The Jeffersonian Perspective

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


Morality and Government

The relationships between the people who constitute a nation rest on a moral foundation. This foundation is an indispensable part of their association and its substance determines the character of the nation and of the government under which the people choose to live. Like our inherent and inalienable rights, true morality derives from the nature of man and his life on this planet. It is not possible to consider a political philosophy intelligently and adequately without also considering its moral implications.

If a nation's government is founded on individual liberty, it will afford to its citizens the opportunity to live securely and to relate to one another in ways that will be mutually beneficial. Liberty, in other words, affords a moral opportunity.

We need not develop elaborate theories and abstract dogmas to explain the moral role of man in society. Nature itself has endowed man with a proper sense of his moral role, and will serve as a reliable guide if he will but listen to her inner voice.

Jefferson's moral philosophy, therefore, is founded in the evidence presented by human nature itself, readily available to any observer.

Moral systems based solely on rational argument can, through subtle manipulations, be designed to justify almost any kinds of behavior. Such systems more often reflect the desires and prejudices of the designer rather than either the natural sensibilities of mankind or the conditions necessary for a just society. Some such systems take on the nature of a cult as they become a part of an intellectualized vision of man and the society he lives in. In order to win adherents, these utopian visions necessarily have a certain amount of appeal to an individual's egocentric needs to belong to a group or to feel superior to others. The result is often a distorted morality that is destructive of civil society and the best interests of the community. Fortunately, however, the sentiments implanted in our hearts struggle against those distortions embraced by our brains, and will in time win out with most of us.

To Jefferson, there were not two moralities: one governing personal and the other governing national affairs. Personal morality has its counterpart in the national arena, and the principles that govern the former are just as applicable to the latter.

    "The moral duties which exist between individual and individual in a state of nature accompany them into a state of society, and the aggregate of the duties exist as did between the individuals composing them while in an unassociated state, their Maker not having released them from those duties on their forming themselves into a nation." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion, 1793.

Morality, in essence, concerns the nature of man and his relationship with other men; it is the same whether we are considering persons individually, or collectively, because the nature of man remains the same regardless of the circumstances under which he lives.

    "It is strangely absurd to suppose that a million of human beings, collected together, are not under the same moral laws which bind each of them separately." --Thomas Jefferson to G. Logan, 1816.

These same moral laws that govern the relationships of people in society operate also between different societies of people.

    "Moral duties are as obligatory on nations as on individuals." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1808.

Determining what is right for a nation to do, therefore, is comparable to determining what is right for an individual to do.

    "If the morality of one man produces a just line of conduct in him acting individually, why should not the morality of one hundred men produce a just line of conduct in them acting together?" --Thomas Jefferson to J. Madison, 1789.

Thus, personal morality and national morality arise from the same source and are guides to right behavior between human beings, whatever their number or collective nature.

    Moral Practice in a Nation

What then are the principles that guide right action, that form the natural basis for association between individuals, within nations, and between nations? Whatever these principles, we would expect them to reflect and be in harmony with the Natural Rights of man, which also derive from man's nature and his life on earth. Liberty and equal rights define the relative condition of each member of society with respect to others. A respect for the inalienable rights of others is as much an element of our moral relationships as a love of others and a sense of duty to help them in their distresses. What is love without respect? Our helping others in their distresses amounts to no more than what we would do for a dog if such help is not coupled with a respect for their personal rights. True morality embraces all these elements.

    "God has formed us moral agents... that we may promote the happiness of those with whom He has placed us in society, by acting honestly towards all, benevolently to those who fall within our way, respecting sacredly their rights, bodily and mental, and cherishing especially their freedom of conscience, as we value our own." --Thomas Jefferson to M. King, 1814.

Morality in a free society produces a system of duties and obligations that are as binding on the whole nation as they are on individuals, and that enable a social life together that is conducive to the best interests of each one and of all. Correct moral principles will establish a society that promotes the safety and happiness of each member under the same sense of responsibility toward one another that one individual rightly feels toward another. Not every individual will feel this sense of responsibility towards his fellow man, of course, but that does not detract from the argument.

    "The want or imperfection of the moral sense in some men, like the want or imperfection of the senses of sight and hearing in others, is no proof that it is a general characteristic of the species." --Thomas Jefferson to T. Law, 1814.

An individual should be interested in promoting "the happiness of those with whom [God] has placed us in society" because, as a simple and honest calculation reveals, we have formed a society to promote our mutual benefit. We seek our own interest, but we do so in conjunction with others. We cannot effectively pursue our happiness in isolation, but as a member of society. Were we raised in isolation from society, each of us would be hardly more than growling animals, as demonstrated by the children discovered at times in the past to have been raised by wolves. Moreover, society will not function properly for us as individuals if it does not function for our benefit as a whole. It is narrowly shortsighted to think that we can take the benefits of society without participating in the obligations, for if all did that, there would be no benefits. Those who deny these simple, elementary facts overlook the most obvious elements of social life itself. This principle of equality of benefits and equality of burdens is an essential element of a just society.

    "Those who bear equally the burthens of Government should equally participate of its benefits." --Thomas Jefferson: Virginia Resolutions, 1775.

We owe much to the society that nurtures us and that demands from us certain levels of participation that will make the society work for the benefit of all. The basic elements of moral, social interaction as outlined by Jefferson above are these:

  • Dealing honestly with all.
  • Acting benevolently toward those who fall within our way.
  • Respecting their rights.
  • Cherishing their freedom of conscience.

  • Dealing honestly with all.

    . . . The social mechanism works best for the benefit of all when all interact on the basis of fairness, honesty and truth. Lying and cheating may produce advantages in the short run, but that is only because most people act responsibly, and the cheaters are able to exist as parasites on the honest part.

      "Truth is certainly a branch of morality and a very important one to society." Thomas Jefferson to T. Law, 1814.

    If the whole society consisted of cheaters, the social fabric would disintegrate and all would lose. Hence, a lack of honesty and truth is destructive of a nation. Without the element of good faith, relationships and all transactions become unreliable and best avoided.

      "Good faith ought ever to be the rule of action in public as well as in private transactions." --Thomas Jefferson: 6th Annual Message, 1806.

    It has been said that hypocrisy is the respect that vice pays to virtue. Most people will, when possible, practice honesty and fairness in their actions.

      "Men are disposed to live honestly, if the means of doing so are open to them." --Thomas Jefferson to M. deMarbois, 1817.

    Honesty is also one aspect of respect for the rights of others, because no lie, no dishonest act, was ever performed but to deny to its victim their right to act in their own best interests on the basis of the best information available.

  • Acting benevolently toward those who fall within our way.

    . . . This suggests, not a nationalization of charity, but a duty owed by each person who is able to lend a helping hand to those "who fall within our way." We need not go out of our way to look for those who genuinely need help. If we are amenable to helping others, life itself presents us with this need.

      "It is a duty certainly to give our sparings to those who want; but to see also that they are faithfully distributed and duly apportioned to the respective wants of those receivers. And why give through agents whom we know not, to persons whom we know not, and in countries from which we get no account, when we can do it at short hand to objects under our eye, through agents we know and to supply wants we see?" --Thomas Jefferson to Megear, 1823.

    Indeed, it is an avoidance of this duty when we allow others, including the government, to do it for us. We lose the personal contact with people in distress and make it a disdained task that we are too busy for or that we prefer not to be involved with. Thus we also demean the people who accept our "charity," treating them as something beneath our desire to know about. And since every person desires self-respect, we compel them to treat with contempt the hand that doles out to them this disassociated charity.

  • Respecting the rights of others.

    . . . We think of rights as entitlements that protect us from invasions by others and by government. But respecting rights is something we owe to others, and our respecting their rights is, perhaps, the most essential element of morality and the very definition of liberty.

      "Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others." --Thomas Jefferson to I. Tiffany, 1819.

    In fact, the whole principle of social morality can be expressed as a respect for the equal rights of others, and its scope can be limited to precisely that.

      "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." --Thomas Jefferson to F. Gilmer, 1816.

    Personal morality--meaning those actions which have no impact on another member of society--is thus made a matter for the individual, his religion and his God, and a nation's laws, intended to deal only with relations between persons, should take no notice of such matters.

  • Cherishing their freedom of conscience.

    . . . This particular right Jefferson singled out for special recognition, because this is the chief characteristic of a truly free person. The freedom to make up one's own mind, to form one's own opinion on issues, and to act in accordance with such decisions as long as they do not violate the rights of others, is the essence of personal freedom.

      "The freedom of opinion and the reasonable maintenance of it is not a crime and ought not to occasion injury." --Thomas Jefferson to G. Granger, 1801.

    When we respect that right in others, we truly respect the other as an autonomous human being, every bit the equal of ourselves.

      Morality In International Relations

    All of these moral principles have implications for the relationship between the nations of the world as well.

      "Moral duties are as obligatory on nations as on individuals." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1808.

    In the final analysis, the best interests of this nation will always be those pursued in accordance with our moral duties.

      "We are firmly convinced, and we act on that conviction, that with nations as with individuals, our interests soundly calculated will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Inaugural, 1805.

    As in personal dealings, a step beyond the bounds of morality may sometimes appear to offer certain advantages. But the results are always destructive and not in the best long-term interests of the people. These moral duties are incumbent upon officers of government, but under a government of the people, it is the responsibility of each member to see that his elected representative behaves morally on his behalf.

      "A nation, as a society, forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society." --Thomas Jefferson to G. Hammond, 1792.

      Rightful Government Administration

    Determining the proper and moral course for government is not necessarily difficult; it requires following principle, not opportunistic goals.

      "Principle will, in... most... cases open the way for us to correct conclusion." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Kercheval, 1816.

    As we have seen, moral principles are nothing esoteric; they lie within the breast of every honest human being.

      "When we come to the moral principles on which the government is to be administered, we come to what is proper for all conditions of society. Liberty, truth, probity, honor, are declared to be the four cardinal principles of society. I believe that morality, compassion, generosity, are innate elements of the human constitution; that there exists a right independent of force." --Thomas Jefferson to P. Dupont, 1816.

    Respecting the rights of other peoples and of individuals, produces justice, fairness, and happiness for all parties in the long run and will in the end bring honor to those public servants who adhere to these principles.

      "Our part is to pursue with steadiness what is right, turning neither to right nor left for the intrigues or popular delusions of the day, assured that the public approbation will in the end be with us." --Thomas Jefferson to Gen. Breckenridge, 1822.

    The moral principles of honesty and justice work the same in the public arena as between individuals, and produce good will and good relations in the long run for nations, just as for individuals.

      "Honesty and interest are as intimately connected in the public as in the private code of morality." --Thomas Jefferson to Mr. Maury, 1815.

    When justice and morality govern the affairs of a nation, friendly relations with other nations are possible, and good will leads to the avoidance of conflict.

      "History bears witness to the fact that a just nation is taken on its word when recourse is had to armaments and wars to bridle others." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Inaugural Address, 1805.

    Justice, fairness and morality, then, result in peace, prosperity and constructive endeavors at home.

      "The European nations are nations of eternal war. All their energies are expended in the destruction of the labor, property and lives of their people. On our part, never had a people so favorable a chance of trying the opposite system, of peace and fraternity with mankind, and the direction of all our means and faculties to the purpose of improvement instead of destruction." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Monroe, 1823.

    Morality--right behavior--is the best and the safest path, and the one most conducive to peace and prosperity for individuals and for nations. The rules are simple, the evidences are obvious. It is the only reasonable course.

  • 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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