The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


That government is best...

"That government is best which governs least" is a motto with which Henry David Thoreau opens his pamphlet, Civil Disobedience. It has been attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but no one has ever found it in any of Jefferson's writings. I think an argument can be made that it is not very likely he would ever have made such a statement, because it does not square with his views.

Jefferson was not very fond of abstract, ideological theories of government. His ideas were expressed in the form of practical principles, not in abstract generalities. "All men are created equal" refers to the political standing of people in a society. A government that "governs least" leaves too many questions unanswered. What is least? Less government requires some kind of rational guideline more than just that indefinite statement. Jefferson did not express a belief in limited government as an arbitrary generality; rather, he frequently referred to principles whose effect would be the limitation of government within proper bounds. For example, he believed that government should be shaped by the will of the people. As he wrote:

In other words, there is no indication that his theories of the scope of government were formed apart from its necessary function founded on the will of the people. He believed the people should be free to experiment with government, to add and subtract as they went along. As he wrote to John Adams,

He believed fervently in the Separation of Powers, and the limits that imposed on the powers of government.

Hence, government was to be shaped and determined by certain principles, not by some set rule for its size or scope without reference to those other principles. Experimentation and the will of the people would resolve the question of size, not some arbitrary limitation.

Such a 'happy mean' does not suggest that Jefferson was proposing the least government. Rather, it suggests that a theoretical statement specifically defining the scope of government is not an accurate description of his position. The limitations on government he proposed can better be discovered from examining his views on the proper function of government.

Of course, Jefferson certainly did not believe in "big government." Even in his time, he felt that there was more government than what was needed.

He felt that the Indians were probably better off with no government at all.

But he recognized that some form of government is indispensable in modern societies.

Recently, the motto has made its appearance in an accreted form. It has acquired an additional phrase, and can sometimes be seen as "That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves." This addition seems even more remote from its reputed author, because it lacks logical consistency. The second clause does not explain WHY least government is best; it does not present a "cause." Instead, it seems to suggest that a people capable of self-discipline will choose the least government; but that of itself does not provide a reason why they would do that nor suggest a cause for the least being the best. The second clause has all the earmarks of the invention of a lesser mind than Jefferson's. It appears to be the product of the indiscriminate anti-government sentiment that prevails today.

Nevertheless, the motto has been so frequently attributed to Jefferson, it seems doubtful that it can now be separated from him anymore than we could now separate George Washington and the Cherry Tree. For interested students, however, it forms the basis for a profitable examination of Jefferson's writings in the process of considering whether the motto is in agreement or disagreement with the principles expressed in his other known writings.

It is possible to find writings of Jefferson that express his ideas of optimal government, and none of them propose the least government possible. The only near exception to that is when he considers the little government employed by the Indians, which he concludes is impracticable for a great nation. If Jefferson were to complete the statement, "That government is best which... " he more likely would state it as follows:

That is not a direct quotation of Jefferson, of course, but it is a composite taken from the following quotations that definitely are by Jefferson:

    "[Ours is] a government founded in the will of its citizens, and directed to no object but their happiness." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to North Carolina General Assembly, 1808. ME 16:300

    "The only orthodox object of the institution of government is to secure the greatest degree of happiness possible to the general mass of those associated under it." --Thomas Jefferson to M. van der Kemp, 1812. ME 13:135

    "The happiness and prosperity of our citizens... is the only legitimate object of government and the first duty of governors." -- Thomas Jefferson to Thaddeus Kosciusko, 1811. ME 13:41

The idea that the least government is the best focuses too much on government as an institution existing in its own right. Jefferson focused on government as a service, doing the will of its people. Arbitrarily making it govern least will not necessarily make it perform that function better.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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© 1999 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.