Jefferson on the Federal Government   2 comments

This is Part 2 of a 2-part series.

Turning his mind from the Constitution and form of government, Jefferson hoped to explain the checks and balances of the federal system and also asked if perhaps the country should not be so attached to any one system

Jefferson knew that most foreigners did not understand how the United States worked and he attempted to explain the interaction to Major Cartwright.

With respect to our State and federal governments, I do not think their relations correctly understood by foreigners. They generally suppose the former subordinate to the latter. But this is not the case. They are co-ordinate departments of one simple and integral whole.

Jefferson rightly surmised that most foreigners though the states were under the authority of the federal government (which is how a national government works), but he was quick to correct this misunderstanding. Were he to suddenly be resurrected in the 21st century, he would quickly and probably forcefully remind us that our government was never supposed to involve the states kowtowing to the federal government. They were meant to be equal partners.

To the State governments are reserved all legislation and administration, in affairs which concern their own citizens only, and to the federal government is given whatever concerns foreigners, or the citizens of other States; these functions alone being made federal. The one is the domestic, the other the foreign branch of the same government; neither having control over the other, but within its own department.

Jefferson understood that the states were to focus on their own domestic matters while the federal government was only to function in matters with other countries or when states could not agree. He rightly states that the federal government is the foreign branch of the same government. Neither was supposed to have control over the other. I think this would be one of those times when Jefferson would want to amend the Constitution, if he could see how bloated and tyrannical the federal government has become.

There are one or two exceptions only to this partition of power. But, you may ask, if the two departments should claim each the same subject of power, where is the common umpire to decide ultimately between them? In cases of little importance or urgency, the prudence of both parties will keep them aloof from the questionable ground: but if it can neither be avoided nor compromised, a convention of the States must be called, to ascribe the doubtful power to that department which they may think best.

Jefferson foresaw conflicts and saw two solutions to them. One would be where the two parties just ignore when one oversteps on unimportant issues. That has not worked well fo us in the 200 years since Jefferson wrote the letter. His second option for dealing with overreach has never been used. We’ve never called a convention of the States to discuss whether doubtful power should be ascribed to the states or the federal government. Instead, the federal government has continually assimilated powers to itself and told the states to sit down and shut up. Jefferson, were he alive today, would be organizing committees of correspondence and militias in Virginia and urging Alaska and all the other states to do the same.

You will perceive by these details, that we have not yet so far perfected our constitutions as to venture to make them unchangeable. But still, in their present state, we consider them not otherwise changeable than by the authority of the people, on a special election of representatives for that purpose expressly: they are until then the lex legum.

Jefferson explained that the Constitution of the United States and the constitutions of the states were not set in concrete, but could only be changed by a special committee, elected by the people for the purpose of making changes. Until such a convention had been organized and met, the constitutions were considered the “law of laws.”

But can they be made unchangeable? Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead. Rights and powers can only belong to persons, not to things, not to mere matter, unendowed with will. The dead are not even things. The particles of matter which composed their bodies, make part now of the bodies of other animals, vegetables, or minerals, of a thousand forms. To what then are attached the rights and powers they held while in the form of men? 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.

Jefferson touches on something that we can go around and around on. Should constitutions be unchangeable? Should one generation bind the next to what was important to that earlier generation? That earlier generation is dead and dead things should not dictate to the living, Jefferson said.

But it should be noted that Jefferson considered rights and the powers that issue from them to be the same from generation to generation. So while subsequent generations can change the structure of government set out in the constitution, the inherent and unalienable rights of men remain the same.

You see, that’s where folks like me disagree with those who would be our rulers today. They’re fine with the current structure of government, but want our rights to be changeable based on what they think is best. Rights, to them, flow from the government. Jefferson and our founders saw rights as being inherent in the individual. I live, therefore, I have a right to an opinion and to state it, a right to practice my faith as I see fit, a right to bear arms, a right to security in my person, property and papers, a right to a fair trial, and a right to be unmolested in my efforts to support myself and my family (in so long as those efforts do not harm anyone else). I don’t live in that world anymore. I live in one where my rights can be taken away whenever the government decides they are inconvenient to the government or some group the government favors.

I object.

I Did Not Consent

2 responses to “Jefferson on the Federal Government

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  1. Pingback: Jefferson’s Lament | aurorawatcherak

  2. Reblogged this on aurorawatcherak.

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