Jefferson’s Lament   3 comments

Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Major John Cartwright in 1824, when both were elderly men. The purpose of the letter was to praise Major Cartwright’s book on the history of Anglo-Saxon rights, but Jefferson also attempted to explain the American experiment to Cartwright. Although I might enjoy reading Cartwright’s book as much as Mr. Jefferson did, as an American, I am much more interested in what Jefferson had to say about the country he lived in.

After remarking on what he found interesting and hopeful in Anglo-Saxon history, Jefferson turned to America.

Our Revolution commenced on more favorable ground. It presented us an album on which we were free to write what we pleased. We had no occasion to search into musty records, to hunt up royal parchments, or to investigate the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry. We appealed to those of nature, and found them engraved on our hearts.

The American Revolution was based on Lockean notions of natural law, which Jefferson insisted issued from human nature. The Anglo-Saxons had an ancient history of exercising those rights, lost in the Norman invasion, but reconstituted when kings were put in their place as limited monarchs once more. For them to move toward liberty had required an exploration of and a negotiation with their past. The Americans had mostly a blank slate on which to draw.

Yet we did not avail ourselves of all the advantages of our position. We had never been permitted to exercise self-government. When forced to assume it, we were novices in its science. Its principles and forms had entered little into our former education. We established however some, although not all its important principles.

“We were,” Jefferson seems to say, “Like kids in a candystore, complete novices at this self-government notion.” Americans didn’t really know what they were doing, so they established some of the guiding principles of self-government, but they also missed some. It’s important to remember that Jefferson was in France at the time of the Constitutional Convention. John Adams was in Holland. Ben Franklin was old. The old guard of the Revolution was not well represented in Philadelphia that hot summer of 1787. Had they been there, the Constitution might have been a better document. At least, Jefferson thought so.

The constitutions of most of our States assert, that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves, in all cases to which they think themselves competent, (as in electing their functionaries executive and legislative, and deciding by a jury of themselves, in all judiciary cases in which any fact is involved,) or they may act by representatives, freely and equally chosen; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed; that they are entitled to freedom of person, freedom of religion, freedom of property, and freedom of the press.

Jefferson found little fault with the state constitutions. For the most part, they stated:

  • All power is inherent in the people and is theirs to exercise in direct democracy and/or by selecting representatives
  • They have a right to be armed at all times
  • They have freedom of person
  • They have freedom of religion
  • They have freedom of property
  • They have freedom of the press

I wonder what Jefferson would think of our current state of affairs, where we have the largest prison population in the world, major presidential candidates who want to disarm the entire country, survelliance programs that potentially are tracking each and every one of us on a daily basis, government telling people they must violate their faith to obey the government, eminent domain, and press corps that lick the boots of the White House.

In the structure of our legislatures, we think experience has proved the benefit of subjecting questions to two separate bodies of deliberants; but in constituting these, natural right has been mistaken, some making one of these bodies, and some both, the representatives of property instead of persons; whereas the double deliberation might be as well obtained without any violation of true principle, either by requiring a greater age in one of the bodies, or by electing a proper number of representatives of persons, dividing them by lots into two chambers, and renewing the division at frequent intervals, in order to break up all cabals.

Jefferson here praises the separation of powers and encourages the frequent flushing of the legislature. What would he think of us today?

Virginia, of which I am myself a native and resident, was not only the first of the States, but, I believe I may say, the first of the nations of the earth, which assembled its wise men peaceably together to form a fundamental constitution, to commit it to writing, and place it among their archives, where every one should be free to appeal to its text. But this act was very imperfect. The other States, as they proceeded successively to the same work, made successive improvements; and several of them, still further corrected by experience, have, by conventions, still further amended their first forms. My own State has gone on so far with its premiere ebauche; but it is now proposing to call a convention for amendment.

All right, first, I have to thank Jefferson for teaching me a new word “ebauche” which is the preliminary sketch of a canvas prior to painting. I didn’t know it had a specific term.

Jefferson was very proud of Virginia and its exercise in self-government. Virginia may, he said, have been the first nation (note that he calls it a NATION, not a state) to write a constitution and put it on permanent record for everyone to appeal to. Yet, he admitted, it was an imperfect document and wanted amendment. Other States had discovered improvements, areas of liberty that required acknowledgment. It was time for Virginia to amend its constitution as well.

Among other improvements, I hope they will adopt the subdivision of our counties into wards. The former may be estimated at an average of twenty-four miles square; the latter should be about six miles square each, and would answer to the hundreds of your Saxon Alfred. In each of these might be, 1. An elementary school. 2. A company of militia, with its officers. 3. A justice of the peace and constable. 4. Each ward should take care of their own poor. 5. Their own roads. 6. Their own police. 7. Elect within themselves one or more jurors to attend the courts of justice. And 8. Give in at their Folk-house, their votes for all functionaries reserved to their election. Each ward would thus be a small republic within itself, and every man in the State would thus become an acting member of the common government, transacting in person a great portion of its rights and duties, subordinate indeed, yet important, and entirely within his competence. The wit of man cannot devise a more solid basis for a free, durable and well administered republic.

Jefferson then laid-out what he hoped a republic might look like. He wanted small wards to divide larger counties. Each of those wards should:

  1. educate its children
  2. provide for its defense
  3. assure peace within its borders
  4. take care of its own poor
  5. build its own roads
  6. hire its own police
  7. elect jurors
  8. vote for representatives

Jefferson envisioned each ward being a republic unto itself, where every man would have a voice, exercising their rights and duties. He saw this as the foundation of republican self-government.

I have to say that if our communities were organized in this way now, we might have less frustration with our government. In the borough that I live in, we have a geographic divide between conservatives — mostly working-class (although some are college-educated) and former military who live on the east end of the borough (sort of like a county) and liberals – mostly university professors and government employees who live on the west side of the borough. These two broad groups are in a tug-of-war with one another, each trying to coerce the other into doing things their way. Would it not be better if we had smaller units where folks with similar ideas could work together to achieve their goals and pretty much ignore adjacent neighborhoods that have divergent goals?

Jefferson himself admitted that this letter was long and rambling (he was 84 years old, after all), so I’m going to make this a two part series.

Jefferson on the Federal Government

3 responses to “Jefferson’s Lament

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  1. This was a great one!! Thanks for sharing!

    Like

  2. Reblogged this on aurorawatcherak.

    Like

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