The Jeffersonian Perspective

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


Majority Rule & Consent of the Governed

When the Founding Fathers spoke of government by consent of the governed, they knew exactly what government was like when it was not conducted by consent of the governed. The latter was the government the colonists were subjected to: innumerable measures, including taxes, were passed by the British Parliament, and the colonists had no input, no representatives to express their dissent, and no opportunity to do anything except obey the laws imposed upon them. "Consent of the governed" was a concept applied to the nation as a whole, to the people in their plurality. It is the nation that is the source of authority acting through the government, and it is the nation's consent that makes government legitimate.

The idea that each citizen must give his consent to every act of government in order for government to be considered legitimate and for it to be operating under "just powers from the consent of the governed" as recognized in the Declaration of Independence, probably never occurred to the Founders. Only when all sense of community has been destroyed, when each individual considers himself as a nation unto himself, can such a fantastic idea arise. The Declaration of Independence was a declaration on behalf of a nation of people; it was not a manifesto of individualism. It's assertion of the rights of man, which accrue naturally to every individual person, was the stated foundation upon which a whole people rightly establish just government to collectively protect those rights.

Therefore, when considering the meaning and significance of the concept, "consent of the governed," we are necessarily speaking of an idea that applies to the whole nation, and refers to each individual member of that nation only when they come together and make decisions en masse. This action en masse, according to Jefferson, is a part of the basic definition of a republic.

And this process of decision making by the majority is the basic principle that must be accepted for the establishment of a nation based on equal rights.

It is only in this age of wildly impracticable theories of government that it has been suggested that "consent of the governed" means unanimous consent. But as Jefferson says, it is of first importance to recognize that a majority, even if by only one vote, must be respected as though it were unanimous. This is the way free societies make decisions. It is chimerical to assume that the government of such a society could be founded on the unanimous consent of the governed, for as Jefferson wrote:

If this method of reaching decisions is disregarded, it can only be replaced by force, which means military despotism. But why, one might ask, will a military despotism necessarily ensue if the lex majoris partis is disregarded? The reason is, reasonable people can learn to accept the will of the majority, since it is the will of the greater part of their fellow citizens. But reason cannot be enlisted to justify a society governed by a minority. Such rule can only be perpetrated by force.

Free individuals recognize that they must come together in association to protect their freedom, and they must make decisions as a whole.

Since not everyone will agree on any but the most rudimentary matters about running a government, a just means must be established for making decisions for the whole, and no more just means has ever been proposed for a people as a whole than those that give expression to the will of the greater part.

Schemes for replacing the will of the majority with an apportionment of decision-making, allowing the minority to make rules for itself, are ways of splitting a society into factions and will destroy the existence of "one nation." Such schemes give legitimacy to factions instead of reducing their effect. Other means of compromise are available that will bend measures to accommodate the rightful interests of a minority. But making divisions permanent by establishing rather than ameliorating the effects of faction will only tear a nation apart.

Whereas minority rule is by that very fact oppressive, majority rule may be oppressive also if it violates the equal rights of the minority.

The fact that the minority does not agree with the measures of the majority goes without saying; that is why they are in opposition to the majority. But fairness for the body politic as a whole is not transgressed if the will of the majority prevails and the equal rights of the minority are not violated. It is then the duty of the minority to accept the decision of the greater portion of the people.

There cannot be a democratic society without majority rule, and individual rights cannot be protected but by the majority, for if the majority will not protect individual rights, who or what will? A minority that is in opposition to the majority? A piece of paper? A political theory? This is why democratic societies have governments. The very purpose of government is to protect the natural rights of its people.

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

The idea that a minority knows better than the majority what rights should be protected is the precise form of despotism from which the United States sought independence. Such a minority pursues its own interests, not the best interests of those who are their subjects. But the purpose of government is to secure our rights, and the will of the majority must direct the government if it is to do that.

    "In a government bottomed on the will of all, the life and liberty of every individual citizen becomes interesting to all." --Thomas Jefferson: 5th Annual Message, 1805.

There is no other mechanism in existence that can adequately and consistently protect our rights. Power quickly leads to corruption, and the power to protect the rights of the people can be trusted nowhere but with the people themselves. Therefore it is the responsibility of the citizens themselves to look after their own rights.

    "The mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Taylor, 1816.

    "The people...are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Madison, 1787.

If we fear to trust the preservation of our rights to the people themselves, there is no other to do the job.

    "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.

To say that our rights are protected by the Constitution is to rely on a piece of paper if we ignore the control of the powers of government exerted by the people. It is the people who are the ultimate guardians of the Constitution and the rights it guarantees, and the only way we can be sure they will do that properly is if they are educated to do it.

    "I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Jarvis, 1820.

Anarchy, the absence of government, can not secure our rights. The absence of government creates a vacuum, and despotic forces are always ready to seize power and create an oppressive government. In such a vacuum of power, forces will always arise to seize the reins. Can individual citizens defend themselves alone, without an organized government? When evil forces organize, people need government to protect them. Moreover, it is not possible to have a government strong enough to protect citizens from the invasion of their rights, whose strength will nevertheless somehow be beyond corruption and will never be turned against the very citizens it is intended to protect.

Anyone who follows logically the operation of power could only conclude that anarchy would result in military despotism and tyranny. And, in fact, one can see the operation of anarchy in some of the nations of Africa today, such as Somalia. Does that protect freedom? Are those people safe and secure in their liberties? Montesquieu recognized the need for government to protect our liberties long before Jefferson.

    "[Montesquieu wrote in Spirit of the Laws, VIII,c.3:] 'In the state of nature, indeed, all men are born equal; but they cannot continue in this equality. Society makes them lose it, and they recover it only by the protection of the laws.'" --Thomas Jefferson: copied into his Commonplace Book.

Our government was designed to prevent the devolution of power into tyranny by introducing citizen participation "at every point where they are competent." As jurors and as voting citizens, they make sure that government continues to protect their own rights. Moreover, rights can be nibbled away by a simple majority in a thousand different ways, and they often are! It is only an alert population that can prevent it, as Jefferson noted.

    "If once [the people] become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions." --Thomas Jefferson to E, Carrington, 1787.

A constitution alone cannot control government without republican forms, i.e., mechanisms that keep control of their representatives in the people's hands. Constitutions are not self-enforcing. And there cannot be "constitutional rule" or "limited constitutional government" without Majority Rule, because without a sovereign people in control determining what shall be the constitution and the form of government functioning thereunder, that determination is made by the governors themselves. They function as a higher power, and that higher power then becomes the sovereign, dictating government and its policies to all others.

Without the principle of Majority Rule, every other principle becomes distorted. All lawful forms are disregarded, and "no other remains but that of force, which ends necessarily in military despotism." Even the determination of what are our rights is put up for grabs, and any group of malcontents can argue that they are the keepers of true principle, not the majority, and therefore they should impose their conception of rights on everyone else. That then becomes just another form of tyranny, however "right" they think they are.

Radical minorities who sense their lack of power are the first to discard Majority Rule in order to make the government what they want it to be. The usual process is for elected government to be overthrown and a military dictatorship established in its place. But free government cannot exist without Majority Rule and acceptance of the power of the majority to make decisions. It is, as Jefferson wrote, "The first principle of republicanism... yet the last which is thoroughly learnt."

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.

Free Home Page.