved longer than I thought and men have employed the language of individualism as a cloak for selfishness and greed, but never has it seemed more important than it does now to reassert faith in the dignity of human personality and in the power of the human mind.
Since I was so deeply concerned during so much of my life with the problems of foreign affairs, perhaps I may add a final word about the world setting in which the American experiment of democratic government was carried on in my day and is being carried on in yours. The two great powers and rivals of my time were England and France. I have often been described as opposing the one and favoring the other, but my policy never was anything but pro-American. At the outset of my career, when we were struggling to rid ourselves of the British yoke, naturally I was against King George III and his minions. For aid in this conflict we were and should have been grateful to the French. Both governments seemed to me corrupt, and, as I wrote one of my friends, the English required to be kicked into common good manners.
However, I also said that the English would never find any political passion in me either for them or against them, but that whenever they should be prepared to meet us halfway I should meet them with satisfaction. I could not overlook the fact that, after the Revolution, they sought to hold us in commercial subjection and refused to carry out fully the terms of peace. There were individual Americans of the time who were willing to disregard these offenses against the Republic because of hopes of immediate financial gain. And, somewhat later, there were those who feared the explosive power of French democratic ideas and preferred a degree of subjection to the British to any sort of dealings with the unholy Jacobins. If you change the labels and speak of Fascists and Communists, you can undoubtedly find men of the same sort in the United States today.
To begin with, as a nation we had little to fear from France because there was no real conflict of interest. Indeed, the Spanish, established on our southern border, constituted a far greater menace. As the American minister, I lived for several years among the French, sipping their wines, listening to their music, and talking with their savants. They seemed to me the most agreeable of Europeans; and, at that time, almost every civilized human being saw in their lovely country his second home. At the outset their Revolution seemed closely akin to our own, and, despite the excesses into which they fell, I continued to maintain faith in them until their government appeared to crystallize in despotic form. Their subsequent depredations on our commerce I deplored, and when Bonaparte threatened to acquire Louisiana he became a direct menace which had to be removed. Few rejoiced more than I in his ultimate overthrow, though, in the course of the conflict, the British, as a maritime power strongly established in our own continent, had seemed to imperil us the more.
With the downfall of this despot and the appearance of a more conciliatory spirit on the part of the British, now that their own grave danger was past, my attitude toward these traditional enemies of ours greatly changed. In the course of time the hope that I had voiced to John Adams has been largely realized. “Were the English people under a government which should treat us with justice and equity,” I said, “I should myself feel with great strength the ties which bind us together, of origin, language, laws, and manners; and I am persuaded the two people would become in the future, as it was with the ancient Greeks, among whom it was reproachful for Greek to be found fighting against Greek in a foreign army.” Subsequently, after Mr. Monroe announced the doctrine which was destined to become famous, I went so far as to say: “These two nations, holding cordially together, have nothing to fear from the united world.” In the year 1943, when new and even more sinister forces than Bonaparte are threatening the world, I respectfully commend this remark of my old age to the consideration of my countrymen, without implying, however, that additional allies are not needed.
It was at the height of the conflict between the French robbers and the British pirates, shortly after my presidency, when this young Republic seemed to have no choice but to oppose the immediate offender, that I wrote the following: “When we reflect that the eyes of the virtuous all over the world 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.”
At this moment, in your administration, our spiritual isolation is less complete, for those countries where the language of freedom and democracy is still spoken and still understood are our friends, even though the mists of ancient prejudice may still divide us. At such a time I beg of you and all my countrymen not to think of me as an apostle of negation, but as a sworn enemy of tyranny, ready to join forces actively with every friend of liberty, wherever he may be.
My best wishes for your felicity attend you, and believe me to be assuredly
Your humble servant, Th. Jefferson