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The Jeffersonian Perspective

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


Federalist No. 10 & Thomas Jefferson

There exists a gross misunderstanding of the term "democracy" and how it applies to our form of government. Let's begin with what the word means: it is essentially a general term, and is defined as:

Notice that the basic definition of democracy is just a "government by the people." Notice also that a more specific definition includes a government by representatives of the people. To say that the Founding Fathers were opposed to democracy is absurd. Their whole purpose was to establish government by the people. They called their government a "republic," which is a form of democracy, but it is not a "pure" democracy. Confusion arises when "democracy," a generic term, is equated with "PURE democracy," a specific kind of democracy which ours is not. James Madison outlined the problems with democracies in his Federalist Paper #10.

Federalist No. 10 is often cited as support by those who oppose democracy and majority rule. Nothing could be a more erroneous interpretation of this famous document, which was written to explain the new Constitution. Madison's intention was to show that the republican form of government established under the new Constitution was stable and would avoid the pitfalls encountered by other forms of popular government, especially "pure" democracies. He drew a distinction between a republic and a pure democracy when he wrote, "A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place..." and then, "Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy..." Both terms, "democracy" and "republic," are sometimes used interchangeably and should be defined (as Madison did) for clarity's sake. Jefferson used the term "republic" even when speaking of a pure democracy!

If anything, Madison examined the function of democracy in the new republic and showed that democratic/republican government could be stable and just. Rather than opposing majority rule, he demonstrated how the Constitution was so designed as to insure that majority rule functioned properly and in the best interests of the whole nation.

Although Thomas Jefferson was a mentor to James Madison, the views of Madison were by no means a carbon copy of Jefferson's. There were slight differences, even on some of the points covered in Federalist No. 10; nevertheless, they clearly agreed on the broad outlines. We will look first at Madison's essay, and then consider the related views of Jefferson.

The basic problem that Madison addressed was the danger of factions in a democratic government, and the way this danger could be cured, i.e., how the government could be organized so as to prevent factions from undermining the purposes of good government.

A faction is a group of citizens with interests that are adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the best interests of the whole nation. Because of the nature of man, such groups are inevitable. Moreover, in a free society, they are unavoidable, because they result from the different interests and opinions that arise from persons differently situated, especially with respect to the ownership of property.

The first major point Madison made is that if a faction is in the minority, the ordinary operation of republican government, in which the will of the majority decides the outcome, insures that the faction will not prevail. Thus, he left no doubt of his support for majority rule. But problems arise if the faction itself occupies the majority; and although he does not withdraw support for majority rule in such cases, he does describe in detail the mechanisms in the American republic that will serve to prevent a factious majority from arising. It is at this point that Madison makes his famous statement in condemnation of PURE democracies, which are particularly susceptible to the formation of factious majorities:

    "...such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."

When this passage is quoted, the word "such" is often omitted, making it seem like a condemnation of all democracies. But an examination of the passage in the context of the very paragraph from which it is extracted reveals that "such" unquestionably refers to "A PURE DEMOCRACY," which Madison defines as "a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person." There is "no cure for the mischiefs of factions" in such small democracies because it frequently happens that "a common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole," they will act together, and there is nothing to check their inclinations to "sacrifice the weaker party." They will, in other words, tend to 'gang up' on the minority.

Obviously, that form of PURE democracy is not the government of the United States of America. The new Constitutional government established a republic, which Madison defines as "a government in which the scheme of representation takes place." It avoids the tendency towards factious majorities that occurs in PURE democracies through two basic mechanisms: (1) representative government, and (2) the great extent of the republic itself.

(1) The representative principle controls the effect of factions because citizens will choose their more worthy members to represent them in governmental bodies, and these can be expected to be the least likely to sacrifice the best interests of the whole nation to baser factional interests.

(2) The great extent of the republic controls the effect of factions because it is far less likely that cabals will arise amongst representatives from a wide-spread geographic area. A larger number of citizens also would tend to provide a wider selection of fit candidates for office, and the larger number of voters insures greater diversity and makes it much more likely that they will pursue interests that accrue to the benefit of all rather than to a narrow faction. A variety of interests amongst the electorate helps insure that no one interest group will achieve predominance.

That, basically, is Madison's argument. It is clear that he is in no way opposed to popular (democratic) government, nor to decisions being made by the majority. His concern was that these decisions be made in the best interests of the whole, and that narrow factional interests be eliminated by a system that gives greater effect to the interests of the whole people. In no way would he deny the people of the nation their right to make a choice based on the will of the majority. It is also clear that the protection from factions is not absolute; it relies on mechanisms that are least likely to result in a sacrifice of the best interest of the whole nation. But it is a reasonable and well-founded protection, and more likely to produce good government than a system that would deliberately put governmental powers in the hands of an established faction (such as a monarchy, dictatorship, or aristocracy), which is the only other alternative.

    Jefferson's Views on Popular Government

Thomas Jefferson was apparently much more sanguine about the prospects for democracy, even pure democracy, than James Madison. This might be explained in part by the fact that he never directly addressed the problem that Madison covered in his Federalist No. 10, i.e., factions. He was more concerned about tyranny in government than about factions within the citizenry, and believed that the people as a whole were the best protection against tyranny. Jefferson rarely used the term "democracy," and more often used the term "republic," even referring to "pure" republics.

    "It must be acknowledged that the term "republic" is of very vague application in every language... Were I to assign to this term a precise and definite idea, I would say purely and simply it means a government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally according to rules established by the majority; and that every other government is more or less republican in proportion as it has in its composition more or less of this ingredient of direct action of the citizens." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816.

For Jefferson, then, a pure republic and a pure democracy are quite the same. Instead of focusing on the tendency towards factions in a pure republic/democracy, Jefferson instead focused on the impracticableness of a "pure republic" for a great nation, for he went on to say:

    "Such a government is evidently restrained to very narrow limits of space and population. I doubt if it would be practicable beyond the extent of a New England township." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816.

Notice that his favorable view of the pure republic considers it as limited to a relatively small township. And we should bear in mind also that such a township is not the sole or principle governing authority, but exists as a subordinate government under a much larger republic. Hence, there is little danger within such townships of any gross violations of the rights of others by factions, and little chance that such factions could, in any significant way, act against the best interests of the whole society. The scope of their power is too limited.

Jefferson goes on to imply that this pure republic is just an ideal, and is incapable of substantial existence, for when he describes the more evolved forms of a republic, he refers to the pure form as not being able to "sustain life of itself."

    "The first shade from this pure element which, like that of pure vital air cannot sustain life of itself, would be where the powers of the government, being divided, should be exercised each by representatives chosen either pro hac vice, or for such short terms as should render secure the duty of expressing the will of their constituents. This I should consider as the nearest approach to a pure republic which is practicable on a large scale of country or population. And we have examples of it in some of our State constitutions which, if not poisoned by priest-craft, would prove its excellence over all mixtures with other elements; and with only equal doses of poison, would still be the best." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816.

Thus, Jefferson strongly suggests that the closer we get to the ideal of a pure republic, the better. This element of popular control becomes the gauge whereby we judge how "republican" a government truly is.

    "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." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816. ME 15:23

Apparently, Jefferson believed that the enlightened citizenry of a pure republic would not be so inevitably subject to the destructive factions that Madison described in Federalist No. 10 (see above). In fact, Jefferson suggested that a republican form of government without a due degree of popular control was no panacea, and lumped such governments along with monarchies(!) as channels of oppression.

    "Societies exist under three forms, sufficiently distinguishable. 1. Without government, as among our Indians. 2. Under governments, wherein the will of everyone has a just influence; as is the case in England, in a slight degree, and in our States, in a great one. 3. Under governments of force; as is the case in all other monarchies, and in most of the other republics. To have an idea of the curse of existence under these last, they must be seen. It is a government of wolves over sheep." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787.

The first form -- most similar to a pure republic -- he views favorably, but still believes it to be impracticable.

    "It is a problem not clear in my mind that the first condition is not the best. But I believe it to be inconsistent with any great degree of population."

In pursuing this ideal, Jefferson always sought to include the citizenry in government to the greatest extent practicable.

    "Action by the citizens in person, in affairs within their reach and competence, and in all others by representatives, chosen immediately, and removable by themselves, constitutes the essence of a republic... All governments are more or less republican in proportion as this principle enters more or less into their composition." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816.

Clearly, Jefferson believed that the safest and best government is had when the ordinary citizens have the maximum practicable control over it.

    "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 John Taylor, 1816.

Looking at the organization of government in the United States, Jefferson believed that it was not as "republican" as he might have wished.

    "If, then, the control of the people over the organs of their government be the measure of its republicanism, and I confess I know no other measure, it must be agreed that our governments have much less of republicanism than ought to have been expected; in other words, that the people have less regular control over their agents, than their rights and their interests require. And this I ascribe, not to any want of republican dispositions in those who formed these constitutions, but to a submission of true principle to European authorities, to speculators on government, whose fears of the people have been inspired by the populace of their own great cities, and were unjustly entertained against the independent, the happy, and therefore orderly citizens of the United States." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816.

Here, as on numerous occasions, Jefferson expresses his lack of fear of the people and their participation in government.

    "I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816.

Indeed, he saw the people themselves as the chief guardian against corruption.

    "No government can continue good, but under the control of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1819.

For Jefferson, the weak spot in his popular government was the spirit and enlightenment of the people. The problem of factions does not seem to figure into the equation.

    "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 William C. Jarvis, 1820.

He did not feel that the people would deliberately undermine free government if they had the proper level of instruction.

    "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 A. Coray, 1823.

All governments make errors and do wrong things, and a government of the people will not be an exception to the rule. But the errors of the people will be far less grievous and far easier of correction than the oppressions and abuses of other forms of government.

    Jefferson and Factions

Madison was concerned to show that the republican form of government which the Constitution established would not be subject to the majority factions that frequently beset a pure democracy, and would be inclined to result in a government that functioned in the best interests of the whole nation. And as we know, government does not always so function. Jefferson on the other hand, with his greater attention to citizen participation, recognized that government would not always do what is right, but viewed that as correctable error.

    "Whenever our affairs go obviously wrong, the good sense of the people will interpose and set them to rights." --Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, 1789.

    "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 Richard Price, 1789.

Weighing the two together, a government of the people that acts wrong occasionally is better than one in which the people are not afforded the privilege of being wrong.

    "It has been said that our governments, both federal and particular, want energy; that it is difficult to restrain both individuals and States from committing wrong. This is true, and it is an inconvenience. On the other hand, that energy which absolute governments derive from an armed force, which is the effect of the bayonet constantly held at the breast of every citizen and which resembles very much the stillness of the grave, must be admitted also to have its inconveniences. We weigh the two together and like best to submit to the former. Compare the number of wrongs committed with impunity by citizens among us with those committed by the sovereign in other countries, and the last will be found most numerous, most oppressive on the mind, and most degrading of the dignity of man." --Thomas Jefferson to Jean Nicholas Demeunier, 1786.

Thus for Jefferson, occasional wrong was something that we must live with, rather than submit to a government that inevitably and irretrievably creates oppressive conditions.

    "We are sensible of the duty and expediency of submitting our opinions to the will of the majority, and can wait with patience till they get right if they happen to be at any time wrong." --Thomas Jefferson to James Breckenridge, 1800.

Those wrongs might be inconvenient; but the factious wrongs committed in other countries accrue to the interests of those factions that control the government, and they will never have an interest in correcting such wrongs.

    Majority Rule in a Republic

The truth of the matter is, the majority of the people does not ever actually rule except in a pure democracy (although the decisions of juries could be consider a form of "rule"). In the republican form of government, the majority chooses the rulers who then rule on their behalf. Moreover, the American republic as created by the Constitution has certain limitations built into it which the people, in effect, have placed upon themselves that are not easily changed. This is especially needed for at least two reasons: (1) it being a representative democracy, the leeway which that form of government allows to the representatives is best kept in check to prevent their too easily adopting fundamental changes that might go beyond the wishes of the ultimate sovereign, i.e., the people; and (2) it is prudent that any fundamental changes be made slowly to help ensure that they are not dictated by the passing whims of the moment. Thus, the basic form of the government, and especially its protections for civil rights, while changeable, are very difficult to change. And this means that, while a tyranny of the majority over the minority is not impossible, it is highly unlikely for all practical purposes. With regard to the amendment process chosen for the Federal Constitution, Madison wrote in Federalist No. 43:

    "The mode preferred by the convention seems to be stamped with every mark of propriety. It guards equally against that extreme facility, which would render the constitution too mutable; and that extreme difficulty, which might perpetuate its discovered faults."

Jefferson's chief concern was that the Federal Constitution keep pace with change.

    "Those who [advocate] reformation of institutions pari passu with the progress of science [maintain] that no definite limits [can] be assigned to that progress. The enemies of reform, on the other hand, [deny] improvement and [advocate] steady adherence to the principles, practices and institutions of our fathers, which they [represent] as the consummation of wisdom and acme of excellence, beyond which the human mind could never advance." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813.

Jefferson never specified what kinds of changes he might anticipate, since his acceptance of change embraced the principle of change itself; he was not concerned so much with the specific forms it might take, provided there was an adherence to basic inalienable rights.

    "A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man." --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:48

The thought that a rising generation would return to the forms of despotism was inconceivable to him, however.

    "The generation which is going off the stage has deserved well of mankind for the struggles it has made and for having arrested that course of despotism which had overwhelmed the world for thousands and thousands of years. If there seems to be danger that the ground they have gained will be lost again, that danger comes from the [upcoming] generation. But that the enthusiasm which characterizes youth should lift its parricide hands against freedom and science would be such a monstrous phenomenon as I cannot place among possible things in this age and this country." --Thomas Jefferson to William Green Mumford, 1799.

The will of the people, expressed through their majority, was fully recognized by both Madison and Jefferson as the ultimate ruling force, the ultimate sovereign. And the elaborate form of government that provides for the overseeing of the government by the people has worked reasonably well for this purpose.

The danger that the people of a nation would vote themselves benefits from the public treasury and thus bankrupt the nation is a modern invention. It is a scarecrow erected by those who would destroy democratic government. Where has it happened? People can only say (through their bias) it is happening right now. But this is just a complaint any faction would throw down in any case that goes against their own interests. They add up the numbers, and say we are bankrupt even now. Well, we are doing quite well for a bankrupt. And if it were really true, the result would only redound to the detriment of the people themselves, for as Jefferson wrote:

    "The influence over government must be shared among all the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates of the ultimate authority, the government will be safe, because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth, and public ones cannot be provided but by levies on the people. In this case every man would have to pay his own price." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782.

The public resources of wealth "cannot be provided but by levies on the people" -- and those levies would be either in the form of taxation or inflation. But we should not be deterred by such objections.

    "Lay down true principles and adhere to them inflexibly. Do not be frightened into their surrender by the alarms of the timid, or the croakings of wealth against the ascendency of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816.

The opponents of government by the people will always find reasons for denying the people their rights. Apparently, living in the richest nation that has ever existed in the history of the world is not good enough for them.


The views of Jefferson and Madison, while not coinciding, were complementary. Madison sought to explain how the government under the new Constitution served to prevent the formation of factions; Jefferson's chief concern was the correction of the wrongful acts produced by whatever factions that might occur in spite of the Constitutional protections. Madison implied that the protection against majority factions was not absolute: that they "would be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union." Our republican system tends towards greater stability, and history has demonstrated the truth of his assessment. Jefferson argued for the inclusion of the people in every function of government where they were competent. Taking Madison and Jefferson together, we find we can actually enjoy the benefits of both: our representative system, where necessary for practicable reasons, insures stability and a tendency to act on behalf of the whole nation; citizen participation to the greatest extent possible insures honesty and the safety of our rights. The two concepts complement each other and work together to produce good government to the greatest extent possible.

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

© 1997 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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