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Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic Faith

ISSUE:  Winter 1940

Thomas Jefferson’s republican convictions were formed early in his life, upon what was then the western frontier; when he was only twenty-two years old they seem to have been crystallized by a speech of Patrick Henry in opposition to the British Stamp Act. From that time on he was a leader in every movement for freedom and independence, usually somewhat in advance of other “rebels,” finding what he said or wrote disapproved of at the time, only to win later assent. He developed with the experiences enlarged responsibilities gave him, but it was uninterruptedly in one direction. Political expediency may have caused him to deviate on special points, but there are few men in public life whose course has been so straight. Natural sympathies, actual experiences, and intellectual principles united in him to produce a character of singular consistency and charm. He was that rare person in politics, an idealist whose native faith was developed, checked, and confirmed by extremely extensive and varied practical experience. The pages of history may be searched to find another man whose native constitution destined him to espouse the liberal cause and whose career so happily furnished the conditions that gave him opportunity for articulate expression in deed and word.


Just as it was the “people” in whom Jefferson trusted as the foundation and ultimate security of self-governing institutions, so it was the enlightenment of the people as a whole that was his aim in promoting the advance of science. In a letter to a French friend, in which he says that his prayers are offered for the well-being of France, he adds that her future government depends not on “the state of science, no matter how exalted it may be in a select band of enlightened men, but on the condition of the general mind.” What is hinted at in these remarks is openly stated in other letters. As the French Revolution went on from its beginnings, which aroused his deepest sympathies, to the despotism of Napoleon, he became increasingly skeptical of the social influence of a small band of enlightened men—like the French philosophes. His most extreme reaction is found in a letter to John Adams: “As for France and England, with all their preeminence in science, the one is a den of robbers, and the other of pirates. And if science produces no better fruits than tyranny, murder, rapine, and destitution of national morality, I should wish our country to be ignorant, honest, and estimable, as our neighboring savages are.”

Jefferson’s emphasis upon the relation of science and learning to practical serviceability had two sources. One of them was the newness of his own country, and his conviction that needs should be satisfied in the degree of their urgency. Political liberty—or as he calls it in one place, physical liberty—came first. A certain measure of material security was needed to buttress this liberty. As these were achieved, he was confident that the spread of education and general enlightenment would add what was lacking in the refinements of culture, things very precious to him personally.

The other cause of Jefferson’s subordination of science and arts to social utility was his European experience. Science, no matter how “exalted,” did not prevent wholesale misery and oppression if it was confined to a few. In spite of his very enjoyable personal relations with the leading intellectuals of Paris, his deepest sympathies went to the downtrodden masses whose huts he visited and whose food he ate. His affection for the “people,” whose welfare was the real and final object of all social institutions, and his faith in the “will of the people” as the basis of all legitimate political arrangements made him distrust advances in knowledge and the arts that left the mass of the people in a state of misery and degradation.

The balanced relation in Jefferson’s ideas between the well-being of the masses and the higher cultivation of the arts and sciences is best expressed in his educational project. Elementary popular schooling educated the many. But it also served a selective purpose. It allowed the abler students to be picked out and to continue instruction in the middle grade. Through the agency of the latter the “natural aristocracy” of intellect and character would be selected to go on to university education. State universities have carried forward Jefferson’s idea of a continuous educational ladder, that of Michigan being directly influenced by him.


Jefferson’s stay in France gave rise to the notion that his political philosophy was framed under French intellectual influence. It is easy to understand why, after the reaction produced by the excesses of the French Revolution, Jefferson’s political enemies put forward the idea as an accusation, extremists calling him a participant in Gallic atheism, licentiousness, and anarchy. Just why scholars have entertained the same idea, not as a charge against him, but as evidence of close intellectual relations between American social theory and the French Enlightenment is not so clear. Every one of Jefferson’s characteristic political ideas—with one possible exception—was definitely formulated by him before he went to France. It is probable that his inclination toward the moral ideas of Epicurus, among the classic writers, dates from acquaintance made in Paris, but that did not affect his political ideas or even his working ethical views. Rousseau is not even mentioned by him. The moderate French Charter of Rights—a practical, not a theoretical, document—receives fairly extensive notice; the Rights of Man, the barest casual mention.

The fact is that in Jefferson’s opinion the movement, intellectual and practical, was from the United States to France and Europe, not from the latter to America. The possible exception, alluded to above, is found in Jefferson’s emphasis upon the moral inability of one generation to bind a succeeding generation by imposing either a debt or an unalterable Constitution upon it. His assertion that the “earth belongs in usufruct to the living; that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it” was general in scope. But his argument (in a letter written from Paris) closes with a statement of the importance of the matter “in every country and most especially in France.” For, as he saw, if the new government could not abolish the laws regulating descent of land, recover lands previously given to the church, abolish feudal and ecclesiastical special privileges, and all perpetual monopolies, reformation of government would be hamstrung before it got started.

The genuine and undeniable influence of France upon Jefferson is shown in a letter he wrote expressing his amazement upon finding the prevalence of monarchical ideas upon his return to New York, when, as he says, “fresh from France, while in its first and pure stage,” he was “somewhat whetted up in my own republican principles.” The real significance of the question of French influence upon him is found in the larger matter of the sources of the ideas he expressed in the Declaration of Independence. I believe that it is true that he meant simply to write “an expression of the American mind in words so firm and plain as to command assent.” There was nothing that was novel in the idea that “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” nor did it find its origin in Locke’s writings—”nearly perfect” as were the latter in Jefferson’s opinion. Even the right of the people “to alter or abolish” a government when it became destructive of the inherent moral rights of the governed had behind it a tradition that long antedated the writings of even Locke.

There was, nevertheless, something distinctive, something original, in the Declaration. What was new and significant was that these ideas were now set forth as an expression of the “American mind” that the American will was prepared to act upon. Jefferson was as profoundly convinced of the novelty of the action as a practical “experiment”—a favorite word of his in connection with the institution of self-government—as he was of the orthodox character of the ideas as mere theory.

Jefferson used the language of the time in his assertion of “natural rights” upon which governments are based and which they must observe if they are to have legitimate authority. What is not now so plain is that the word moral can be substituted for the word natural whenever Jefferson used the latter in connection with law and rights, not only without changing his meaning but making it clearer to a modern reader. Not only does he say: “I am convinced man has no natural right in opposition to his social duties,” and that “man was destined for society,” but also that “questions of natural right are triable by their conformity with the moral sense and reason of man.” In a letter to de Nemours, Jefferson developed his moral and political philosophy at some length by making a distinction “between the structure of the government and the moral principles” on which its administration is based. It was here that he said, “We of the United States are constitutionally and conscientiously democrats,” and then went on to give the statement a moral interpretation. Man is created with a want for society and with the powers to satisfy that want in concurrence with others. When he has procured that satisfaction by instituting a society, the latter is a product which man has a right to regulate “jointly with all those who have concurred in its procurement.” “There exists a right independent of force” and “Justice is the fundamental law of society.”

So much for the moral foundation and aim of government. Its structure concerns the special way in which men jointly exercise their right of control. He knew too much history and had had a share in making too much history not to know that governments have to be accommodated to the manners and habits of the people who compose a given state. When a population is large and spread over considerable space, it is not possible for a society to govern itself directly. It does so indirectly by electing representatives to whom it delegates its powers. “Governments are more or less republican as they have more or less of the element of popular election and control in their composition.” Writing in 1816, he said that the United States, measured by this criterion, were less republican than they should be, and he attributed this to the fact that the lawmakers who came from large cities had learned to be afraid of the populace, and then unjustly extended their fears to the “independent, the happy and therefore orderly citizens of the United States.” Anyone who starts from the moral principle of Jefferson as a premise and adds to it as another premise the principle that the only legitimate “object of the institution of government is to secure the greatest degree of happiness possible to the general mass of those associated under it” can, with little trouble, derive the further tenets of Jefferson’s political creed.

The will of the people as the moral basis of government and the happiness of the people as its controlling aim were so firmly established with Jefferson that it was axiomatic that the only alternative to the republican position was fear, in lieu of trust, of the people. Given fear of them, it followed, as by mathematical necessity, not only that they must not be given a large share in the conduct of government, but that they must themselves be controlled by force, moral or physical or both, and by appeal to some special interest served by government—an appeal which, according to Jefferson, inevitably meant the use of means to corrupt the people. Jefferson’s trust in the people was a faith in what he sometimes called their common sense and sometimes their reason. They might be fooled and misled for a time, but give them light and in the long run their oscillations this way and that will describe what in effect is a straight course.

I am not underestimating Jefferson’s abilities as a practical politician when I say that this deep-seated faith in the people and their responsiveness to enlightenment properly presented was a most important factor in enabling him to effect, against great odds, “the revolution of 1800.” It is the cardinal element bequeathed by Jefferson to the American tradition.


Jefferson’s belief in the necessity for strict limitation of the powers of officials had both a general and a special or historic source. As for the latter, had not the Revolution itself been fought because of the usurpation of power by the officers of a government? And were not the political opponents of republicanism, in Jefferson’s opinion, men so moved by admiration of the British Constitution that they wished to establish a “strong” government in this country, one not above the use of methods of corruption—not as an end in itself but as a means of procuring the allegiance of the populace more effectively and in a less costly way than by use of direct coercion? On general principles, Jefferson knew that possession of unusual and irresponsible power corrupts those who wield it; that officials are, after all, human beings affected by ordinary weaknesses of human nature, “wares from the same workshop, made of the same materials.” Hence they were to be continually watched, tested and checked, as well as constitutionally limited in their original grant of powers.

There are, however, two important points in which popular representations of Jeffersonian democracy are often at fault. One of them concerns the basic importance of the will of the people in relation to the law-making power, constitutional and ordinary. There is no doubt that Jefferson was strongly in favor of specifying in the Constitution the powers that could be exercised by officials, executive, legislative, and judicial, and then holding them, by strict construction, to the powers specified. But he also believed that “every people have their own particular habits, ways of thinking, manners, et cetera, which have grown up with them from their infancy, are become a part of their nature, and to which the regulations which are to make them happy must be accommodated.” Elsewhere he states the principle that “The excellence of every government is its adaptation to the state of those to be governed by it.”

His idealism was a moral idealism, not a dreamy utopian-ism. He was aware that conclusions drawn from the past history of mankind were against the success of the experiment that was being tried on American soil. He was quite sure that Latin American countries would succeed in throwing off the yoke of Spain and Portugal, but he was decidedly skeptical about their capacity for self-government, and feared their future would be one of a succession of military despotisms for a long time to come. He was conscious that chances for greater success of the experiment in the United States were dependent upon events which might be regarded either as fortunate accidents or as providential dispensations: the wide ocean protecting the country from oppressive governments in Europe; the “Anglo-Saxon” tradition of liberties; even the jealousies of religious denominations that prevented the establishment of a state church, and hence worked for religious liberty; the immense amount of free land and available natural resources with consequent continual freedom of movement; the independence and vigor that were bred on the frontier; and so on. Even so, he had fears for the future when the country should be urbanized and industrialized.

In direct line with his conviction on this point was his belief in the necessity of periodic revisions of the Constitution, one to take place every twenty years, and his belief that the process of ordinary amendment had been made too difficult. His faith in the right of the people to govern themselves in their own way and in their ability to exercise the right wisely, provided they were enlightened by education and by free discussion, was stronger than his faith in any article of his own political creed—except this one. His own convictions as to the proper forms of government were strong, and he contended ably for their realization. But he was conciliatory by temperament and by practical policy. Students and historians have criticized him for not trying harder to put into effect after the “revolution of 1800” the reforms he had been urging before that time, especially as he based his opposition to Adams upon their absence. Doubtless he was moved by considerations of political expediency. But there is also no reason to doubt the sincerity of those expressions of his which set forth his willingness to subordinate his own political policies to the judgment of the people.

In any case, he was no friend of what he called “sanctimonious reverence” for the Constitution. He adhered to the view, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that people are more disposed to suffer evils than to right them by abolishing forms to which they are accustomed. It was the more important, accordingly, to recognize that “laws and institution must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind” and that institutions must change with change of circumstances brought about by “discoveries, new truths, change of opinions and manners.” Were he alive, he would note and scourge that lack of democratic faith which, in the professed name of democracy, asserts that the “ark of the covenant is too sacred to be touched.” Jefferson saw that periodical overhauling of the fundamental law was the alternative to change effected only by violence and repetition of the old historic round “of oppressions, rebellions, reformations, oppressions. . . .” There was but one thing that was unchangeable, and that was the “inherent and inalienable rights of man.”

The other point on which Jefferson’s ideas have not been adequately represented has to do with his belief that state governments “are the true barriers of our liberty,” and his fear of centralized government at Washington—not that he did not have and hold with strong conviction the belief and the fear, but that the ideas with which he supplemented them have not received due attention. He attached much importance to self-governing communities of much smaller size than the state or even the county. He was impressed, practically as well as theoretically, with the effectiveness of the New England town meeting, and wished to see something of the sort made an organic part of the governing process of the whole country. Division of every county into wards was first suggested by him in connection with the organization of an elementary school system. Rut even from his early service in the legislature of Virginia to the latest years of his life he urged the adoption of his plan. In a letter written after he was seventy, he wrote, “As Cato concluded every speech with the words ‘Carthago delenia est’ so do I with the injunction ‘Divide the counties into wards’.”

While the first purpose of the division into small local units was the establishment and care of popular elementary schools, the full aim was to make the wards “little republics, with a warden at the head of each, for all those concerns, which being under their eye, they would better manage than the larger republics of the county or State.” They were to have the “care of the poor, roads, police, elections, nomination of jurors, administration of justice in small cases, elementary exercises of militia.” In short, they were to exercise directly with respect to their own affairs all the functions of government, civil and military. In addition, when any important wider matter came up for decision, all wards would be called into meetings on the same day, so that the collective sense of the whole people would be produced. The plan was not adopted. But it was an essential part of Jefferson’s political philosophy. The significance of the doctrine of “states’ rights” as he held it is incomplete both theoretically and practically until this plan is taken into the reckoning. “The elementary republics of the wards, the county republics, the State republics and the Republic of the Union would form a gradation of authorities.” Every man would then share in the government of affairs not merely on election day but every day. In a letter to John Adams, written in 1813, he wrote that he still had great hope that the plan would be adopted, and would then form “the keystone of the arch of our government.” It is for this reason that I say this view of self-government is very inadequately represented in the usual form in which it is set forth—as a glorification of state against Federal governments, and still more as a theoretical opposition to all government save as a necessary evil. The heart of his philosophy of politics is found in his effort to institute the small administrative and legislative unit as the keystone of the arch.


As was suggested earlier, the essentially moral nature of Jefferson’s political philosophy is concealed from us at the present time because of the change that has taken place in the language in which moral ideas are expressed. The “self-evident truths” about the equality of all men by creation and the existence of “inherent [changed to ‘certain’ by Congress] and inalienable rights,” appear today to have a legal rather than a moral meaning; and in addition, the intellectual basis of the legal theory of natural law and natural rights has been undermined by historical and philosophical criticism. In Jefferson’s own mind, the words had a definitely ethical import, intimately and vitally connected with his view of God and nature. The latter connection comes out more clearly in the preamble, in which he refers to the necessity of the American people taking the “separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them.”

These phrases were not rhetorical flourishes, nor were they accommodated for reasons of expediency to what Jefferson thought would be popular with the people of the country. Jefferson was a sincere deist. Although his rejection of supernaturalism and of the authority of churches and their creeds caused him to be denounced as an atheist, he was convinced, beyond any peradventure, on natural and rational grounds of the existence of a divine righteous Creator who manifested His purposes in the structure of the world, especially in that of society and the human conscience. The natural equality of all human beings was not psychological or legal. It was intrinsically moral, as a consequence of the equal moral relation all human beings sustain to their Creator —equality of moral claims and of moral responsibilities. Positive law—or municipal law, as Jefferson termed it—and political institutions thus have both a moral foundation and a moral criterion or measure.

The word “faith” is thus applied advisedly to the attitude of Jefferson toward the people’s will, and its right to control political institutions and policies. The faith had a genuinely religious quality. The forms of government and law, even of the Constitution, might and should change. But the inherent and inalienable rights of man were unchangeable, because they express the will of the righteous Creator of man embodied in the very structure of society and conscience. Jefferson was not an “individualist” in the sense of the British laissez-faire liberal school. He believed that individual human beings receive the right of self-government “with their being from the hand of nature.” As an eighteenth-century deist and believer in natural religion, Jefferson connected nature and nature’s God inseparably in his thought. He wrote that he had “no fear but that the result of our experiment will be that men may be trusted to govern themselves without a master. Could the contrary of this be proved, I should conclude either that there is no God, or that he is a malevolent being.” These words are to be taken literally, not rhetorically, if one wishes to understand Jefferson’s democratic faith. The connection of justice—or equity— with equality of rights and duties was a commonplace of the moral tradition of Christendom. Jefferson took the tradition seriously. His statements about the origin of the Declaration of Independence are confirmed in what he wrote shortly before his death: “We had no occasion to search into musty records, to hunt up royal parchments, or to investigate the laws and institutions of a semibarbarous ancestry. We appealed to those of nature, and found them engraved on our hearts.”

Other days bring other words and other opinions behind words that are used. The terms in which Jefferson expressed his belief in the moral criterion for judging all political arrangements and his belief that republican institutions are the only ones that are morally legitimate are not now current. It is doubtful, however, whether defense of democracy against the attacks to which it is subjected does not depend upon taking once more the position Jefferson took about its moral basis and purpose, even though we have to find another set of words in which to formulate the moral ideal served by democracy. A renewal of faith in common human nature, in its potentialities in general and in its power in particular to respond to reason and truth, is a surer bulwark against totalitarianism than is demonstration of material success or devout worship of special legal and political forms.


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