The Jeffersonian Perspective

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


Democracy in the Third World

The term "democracy" in our time, and especially with reference to the third world, has come to mean little more than holding free elections. To Jefferson, democracy meant much more; it meant self-government-- a government in which the people were the ultimate sovereign, and one which they conducted themselves in those areas where they were competent and committed to the care of elected representatives in those areas where they were not, resting on the assurance that it would be conducted in accordance with a written Constitution. This was much more than merely casting votes, as Jefferson suggested when he wrote:

Democratic government, then, was founded on certain free principles and included certain structures that would assure that it would be conducted in the people's best interests. The ever-present danger was the arising of a despotic government, and ultimate control of government by the people was thought to be the safest and surest means of preventing that.

Democracy functions as a total system, not as something that magically appears as the result of elections. For its proper functioning, a government of the people requires an enlightened citizenry.

Modern theories of democracy seem to have forgotten what the term means. It is government by the people, and if the people are not "enlightened to a certain degree," then it is a hopeless quest. If they are, then it is necessary to institute a form of government that will give expression to their will. A third world country aspiring to be a free nation requires more than just free elections. It requires certain basic rights guaranteed to the people, and certain institutions designed to give expression to their will.

The purpose is to establish a responsive form of governance, and then let it become whatever the people will make of it. For this to happen, the people must be established in their natural rights with a governmental structure that will fulfill their will. Once the people are established in their rights, their dynamic potential will make the government what it can and must be in the future.

Most importantly, the institutions of democracy cannot be successfully enforced from outside. No foreign power can initiate steps to create a state of freedom in another nation. The very idea is self-contradictory, as though a people must be subjugated in order to become the sovereign power. If this is to happen, it must arise from the people themselves.

These, then, are the real and fundamental problems faced by third world nations wishing to establish democratic forms of government.

There has developed a globalist sense of governance driven by commerce in which national boundaries are becoming less significant. International corporations freely shift resources over national boundaries and owe no particular allegiance to any one of the nations they do business in. International relationships are dictated by commercial forces which are superintended in non-democratic third world countries by self-appointed leaders having no responsibilities to their people and before whom those people seem to be powerless. Democracy, it is claimed, is obsolete and inadequate to deal with this emerging form of governance.

But is all this really any different than the forces that have always existed in man's political struggles? True, it is given a modern spin because of the presence of multi-national corporations and extra-national interests, but in reality, it is still the same old despotism trying to keep a nation's people under oppression in order to reap benefits for the few.

Jefferson saw the struggle in terms of the dark forces that threatened to return with the previous forms of despotism. When he argued for publicly supported education, he wrote:

    "The tax which will be paid for [the] purpose [of education] is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance." --Thomas Jefferson to G. Wythe, 1786.

Instead of kings and nobles, modern forms of despotism produce authoritarian dictators. Instead of priests, we have Ayatollahs. It is the same engines of oppression, but this time with different names.

    Is Democracy No Longer Valid?

It is risky--and probably quite foolish--to assert that our knowledge in any particular area has come to an end, has reached the highest peak possible. Certainly, Jefferson would never make such a suggestion in matters political; on the contrary, he said that:

    "Nothing... is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Cartwright, 1824.

But we should make sure before we dismiss democracy as the highest stage we have reached so far in political evolution that we are talking about true democracy and are taking into consideration those relevant factors that do not change, i.e., the inherent and inalienable rights of man.

Those who would dismiss democracy as a system no longer viable for 21st century man speak only in terms of governing institutions and commercial interests and not in terms of the people and their inherent and inalienable rights. They see elective government as failing to meet the needs of new nations around the world and the new forms of commercial interrelationship. But as mentioned above, democracy is far more than the simple matter of holding elections. The question is not being properly addressed when we consider only commercial relations between states and multi-national corporations, and do not take into consideration the inalienable rights of peoples. The system of governance devised by our Founding Fathers was meant to meet human needs, not to satisfy institutional requirements and the conveniences of international commerce.

    "To secure these [inalienable] rights [to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration of Independence, 1776.

    "It is to secure our rights that we resort to government at all." --Thomas Jefferson to M. D'Ivernois, 1795.

Whatever form of government that is proposed to replace democracy must have some kind of decision making authority with some kind of ultimate sovereign who is responsible for final appeals. If it is not to be the people themselves, then who? Who shall protect the inherent and inalienable rights of man if not men themselves? Even with those who propose an ideology or a political theory as the foundation of government, if decisions are to made in accordance with the ideology or theory, then some human authority must interpret what the ideology or theory dictates in any given case, and that authority becomes the sovereign by that very act. If the people are not the ultimate authority, the ultimate sovereign, then the government is necessarily autocratic. As Jefferson wrote of Hume's criticism of the idea "that the people are the origin of all just power":

    "And where else will [Hume,] this degenerate son of science, this traitor to his fellow men, find the origin of just powers, if not in the majority of the society? Will it be in the minority? Or in an individual of that minority?" --Thomas Jefferson to J. Cartwright, 1824.

The fact is, underneath the rhetoric, all of these proposals end up being just innovative ways of reintroducing new forms of despotism. The political history of man is and always has been, and no doubt always will be, a struggle by the masses of the people against the forces of tyranny.

    Is There No Alternative to Tyranny for the Third World?

Even from his vantage point over 200 years ago, Jefferson foresaw that in Third World countries,

    "...ignorance and superstition will chain their minds and bodies under religious and military despotism. I do believe it would be better for them to obtain freedom by degrees only, because that would by degrees bring on light and information and qualify them to take charge of themselves understandingly, with more certainty if in the meantime under so much control only as may keep them at peace with one another." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Adams, 1818.

But there is clearly the possibility that a civilized people may not be ready for democratic self-government.

    "I fear [that some nations] are too heavily oppressed by ignorance and superstition for self-government, and whether a change from foreign to domestic despotism will be to their advantage remains to be seen." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Brown, 1813.

    "If... the ignorance and bigotry of the mass be [great], I doubt their capacity to understand and to support a free government, and fear that their emancipation from [a] foreign tyranny... will result in a military despotism at home... [Their leaders] may be great; but it is the multitude which possess force, and wisdom must yield to that." --Thomas Jefferson to P. Dupont, 1816.

If there is to be government of the people, the people must be capable of contributing their part. This has been the problem down through the ages, and in earlier times resulted in the reins of government being held by a few masters keeping the multitude in poverty and ignorance. Such people were not capable of self-government, and their masters had no interest in them becoming capable. Indeed, their interests suggested that they keep the people in poverty and ignorance, since they are easier to control by force in that condition. And this very much describes the conditions in third world countries today.

    What then is to be done?

As outlined by Jefferson, these are the prerequisites to republican government:

  • A system for educating the citizenry.

    "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." --Thomas Jefferson to C. Yancey, 1816.

  • Provisions for basic civil rights.

    "The ground of liberty is to be gained by inches, and we must be contented to secure what we can get from time to time and eternally press forward for what is yet to get. It takes time to persuade men to do even what is for their own good." --Thomas Jefferson to C. Clay, 1790.

  • Establishment of a republican government.

    "[To establish republican government, it is necessary to] effect a constitution in which the will of the nation shall have an organized control over the actions of its government, and its citizens a regular protection against its oppressions." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1816.

These are the processes that will result in a government that truly seeks to promote the happiness of the people of a nation. This cannot happen if there is only to be yet another form of governance that re-establishes despotism with new names. But it also cannot happen unless there is a deliberate attempt to prepare the people themselves for understanding and overseeing their republican government.

    "Instead of that liberty which takes root and growth in the progress of reason, if recovered by mere force or accident, it becomes with an unprepared people a tyranny still of the many, the few, or the one." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1815.

Preparation requires instruction in the governmental functions that the people will be expected to perform.

    "The people, especially when moderately instructed, are the only safe, because the only honest, depositaries of the public rights, and should therefore be introduced into the administration of them in every function to which they are sufficient; they will err sometimes and accidentally, but never designedly, and with a systematic and persevering purpose of overthrowing the free principles of the government." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Coray, 1823.

Government of the people requires a people who are well-informed about governmental matters.

    "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government. Whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights." --Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Price, 1789.

Government of the people requires a people whose situation makes them disposed toward orderly government.

    "Everyone, by his property or by his satisfactory situation, is interested in the support of law and order. And such men may safely and advantageously reserve to themselves a wholesome control over their public affairs and a degree of freedom which, in the hands of the canaille of the cities of Europe, would be instantly perverted to the demolition and destruction of everything public and private." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Adams, 1813.

Thus we see that the people must be not only an informed people, but a people who have a personal investment in a stable society. The canaille, or rabble, have nothing to gain through an orderly government, and when presented with power and freedom, will use both to pull down society itself.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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