The Jeffersonian Perspective

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


A Government for the Congo

The overthrowing of Mobutu in Zaire opens the possibility for the establishment in that impoverished nation of a new government that might be more conducive to the welfare and happiness of its citizens. But will it happen? And even if the leader of the insurgents, Laurent Kabila, sincerely wants to bring good government to these people, what can he do? How should he go about it?

These problems were addressed directly by Jefferson with reference to the oppressed people of his time, and many of his other writings are relevant to the fundamental issues involved. It should be interesting, therefore, to examine this problem from the Jeffersonian perspective and to discover what his prescription would be for a newly-liberated nation honestly seeking to establish a just government.

The former government of Mobutu presented a classic case of political exploitation and corruption. Jefferson described the struggle for power and the opportunities seized to exploit a whole nation of people for personal gain - the process whereby rogues such as Mobutu rise to the top. As he wrote,

    "I do not believe with the Rochefoucaults and the Montaignes that fourteen out of fifteen men are rogues. I believe a great abatement from that proportion may be made in favor of general honesty. But I have always found that rogues would be uppermost, and I do not know that the proportion is too strong for the higher orders and for those who, rising above the swinish multitude, always contrive to nestle themselves into the places of power and profit. These rogues set out with stealing the people's good opinion and then steal from them the right of withdrawing it by contriving laws and associations against the power of the people themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to Mann Page, 1795.

Some things never change, and those who would wrest political power for personal gain employ always those same tactics. At the beginning of the African independence movement after World War II, there were high hopes that a nation as rich in natural resources as the Congo would be able to lift itself up, both politically and economically. But what was overlooked were the crucial elements required that Jefferson pointed out in his analysis of the problems of pre-revolutionary France:

    "It is difficult to conceive how so good a people, with so good a King [as Louis XVI of France], so well-disposed rulers in general, so genial a climate, so fertile a soil, should be rendered so ineffectual for producing human happiness by one single curse--that of a bad form of government. But it is a fact; in spite of the mildness of their governors, the people are ground to powder by the vices of the form of government. Of twenty millions of people supposed to be in France, I am of opinion there are nineteen millions more wretched, more accursed in every circumstance of human existence than the most conspicuously wretched individual of the whole United States." --Thomas Jefferson to Elizabeth Trist, 1785.

In spite of all the assets and resources a nation might have, the one thing that will prevent those assets and resources from being employed towards the happiness of a nation's people is the form of government. Without a form of government that enables the people to exercise sovereign control, those dedicated to their own interests will seize control and then use and exploit the whole nation for their own ends. This, as Jefferson suggested, was not an isolated phenomenon, but one that will occur anytime the people fail to exercise their supervisory oversight.

    "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 Edward Carrington, 1787.

This is the way the world works, and without popular government, political power will always end up being used to exploit a nation's people.

    "Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor." -- Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787.

Unfortunately, the colonial powers that once ruled in places like the Congo were themselves only interested in exploitation. They did nothing to prepare the people of those countries for self-government. When the colonial powers were finally removed, the stage was set for ruthless dictators to take over in the ensuing chaos. In the Congo, Mobutu was, if anything, more ruthless and exploitative than the former colonial rulers. Whereas the nation had some semblance of infrastructure before independence, all of that was allowed to deteriorate as Mobutu extracted billions to add to his private fortune.

    What Can Be Done?

The take-over by Kabila offers the hope and opportunity for a new beginning, with the possibility of a government that will enable the Congo to experience economic growth and a better life for its people. To bring this about, however, certain steps need to be taken, and Jefferson provides an outline of what these must be. Certainly, the first step - the overthrow and complete removal of despotism - is absolutely necessary. Neither Mobutu nor any of his cronies has a rightful place in a transitional government.

    "When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce the people under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration of Independence, 1776.

The United States, along with other members of the international community, are pressuring Kabila to have open, fair and free elections. Certainly, elections are important as a means for securing democracy, for as Jefferson wrote:

    "[It is] by their votes the people exercise their sovereignty." --Thomas Jefferson: written note in Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws.

But elections are the be-all and end-all of party politics, not of democracy. Democracy means self-government, i.e., government by the people. After having supported Mobutu through years of misrule, the United States is now trying to force a form of party politics on the Congo that is not necessarily in that nation's best interests. The U.S. followed policies that cared only about political situations (Mobutu was anti-communist) and nothing about the life of the people, and the U.S. is again pursuing policies that continue to revolve around politics, not people. Apparently, those who set policy in Washington are not aware of the true dynamics of a free society.

Multi-party politics are essential for exposing the violations of the constitution by the party in power. But their existence can be divisive and unsettling, especially in a newly formed nation, if they place holding political power above the welfare of the people and the nation itself.

    "Were parties here divided merely by a greediness for office, take a part with either would be unworthy of a reasonable or moral man." --Thomas Jefferson to William Branch Giles, 1795.

One of the problems with establishing democracy in a nation like the Congo is the existence of tribal hatreds, such as that between the Hutus and the Tutsis, and the desire for revenge on the part of groups whose members have been massacred by opposing groups. Such opposing sentiments often become the basis of party differences, and that in turn creates opposition that is divisive and that has no concept of measures for the general welfare of the whole nation. Such party divisions are a problem in any democracy, and the restoration of harmony, not the exploitation of differences, is the mark of a genuine republican leader.

    "To restore... harmony,... to render us again one people acting as one nation should be the object of every man really a patriot." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas McKean, 1801.

Therefore, moving a whole people towards unity and away from party and tribal divisions must be a #1 goal of any leader in a new democratic republic.

This is what Jefferson had to say about a nation seeking to establish a free society. In general, Jefferson doesn't have too much to offer for a nation overcome by corruption. A good, secure government depends on the spirit of the people, and if that spirit is lacking, they are almost without hope.

    "What could [a virtuous ruler do]... to lead his fellow citizens into good government?... If [the] people indeed [are,] like ourselves, enlightened, peaceable, and really free, the answer would be obvious. 'Restore independence to all your foreign conquests, relieve [the nation] from the government of the rabble... consult it as a nation entitled to self-government, and do its will.' But [if] the whole nation [is] steeped in corruption, vice and venality,... what could even [such a leader do], had it been referred to [him] to establish a good government for [his] country?... No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and [if the] people [are] so demoralized and depraved as to be incapable of exercising a wholesome control,... [then] their reformation [must] be take up ab incunabulis. Their minds [must] be informed by education what is right and what wrong; [they must] be encouraged in habits of virtue and deterred from those of vice by the dread of punishments proportioned, indeed, but irremissible; in all cases, [they must] eschew error, which bewilders us in one false consequence after another in endless succession. These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure of order and good government. But this would [be] an operation of a generation or two at least, within which period [might succeed] many [tyrants] who would [quash] the whole process. I confess, then, I can neither see what [a group of leaders] united and uncontrolled could [devise] to lead their people into good government, nor how this enigma can be solved." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1819.

Notice Jefferson says nothing about holding elections as a first priority, as the most essential element for establishing and maintaining democracy. There must be a concerted action to educate and enlighten the people so that they can be the mainstay of good government. Establishing government by the people is more important than establishing multi-party political elections. If the people are "so demoralized and depraved as to be incapable of exercising a wholesome control," then their reformation must be taken up from the very beginning: education, the rule of law, the elimination of erroneous notions. The people of the Congo seem to be hoping for a benevolent dictator who will give them all the benefits of a free society without their having to make the effort necessary to ensure it themselves. This, perhaps, is one of the first notions that a virtuous leader must dispel.

In another place, Jefferson speaks to what is needed to reform government and to create a transition to popular control. This was written with especial reference to France, but it is applicable to any nation emerging from despotism.

    "[In order to ensure] a successful reformation of government,... I [would urge] most strenuously an immediate compromise to secure what the [present] government was now ready to yield, and trust to future occasions for what might still be wanting,... [if it] would grant... 1. Freedom of the person by habeas corpus. 2. Freedom of conscience. 3. Freedom of the press. 4. Trial by jury. 5. A representative legislature [with:] 6. Annual meetings. 7. The origination of laws. 8. The exclusive right of taxation and appropriation. And 9. The responsibility of ministers. And with the exercise of these powers they would obtain in future whatever might be further necessary to improve and preserve their constitution." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821.

Thus we see in the passages above an outline of the steps that must be taken to put a nation like the Congo on the road to freedom and prosperity. By establishing certain minimum attributes of good government, that government itself would be in a position to establish whatever was needed for the future. In pursuing such a path, the need for a leader with integrity is paramount.

    "The services [are needed] of [a] great leader whose talents and whose weight of character [are] peculiarly necessary to get the government so under way as that it may afterwards be carried on by subordinate characters." --Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, 1789.

Such a leader must carefully guide the nation, putting upon them only those burdens of responsibility that they are capable of bearing.

    "Should [reformers] attempt more than the established habits of the people are ripe for, they may lose all and retard indefinitely the ultimate object of their aim." --Thomas Jefferson to Mme de Tesse, Mar 20, 1787.

It is not possible to follow exactly another nation (such as the U.S.) and use it as a model, since every people are different, and a proper government must be determined by the spirit of its people.

    "What is practicable must often control what is pure theory; and the habits of the governed determine in a great degree what is practicable. Hence the same original principles, modified in practice according to the different habits of different nations, present governments of very different aspects." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1802.

There are any number of other details that should be listed for securing a nation on the path to good government. The above describes a basic beginning that might offer hope for a newly emerging nation on the path of freedom. Below is an outline of governmental features that Jefferson has enumerated throughout his writings, and that are essentials for establishing good and just government.

    Other Earmarks of a Free Society

In the course of his discussion of the principles of good government, Jefferson mentioned a number of elements that are essential for a free society. The following are in addition to those already mentioned above.

1. A written constitution is needed to establish the lawful bounds beyond which government may not go.

    "[The purpose of a written constitution is] to bind up the several branches of government by certain laws, which, when they transgress, their acts shall become nullities; to render unnecessary an appeal to the people, or in other words a rebellion, on every infraction of their rights, on the peril that their acquiescence shall be construed into an intention to surrender those rights." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782.

2. The people are entitled to a Bill of Rights that will guarantee to them the powers they need to exercise ultimate control over government and the freedoms they need to pursue their own happiness.

    "A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular; and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inferences." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787.

3. A constitution with strict limits will fasten chains on power and, with the help of separate branches of government, can prevent any part of government from exceeding its rightful powers.

    "I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground: That "all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people." [X Amendment] To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition." --Thomas Jefferson: National Bank Opinion, 1791.

4. A separation of powers between the states and the federal governments will further divide the powers of government and make it nearly impossible for any person or group to seize despotic powers.

    "It is a fatal heresy to suppose that either our State governments are superior to the Federal or the Federal to the States. The people, to whom all authority belongs, have divided the powers of government into two distinct departments, the leading characters of which are foreign and domestic; and they have appointed for each a distinct set of functionaries. These they have made coordinate, checking and balancing each other like the three cardinal departments in the individual States; each equally supreme as to the powers delegated to itself, and neither authorized ultimately to decide what belongs to itself or to its copartner in government." -- Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1821.

5. Rotation in the office of President will prevent the person holding executive power from establishing a dynasty, and from depriving the people of their oversight.

    "If some period be not fixed, either by the Constitution or by practice, to the services of the First Magistrate, his office, though nominally elective, will in fact be for life; and that will soon degenerate into an inheritance." --Thomas Jefferson to Mr. Weaver, 1807.

6. An independent judiciary will act as a check on the other branches of government and ensure that officials remain within their constitutional powers.

    "The dignity and stability of government in all its branches, the morals of the people and every blessing of society depend so much upon an upright and skillful administration of justice, that the judicial power ought to be distinct from both the legislative and executive and independent upon both, that so it may be a check upon both, as both should be checks upon that." --Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, 1776.

7. A literacy requirement for voting prevents the undermining of government by an easily manipulated rabble.

    "[The] provision [in the new constitution of Spain] which... after a certain epoch, disfranchises every citizen who cannot read and write... is the fruitful germ of the improvement of everything good and the correction of everything imperfect in the present constitution. This will give you an enlightened people and an energetic public opinion which will control and enchain the aristocratic spirit of the government." --Thomas Jefferson to Chevalier de Ouis, 1814.

8. Publicly supported education is absolutely necessary in order to develop citizens who will be able to exercise their sovereignty.

    "I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1810.

9. Civilian control of the military will prevent the military from undermining lawful republican government.

    "The supremacy of the civil over the military authority I deem [one of] the essential principles of our Government, and consequently [one of] those which ought to shape its administration." -- Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801.

10. No standing armies in time of peace will prevent elected officials from pursuing unlawful measures and sanctioning them with force.

    "There are instruments so dangerous to the rights of the nation and which place them so totally at the mercy of their governors that those governors, whether legislative or executive, should be restrained from keeping such instruments on foot but in well-defined cases. Such an instrument is a standing army." --Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, 1789.

11. A trained militia consisting of every able-bodied citizen will provide the first line of defense for the nation. The control of the militia by the state governments will prevent the overthrow of constitutional government by central forces.

    "We must train and classify the whole of our male citizens, and make military instruction a regular part of collegiate education. We can never be safe till this is done." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1813.

12. Securing property rights is an absolutely essential measure to ensure the peaceful pursuit of prosperity by all citizens.

    "The first foundations of the social compact would be broken up were we definitely to refuse to its members the protection of their persons and property while in their lawful pursuits." --Thomas Jefferson to James Maury, 1812.

13. Protecting freedom of religion is essential to maintain peace and to prevent despotic control by religious ideologues.

    "Among the most inestimable of our blessings is that... of liberty to worship our Creator in the way we think most agreeable to His will; a liberty deemed in other countries incompatible with good government and yet proved by our experience to be its best support." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Baptist Address, 1807.

14. Allowing opposing political parties ensures that unlawful measures will be combated and that designs against liberty will be exposed.

    "In every free and deliberating society, there must, from the nature of man, be opposite parties, and violent dissensions and discords; and one of these, for the most part, must prevail over the other for a longer or shorter time." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1798.

15. When all political authority is responsible to the people, the people will then be able to reform government peacefully at the ballot box.

    "Unless the mass retains sufficient control over those entrusted with the powers of their government, these will be perverted to their own oppression, and to the perpetuation of wealth and power in the individuals and their families selected for the trust. Whether our Constitution has hit on the exact degree of control necessary, is yet under experiment." --Thomas Jefferson to M. van der Kemp, 1812.

The above is an outline of Jeffersonian principles necessary for a new government aimed at producing a free society. There are many details that could be added, but these cover the main points. During its formative stage, a new nation would do well to be under the protection of one of the great international powers, as this would enable it to concentrate on internal matters and not need to worry about invasions of its borders from neighboring powers.

Many of the elements necessary for the Congo to succeed are in place, but the path will be difficult. Laurent Kabila seems to want to establish a government that will bring political stability and prosperity to this long-suffering people. We of the United States wish him well, for as Jefferson wrote,

    "That we should wish to see the people of other countries free is as natural and at least as justifiable as that one King should wish to see the Kings of other countries maintained in their despotism." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1817.

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

© 1997 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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