The Jeffersonian Perspective

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


Limited Government, Part 1

It is doubtful that Thomas Jefferson would ever have proposed "Limited Government" as an abstract principle unassociated with specific limiting factors. He was more inclined to express his principles in definite and practical terms, not as abstract generalities. The statement, "That government is best which governs least," often attributed to Jefferson, was probably not written by him, and that subject is covered more thoroughly under That government is best... Nevertheless, Jefferson did believe firmly in limits to government. Indeed, he believed in government in chains!

Thus, when we speak of Thomas Jefferson and Limited Government, we are compelled to speak of the many specific limitations by which he conceived government to be bound, and not just the idea that government should arbitrarily be made very small. After all, "limited" is a relative term. It leaves unanswered the questions, Limited to what? How small is small?

The purpose of government is to protect our equal rights, and Jefferson reiterated this on many occasions.

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

Moreover, everyone in a free society is limited by the respect for the equal rights of everyone else, and it is government's obligation to protect the equal rights of us all.

    "The equal rights of man and the happiness of every individual are now acknowledged to be the only legitimate objects of government." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Coray, 1823.

The Founding Fathers established a government based on a fundamental understanding of human nature and the proper relationship of a nation's government to the natural endowment of human beings. This is a concept of government that has not been equaled or surpassed either before or since. Our natural rights, therefore, help define the proper role of government.

    "Our legislators are not sufficiently apprised of the rightful limits of their power: that their true office is to declare and enforce only our natural rights and duties and to take none of them from us. No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him; every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society, and this is all the laws should enforce on him." --Thomas Jefferson to F. Gilmer, 1816.

And because we are compelled for many reasons to live in a society with government does not mean that we must give up any of our natural rights.

    "The idea is quite unfounded that on entering into society we give up any natural rights." --Thomas Jefferson to F. Gilmer, 1816.

The fact is, human society advances and sometimes falls back, but there are certain aspects of human nature that change hardly at all. The "natural rights of man" is one such aspect, and as Jefferson wrote,

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

    Limited by the Functions it Properly Performs

Jefferson felt that ALL the people, rich and poor alike, must be protected from the government's attempts to pilfer their earnings.

    "If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy." --Thomas Jefferson to T. Cooper, 1802.

To preserve our liberty, we must not let the government saddle us with public debt.

    "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." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Kercheval, 1816.

The thought of instituting government programs to make life more bearable probably would never have occurred to Jefferson. That is our responsibility, and it is enough if government will leave us alone and let us do that for ourselves. The whole point of the Declaration of Independence was to institute a government that gives us those rights, not one that will do those things for us. Jefferson helped establish a country free of civil despotism. We have a right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" because of his efforts and those of others of our forefathers. But having that right, the rest is up to us. Individual freedom is necessary for the human being to reach his full potential, and the pursuit of happiness requires this freedom in order to discover our potential.

    "The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen in his person and property and in their management." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Kercheval, 1816.

A person must be free in order for them to exercise their incentive and motivation. Liberty provides us with the opportunity to find out what we can do.

    "If we are made in some degree for others, yet in a greater are we made for ourselves. It were contrary to feeling and indeed ridiculous to suppose that a man had less rights in himself than one of his neighbors, or indeed all of them put together. This would be slavery, and not that liberty which the bill of rights has made inviolable, and for the preservation of which our government has been charged." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Monroe, 1782.

    Limited by the Will of the People

Any revolution of the people is led by a group of leaders who at best express what is the general will and sentiment of the majority of the people. This may or may not lead to a government of the people. If it does, the people themselves will be the living, dynamic force behind the government, not some theory. If they are lucky, those leaders will establish a Constitution like ours in which the people themselves conduct such parts of the government as they are competent (as in juries) and elect delegates RESPONSIBLE TO THEM to conduct those parts of the government for which they are not competent. That is the principle of OUR "people's republic."

    "We think experience has proved it safer for the mass of individuals composing the society to reserve to themselves personally the exercise of all rightful powers to which they are competent and to delegate those to which they are not competent to deputies named and removable for unfaithful conduct by themselves immediately." --Thomas Jefferson to P. Dupont, 1816.

Just because a government is mandated by, or agreed to by the people is no assurance that it is not a despotism. The Algerians were prepared to install, "by the will of the people," a despotic theocracy. As they say, "one man, one vote, one time."

    "An elective despotism was not the government we fought for, but one which should not only be founded on true free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among general bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Va., 1782.

Other systems of government speak of the mandate of the people and the support of the people, but never speak of the on-going participation of the people in shaping their own society. If the latter is really the true principle of government, then there is no telling what kind of society will result, and the nation must be prepared to accept whatever form of government the people determine they want.

    "I consider the people who constitute a society or nation as the source of all authority in that nation; as free to transact their common concerns by any agents they think proper; to change these agents individually, or the organization of them in form or function whenever they please." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on French Treaties, 1793.

The whole premise of a system like communism, however, is one that is superimposed on the people, pre-determined according to Marxist theory, and rigidly adhering to established dogma. It is NOT government of the people.

    "The catholic principle of republicanism is that every people may establish what form of government they please and change it as they please, the will of the nation being the only thing essential." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1792.

Government by the people is itself a principle which ceases to exist if the government is ruled by any other principle. Only in such a government do the people hold "absolute power." The whole idea of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" is a deceit, because the will of the people (or proletariat) requires an on-going system of government for its expression and implementation, else government of the people does not exist. To suppose that a single act of the people could from there on out establish a "dictatorship of the people" is a ruse. There must be mechanisms installed that would provide for a perpetual expression of the will of the people or else government of the people does not exist save as a ruse.

    "We may say with truth and meaning that governments are more or less republican as they have more or less of the element of popular election and control in their composition; and believing as I do that the mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights, and especially that the evils flowing from the duperies of the people are less injurious than those from the egoism of their agents, I am a friend to that composition of government which has in it the most of this ingredient." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Taylor, 1816.

If the people are ever so foolish as to convey a mandate to govern without their participation, they will thereby relinquish genuine government of the people because they will no longer be the sovereign force behind the government. They will have given up their birthright because they will have turned over THEIR power to a party or other agency that will then function without their participation and direct supervision.

    "Democrats consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them, therefore, and wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competent." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Short, 1825.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

The Jeffersonian Perspective: Top of This Page | Table of Contents | Front Page
Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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