Thomas Jefferson



=The Constitution=

"Aware of the tendency of power to degenerate into abuse, the
worthies of our country have secured its independence by the
establishment of a Constitution and form of government for our
nation, calculated to prevent as well as to correct abuse." 
--Thomas Jefferson to Washington Tammany Society, 1809.

"[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.  Q.XIII

"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." [10th 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.

"The foundation on which all [our State constitutions] are built 
is the natural equality of man, the denial of every pre-eminence 
but that annexed to legal office and particularly the denial of a
pre-eminence by birth." --Thomas Jefferson to George  Washington, 

"The principles of our Constitution are wisely opposed to all
perpetuations of power, and to every practice which may lead to
hereditary establishments." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Address,

"Though written constitutions may be violated in moments of
passion or delusion, yet they furnish a text to which those who 
are watchful may again rally and recall the people.  They fix, 
too, for the people the principles of their political creed." 
--Thomas Jefferson to Joseph  Priestley, 1802.

"Whenever the General Government assumes undelegated powers, 
its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force." --Thomas 
Jefferson: Kentucky Resolutions, 1798.

"It [is] inconsistent with the principles of civil liberty, and contrary 
to the natural rights of the other members of the society, that any 
body of men therein should have authority to enlarge their own 
powers... without restraint." --Thomas Jefferson: Virginia  Allowance 
Bill, 1778.

"The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as
are injurious to others." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782.

"Laws provide against injury from others, but not from
ourselves." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Religion, 1776?

"In questions of power...let no more be heard of confidence in
man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the
Constitution." --Thomas Jefferson: Kentucky Resolutions, 1798.

"Confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism.  Free
government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence."
--Thomas Jefferson: Draft, Kentucky Resolutions, 1798.

"It is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited 
constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust 
with power.  Our Constitution has accordingly fixed the 
limits to which, and no further, our confidence may go."
--Thomas Jefferson: Draft, Kentucky Resolutions, 1798.

"Is confidence or discretion, or is STRICT LIMIT, the principle
of our Constitution?" --Thomas Jefferson to Jedidiah  Morse, 1822.

"Leave no authority existing not responsible to the people."
--Thomas Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1816.

"The elective franchise, if guarded as the ark of our safety, will
peaceably dissipate all combinations to subvert a Constitution,
dictated by the wisdom, and resting on the will of the people."
--Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin  Waring, 1801.

"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.

"I disapproved from the first moment... the want of a bill of 
rights [in the new Constitution] to guard liberty against the 
legislative as well as the executive branches of the government." 
--Thomas Jefferson to Francis  Hopkinson, 1789.

"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.

"A bill of rights [will] guard liberty against the legislative as 
well as the executive branches of the government." --Thomas 
Jefferson to Francis  Hopkinson, 1789.

"In the arguments in favor of a declaration of rights, one which 
has great weight with me [is] the legal check which it puts into 
the hands of the judiciary." --Thomas Jefferson to James  Madison, 

"By a declaration of rights, I mean one which shall stipulate 
freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of commerce 
against monopolies, trial by juries in all cases, no suspensions 
of the habeas corpus, no standing armies.  These are fetters 
against doing evil which no honest government should decline." 
--Thomas Jefferson to Alexander  Donald, 1788.

"I sincerely wish we could see our government so secured as to 
depend less on the character of the person in whose hands it is 
trusted.  Bad men will sometimes get in and with such an immense 
patronage may make great progress in corrupting the public mind 
and principles.  This is a subject with which wisdom and 
patriotism should be occupied." --Thomas Jefferson to Moses 
Robinson, 1801. 

=Amendments to the Constitution=

"Whatever be the Constitution, great care must be taken to provide 
a mode of amendment when experience or change of circumstances 
shall have manifested that any part of it is unadapted to the good 
of the nation." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823.

"Nothing is more likely than that [the] enumeration of powers is
defective.  This is the ordinary case of all human works.  Let us
then go on perfecting it by adding by way of amendment to the
Constitution those powers which time and trial show are still
wanting." --Thomas Jefferson to Wilson Nicholas, 1803.

"We have always a right to correct ancient errors, and to establish
what is more conformable to reason and convenience." -- Thomas
Jefferson to James Madison, 1801.

"I willingly acquiesce in the institutions of my country, perfect 
or imperfect; and think it a duty to leave their modifications to
those who are to live under them, and are to participate of the 
good or evil they may produce.  The present generation has the 
same right of self-government which the past one has exercised 
for itself." --Thomas Jefferson to John Hampden Pleasants, 1824.

"The precept is wise which directs us to try all things, and hold
fast that which is good." --Thomas Jefferson to William Drayton, 1788.

"Let us go on perfecting the Constitution by adding, by way of
amendment, those forms which time and trial show are still
wanting." --Thomas Jefferson to Wilson Nicholas, 1803.

"The real friends of the Constitution in its federal form, if they
wish it to be immortal, should be attentive, by amendments, to
make it keep pace with the advance of the age in science and 
experience.  Instead of this, the European governments have
resisted reformation, until the people, seeing no other resource,
undertake it themselves by force, their only weapon, and work it
out through blood, desolation and long-continued anarchy."
--Thomas Jefferson to Robert J. Garnett, 1824.

"Our children will be as wise as we are and will establish in the 
fulness of time those things not yet ripe for establishment." 
--Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1810. 

"Can one generation bind another and all others in succession 
forever?  I think not.  The Creator has made the earth for the 
living, not for the dead.  Rights and powers can only belong to 
persons, not to things, not to mere matter unendowed with will." 
--Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824.

"I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes
in laws and constitutions, I think moderate imperfections had
better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate 
ourselves to them and find practical means of correcting their 
ill effects.  But I know, also, that laws and institutions must 
go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.  As that 
becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are 
made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with 
the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and 
keep pace with the times." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 

"We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which
fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under
the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." --Thomas Jefferson to
Samuel Kercheval, 1816.

"It is more honorable to repair a wrong than to persist in it."
--Thomas Jefferson: Address to Cherokee Nation, 1806.

"Happily for us, that when we find our constitutions defective 
and insufficient to secure the happiness of our people, we can
assemble with all the coolness of philosophers, and set them to 
rights, while every other nation on earth must have recourse to
arms to amend or to restore their constitutions." --Thomas
Jefferson to C. W. F. Dumas, 1787.


"Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written
Constitution.  Let us not make it a blank paper by construction."
--Thomas Jefferson to Wilson Nicholas, 1803.

"The true key for the construction of everything doubtful in a law,
is the intention of the law givers.  This is most safely gathered
from the words, but may be sought also in extraneous circumstances,
provided they do not contradict the express words of the law." 
--Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1808.

"On every question of construction, carry ourselves back to the
time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit
manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning 
may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform 
to the probable one in which it was passed." --Thomas Jefferson 
to William Johnson, 1823

"I had rather ask an enlargement of power from the nation, where
it is found necessary, than to assume it by a construction which
would make our powers boundless." --Thomas Jefferson to Wilson 
Nicholas, 1803.

=Separation of Powers: Federal and State=

"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.

"The true barriers of our liberty are our State governments; and
the wisest conservative power ever contrived by man, is that of
which our Revolution and present government found us possessed." 
--Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811.

"I have always thought that where the line of demarcation between 
the powers of the General and the State governments was doubtfully
or indistinctly drawn, it would be prudent and praiseworthy in 
both parties, never to approach it but under the most urgent 
necessity." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1814.

"The States should be left to do whatever acts they can do as well
as the General Government." --Thomas Jefferson to John Harvie,

"The way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all
to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one
exactly the function he is competent to.  Let the National 
Government be entrusted with the defense of the nation and its
foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the 
civil rights, laws, police, and administration of what concerns 
the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the 
counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself.  It 
is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great 
national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends 
in the administration of every man's farm by himself; by placing 
under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will 
be done for the best." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1816.

"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 Virginia, 

"What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every
government which has ever existed under the sun?  The generalizing
and concentrating all cares and powers into one body, no matter 
whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or of the 
aristocrats of a Venetian Senate." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. 
Cabell, 1816.

"When all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great
things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, 
it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on
another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the
government from which we separated." --Thomas Jefferson to 
Charles Hammond, 1821.

"The concentrating [all the powers of government, legislative,
executive and judiciary] in the same hands is precisely the
definition of despotic government.  It will be no alleviation that 
these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by 
a single one." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782.

"One precedent in favor of power is stronger than an hundred 
against it." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782.

"Where powers are assumed which have not been delegated, a 
nullification of the act is the rightful remedy." --Thomas 
Jefferson: Kentucky Resolutions, 1798.

"[If] it [were] assumed that the general government has a right to 
exercise all powers which may be for the 'general welfare,' that 
[would include] all the legitimate powers of government, since no 
government has a legitimate right to do what is not for the 
welfare of the governed." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 

"I do verily believe that..a single, consolidated government would
become the most corrupt government on the earth." --Thomas
Jefferson to Gideon Granger, 1800.

"It is a happy circumstance in human affairs that evils which are 
not cured in one way will cure themselves in some other." --Thomas 
Jefferson to John Sinclair, 1791.

"On every unauthoritative exercise of power by the legislature 
must the people rise in rebellion or their silence be construed 
into a surrender of that power to them?  If so, how many 
rebellions should we have had already?" --Thomas Jefferson: Notes 
on Virginia, 1782.

"The peculiar happiness of our blessed system is that in 
differences of opinion between these different sets of servants, 
the appeal is to neither, but to their employers peaceably 
assembled by their representatives in convention.  This is more 
rational than the jus fortioris, or the canon's mouth, the ultima 
et sola ratio regum." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1821.

=Separation of Powers in the Federal Branches=

"If the three powers maintain their mutual independence on each 
other our Government may last long, but not so if either can 
assume the authorities of the other." --Thomas Jefferson to William 
Charles Jarvis, 1820.

"The interference of the Executive can rarely be proper where that 
of the Judiciary is so." --Thomas Jefferson to George Hammond, 

"Mankind soon learn to make interested uses of every right and 
power which they possess or may assume.  The public money and 
public liberty, intended to have been deposited with three 
branches of magistracy but found inadvertently to be in the hands 
of one only, will soon be discovered to be sources of wealth and 
dominion to those who hold them; distinguished, too, by this 
tempting circumstance: that they are the instrument as well as the 
object of acquisition.  With money we will get men, said Caesar, 
and with men we will get money." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on 
Virginia, 1782.

"It is the old practice of despots to use a part of the people to 
keep the rest in order; and those who have once got an ascendency 
and possessed themselves of all the resources of the nation, their 
revenues and offices, have immense means for retaining their 
advantages." --Thomas Jefferson to John  Taylor, 1798.

=Elective Government=

"Elective government is...the best permanent corrective of the
errors or abuses of those entrusted with power." --Thomas
Jefferson: Reply to Address, 1801.

"The Legislative and Executive branches may sometimes err, but 
elections and dependence will bring them to rights." --Thomas 
Jefferson to Archibald Thweat, 1821.

"To insure the safety of the public liberty, its depository should
be subject to be changed with the greatest ease possible, and
without suspending or disturbing for a moment the movements of
the machine of government." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. 
Destutt de Tracy, 1811.

"If our fellow citizens... will sacrifice favoritism towards men 
for the preservation of principle, we may hope that no divisions 
will again endanger a degeneracy in our government. --Thomas 
Jefferson to Richard M. Johnson, 1808.

"The frequent recurrence of this chastening operation [of 
elections] can alone restrain the propensity of governments to 
enlarge expense beyond income." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert 
Gallatin, 1820.

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

"Experience [has] shown that, even under the best forms [of
government], those entrusted with power have, in time and by
slow operations, perverted it into tyranny." --Thomas Jefferson: 
Diffusion of Knowledge Bill, 1779.

"Should things go wrong at any time, the people will set them to
rights by the peaceable exercise of their elective rights." 
--Thomas Jefferson to Wilson Nicholas, 1806.

"The elective franchise, if guarded as the ark of our safety, will 
peaceably dissipate all combinations to subvert a Constitution, 
dictated by the wisdom, and resting on the will of the people." 
--Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waring, 1801.

"I think the best remedy is exactly that provided by all our 
constitutions: to leave to the citizens the free election and 
separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat 
from the chaff.  In general they will elect the real good and 
wise.  In some instances wealth may corrupt and birth blind them, 
but not in sufficient degree to endanger the society." --Thomas 
Jefferson to John Adams, 1813.

"It suffices for us if the moral and physical condition of our own 
citizens qualifies them to select the able and good for the 
direction of their government, with a recurrence of elections at 
such short periods as will enable them to displace an unfaithful 
servant before the mischief he mediates may be irremediable." 
--Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813.

"A jealous care of the right of election by the people--a mild and 
safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of 
revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided--I deem [one 
of] the essential principles of our Government." --Thomas 
Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801.

"In case of an abuse of the delegated powers, the members of the
General Government, being chosen by the people, a change by the
people would be the constitutional remedy." --Thomas Jefferson:
Kentucky Resolutions, 1798.

"I am for responsibilities at short periods, seeing neither reason
nor safety in making public functionaries independent of the
nation for life, or even for long terms of years." --Thomas 
Jefferson to James Martin, 1813.

"In truth, man is not made to be trusted for life if secured 
against all liability to account." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray,

"I think it is a duty in those entrusted with the administration 
of their affairs to conform themselves to the decided choice of 
their constituents." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1785.

"I love to see honest and honorable men at the helm, men who will 
not bend their politics to their purses nor pursue measures by 
which they may profit and then profit by their measures." --Thomas 
Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, 1796.

"An honest man can feel no pleasure in the exercise of power over 
his fellow citizens... Power is not alluring to pure minds and is 
not with them the primary principle of contest." --Thomas 
Jefferson to John Melish, 1813.

"Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on [offices] a rottenness 
begins in his conduct." --Thomas Jefferson to Tench Coxe, 1799.

"Men of high learning and abilities are few in every country; and 
by taking in those who are not so, the able part of the body have 
their hands tied by the unable." --Thomas Jefferson to Archibald 
Stewart, 1791.

"That there should be public functionaries independent of the
nation, whatever may be their demerit, is a solecism in a republic
of the first order of absurdity and inconsistency." --Thomas 
Jefferson to William T. Barry, 1822.

"In a free country, every power is dangerous which is not bound
up by general rules." --Thomas Jefferson to Philip Mazzei, 1785.

"It would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men
of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights. 
Confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism.  Free 
government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence."
--Thomas Jefferson: Draft, Kentucky Resolutions, 1798.

=Legislative Branch=

"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 Francis  
Gilmer, 1816.

"The representatives of the people in Congress are alone competent 
to judge of the general disposition of the people, and to what 
precise point of reformation they are ready to go." --Thomas
Jefferson to Mr. Rutherford, 1792.

"A sound spirit of legislation,... banishing all arbitrary and 
unnecessary restraint on individual action, shall leave us free to 
do whatever does not violate the equal rights of another."
 --Thomas Jefferson: Report for the University of Virginia, 1818.

"To special legislation we are generally averse lest a principle 
of favoritism should creep in and pervert that of equal rights.  
It has, however, been done on some occasions where a special 
national advantage has been expected to overweigh that of 
adherence to the general rule." --Thomas Jefferson to George 
Flower, 1817.

"If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be
otherwise in a body to which the people send one hundred and
fifty lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield 
nothing, and talk by the hour?" --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography,

"A forty years' experience of popular assemblies has taught me 
that you must give them time for every step you take.  If too hard 
pushed, they balk, and the machine retrogrades." --Thomas 
Jefferson to Joel Barlow, 1807.

"It is not only vain, but wicked in a legislator to frame laws in
opposition to the laws of nature, and to arm them with the terrors
of death.  This is truly creating crimes in order to punish them."
--Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Crimes Bill, 1779.

"History has informed us that bodies of men as well as individuals 
are susceptible of the spirit of tyranny." --Thomas Jefferson: 
Rights of British America, 1774.

"When the representative body have lost the confidence of their
constituents, when they have notoriously made sale of their most
valuable rights, when they have assumed to themselves powers 
which the people never put into their hands, then, indeed, their
continuing in office becomes dangerous to the State, and calls 
for an exercise of the power of dissolution." --Thomas Jefferson:
Rights of British America, 1774.

"The purpose of establishing different houses of legislation is 
to introduce the influence of different interests or different
principles." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782.

"I consider... the republican as one more willing to trust the 
legislature [than the Executive] as a broader representation of 
the people and a safer deposit of power for many reasons." 
--Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson, 1801.

"A representative government, responsible at short intervals of 
election... produces the greatest sum of happiness to mankind." 
--Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Vermont Legislature, 1807.

=Executive Branch=

"Responsibility weighs with its heaviest force on a single head."
--Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816.

"To inform the minds of the people, and to follow their will, is
the chief duty of those placed at their head." --Thomas Jefferson
to C. W. F. Dumas, 1787.

"No ground of support for the Executive will ever be so sure as a
complete knowledge of their proceedings by the people; and it is
only in cases where the public good would be injured, and 
BECAUSE it would be injured, that proceedings should be secret. 
In such cases it is the duty of the Executive to sacrifice their
personal interest (which would be promoted by publicity) to the
public interest." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1793.

"On every question the lawyers are about equally divided, and were 
we to act but in cases where no contrary opinion of a lawyer can 
be had, we should never act." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert 
Gallatin, 1798.

"It is not wisdom alone but public confidence in that wisdom 
which can support an administration." --Thomas Jefferson to James 
Monroe, 1824.

"Let nothing be spared of either reason or passion to preserve the 
public confidence entire as the only rock of our safety." --Thomas 
Jefferson to Caesar Rodney, 1810.

=Judicial Branch=

"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.

"The great object of my fear is the Federal Judiciary.  That body, 
like gravity, ever acting with noiseless foot and unalarming 
advance, gaining ground step by step and holding what it gains, is 
engulfing insidiously the special governments into the jaws of 
that which feeds them." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1821.

"A judiciary independent of a king or executive alone is a good 
thing; but independence of the will of the nation is a solecism, 
at least in a republican government." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas 
Ritchie, 1820.

"It is a misnomer to call a government republican in which a 
branch of the supreme power is independent of the nation." 
--Thomas Jefferson to John Hampden Pleasants, 1821. 

Compilation copyrighted 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.
Permission hereby granted to quote single excerpts separately.

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