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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

11. Governed by Reason

We who have grown up in a democracy take for granted a government of the people based on reason and the people's choice. But before our nation was founded, modern governments were based on authoritarian domination. The people in general were considered little more than cattle, to be governed and controlled by those possessing wealth, education and power, and kept under subjection lest they undermine the stability of the government. The Founding Fathers introduced the revolutionary idea that government could rest on the reasoned choice of the people themselves, which was thought absurd in other lands at that time.

"My hope [is] that we have not labored in vain, and that our experiment will still prove that men can be governed by reason." --Thomas Jefferson to George Mason, 1791. ME 8:124

"I have so much confidence in the good sense of man, and his qualifications for self-government, that I am never afraid of the issue where reason is left free to exert her force." --Thomas Jefferson to Comte Diodati, 1789.

"I am satisfied the good sense of the people is the strongest army our government can ever have, and that it will not fail them." --Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael, 1786. ME 6:31

"Let common sense and common honesty have fair play, and they will soon set things to rights." --Thomas Jefferson to Ezra Stiles, 1786. ME 6:25

"It is comfortable to see the standard of reason at length erected, after so many ages, during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests, and nobles; and it is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1786. ME 6:10

"[Our] principles [are] founded on the immovable basis of equal right and reason." --Thomas Jefferson to James Sullivan, 1797. ME 9:379

"We believed that men, enjoying in ease and security the full fruits of their own industry, enlisted by all their interests on the side of law and order, habituated to think for themselves and to follow their reason as their guide, would be more easily and safely governed than with minds nourished in error and vitiated and debased... by ignorance, indigence and oppression." --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:441

"A government of reason is better than one of force." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard Rush, 1820. ME 15:284

"The idea of establishing a government by reasoning and agreement, [the monarchists] publicly ridiculed as an Utopian project, visionary and unexampled." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1797. ME 1:419

"It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not." --Thomas Jefferson to N. G. Dufief, 1814. ME 14:127

"Our people in a body are wise because they are under the unrestrained and unperverted operation of their own understandings." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1802. ME 10:324

"This blessed country of free inquiry and belief has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, 1822. ME 15:385

11.1 Reason and Truth

"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804. ME 11:33

"[God has bestowed] reason... as the umpire of truth." --Thomas Jefferson to Miles King, 1814. ME 14:197

"Truth and reason are eternal. They have prevailed. And they will eternally prevail; however, in times and places they may be overborne for a while by violence, military, civil, or ecclesiastical." --Thomas Jefferson to Rev. Samuel Knox, 1810. ME 12:360

"Truth will do well enough if left to shift for herself. She seldom has received much aid from the power of great men to whom she is rarely known and seldom welcome. She has no need of force to procure entrance into the minds of men." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Religion, 1776. Papers 1:547

11.2 Actions Based on Reason

"Everyone must act according to the dictates of his own reason." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Miller, 1808. ME 11:429

"The opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds." --Thomas Jefferson: Bill for Religious Freedom, 1779. Papers 2:545

"I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:350

"Our opinions are not voluntary. Every man's own reason must be his oracle." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, 1813. ME 13:225

"Everyone, certainly, must form his judgment on the evidence accessible to himself." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1811. ME 13:26

"I am, myself, generally disposed to indulge and to follow reason." --Thomas Jefferson to James Martin, 1813. ME 13:383

"A patient pursuit of facts, and cautious combination and comparison of them, is the drudgery to which man is subjected by his Maker, if he wishes to attain sure knowledge." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.VI, 1782. ME 2:97

"When we see two facts accompanying one another for a long time, we are apt to suppose them related as cause and effect." --Thomas Jefferson to James Maury, 1815. ME 14:319

"We certainly are not to deny whatever we cannot account for. A thousand phenomena present themselves daily which we cannot explain; but where facts are suggested bearing no analogy with the laws of nature as yet known to us, their verity needs proofs proportioned to their difficulty. A cautious mind will weigh well the opposition of the phenomenon to everything hitherto observed, the strength of the testimony by which it is supported, and the errors and misconceptions to which even our senses are liable." --Thomas Jefferson to Daniel Salmon, 1808. ME 11:441

"Proof is the duty of the affirmative side. A negative cannot be positively proved." --Thomas Jefferson to Martin Van Buren, 1824. ME 16:55

"The proof of a negative can only be presumptive." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1819. ME 15:206

"What has no meaning admits no explanation." --Thomas Jefferson to Alexander Smyth, 1825. ME 16:101

"By analyzing too minutely we often reduce our subject to atoms, of which the mind loses its hold." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Everett, 1823. ME 15:414

11.3 Fearlessly Follow Reason and Truth

"Shake off all the fears and servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." --Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1787. ME 6:258 Papers 12:15

"I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led, and bearding every authority which stood in their way." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1814. ME 14:85

"It is surely time for men to think for themselves, and to throw off the authority of names so artificially magnified." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1820. ME 15:258

"If [my] opinions are sound, they will occur to others, and will prevail by their own weight, without the aid of names." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:70

"It is not the name, but the thing which is essential." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on the Tonnage Payable, 1791. ME 3:292

"Lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision." --Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1787. ME 6:261

"In a republican nation whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of first importance." --Thomas Jefferson to David Harding, 1824. ME 16:30

"Nothing is so desirable to me as that after mankind shall have been abused by such gross falsehoods as to events while passing, their minds should at length be set to rights by genuine truth. And I can conscientiously declare that as to myself, I wish that not only no act but no thought of mine should be unknown." --Thomas Jefferson to James Main, 1808. ME 12:175

"There is not a truth existing which I fear or would wish unknown to the whole world." --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, 1826. ME 16:179

"There is not a truth on earth which I fear or would disguise. But secret slanders cannot be disarmed, because they are secret." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1806. ME 11:94

11.4 Moving Beyond Ignorance

"Old heads as well as young may sometimes be charged with ignorance and presumption. The natural course of the human mind is certainly from credulity to skepticism." --Thomas Jefferson to Caspar Wistar, 1807. ME 11:248

"Unlearned views... are, perhaps, the more confident in proportion as they are less enlightened." --Thomas Jefferson to Caspar Wistar, 1807. ME 11:243

"I think it is Montaigne who has said, that ignorance is the softest pillow on which a man can rest his head." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmund Randolph, 1794. ME 9:280

"Man once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck." --Thomas Jefferson to James Smith, 1822. ME 15:409

"It was more in our spirit to let things come to rights by the plain dictates of common sense than by the practice of any artifices." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1800. ME 19:120

"I can never fear that things will go far wrong where common sense has fair play." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1786. ME 6:20

"I have great confidence in the common sense of mankind in general." --Thomas Jefferson to Jeremiah Moor, 1800.

11.5 Reason Must Look Ahead

"The Gothic idea that we were to look backwards instead of forwards for the improvement of the human mind, and to recur to the annals of our ancestors for what is most perfect in government, in religion and in learning, is worthy of those bigots in religion and government by whom it has been recommended, and whose purposes it would answer. But it is not an idea which this country will endure." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1800. ME 10:148

"I am for encouraging the progress of science in all its branches, and not for raising a hue and cry against the sacred name of philosophy; for awing the human mind by stories of raw-head and bloody bones to a distrust of its own vision, and to repose implicitly on that of others; to go backwards instead of forwards to look for improvement; to believe that government, religion, morality and every other science were in the highest perfection in the ages of the darkest ignorance, and that nothing can ever be decided more perfect than what was established by our forefathers." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799. ME 10:78

11.6 The Advance of Truth and Science

"I am not myself apt to be alarmed at innovations recommended by reason. That dread belongs to those whose interests or prejudices shrink from the advance of truth and science." --Thomas Jefferson to John Manners, 1814. ME 14:103

"Where thought is free in its range, we need never fear to hazard what is good in itself." --Thomas Jefferson to Mr. Olgilvie, 1811. ME 13:68

"One of the questions... on which our parties took different sides was on the improvability of the human mind in science, in ethics, in government, etc. Those who advocated reformation of institutions pari passu with the progress of science maintained that no definite limits could be assigned to that progress. The enemies of reform, on the other hand, denied improvement and advocated steady adherence to the principles, practices and institutions of our fathers, which they represented as the consummation of wisdom and acme of excellence, beyond which the human mind could never advance... [They predicted that] freedom of inquiry... will produce nothing more worthy of transmission to posterity than the principles, institutions and systems of education received from their ancestors... [But we] possess... too much science not to see how much is still ahead of [us], unexplained and unexplored. [Our] own consciousness must place [us] as far before our ancestors as in the rear of our posterity." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. (*) ME 13:254

"What an effort... of bigotry in politics and religion have we gone through! The barbarians really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times of Vandalism, when ignorance put everything into the hands of power and priestcraft. All advances in science were proscribed as innovations. They pretended to praise and encourage education, but it was to be the education of our ancestors. We were to look backwards, not forwards, for improvement." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1801. ME 10:228

"I join [with others] in branding as cowardly the idea that the human mind is incapable of further advance. This is precisely the doctrine which the present despots of the earth are inculcating and their friends here re-echoing and applying especially to religion and politics: 'that it is not probable that anything better will be discovered than what was known to our fathers.' We are to look backwards, then, and not forwards for the improvement of science and to find it amidst feudal barbarisms and the fires of Spital-fields. But thank heaven the American mind is already too much opened to listen to these impostures; and while the art of printing is left to us, science can never be retrograde. What is once acquired of real knowledge can never be lost." --Thomas Jefferson to William Green Munford, 1799.

11.7 Reason, Truth and Government

"It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XVII, 1782. ME 2:222

"Ignorance and bigotry, like other insanities, are incapable of self-government." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1817. ME 15:116

"I am... against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799. ME 10:78

"Every man's reason [is] his own rightful umpire. This principle, with that of acquiescence in the will of the majority, will preserve us free and prosperous as long as they are sacredly observed." --Thomas Jefferson to John F. Watson, 1814. ME 14:136

"I hold it... certain, that to open the doors of truth and to fortify the habit of testing everything by reason are the most effectual manacles we can rivet on the hands of our successors to prevent their manacling the people with their own consent." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804. ME 11:34

"Nor was it uninteresting to the world that an experiment should be fairly and fully made whether freedom of discussion, unaided by power, is not sufficient for the propagation and protection of truth: whether a government conducting itself in the true spirit of its constitution with zeal and purity and doing no act which it would be unwilling the whole world should witness can be written down by falsehood and defamation. The experiment has been tried; [we] have witnessed the scene; our fellow citizens have looked on, cool and collected. They saw the latent source from which these outrages proceeded; they gathered around their public functionaries, and when the Constitution called them to the decision by suffrage, they pronounced their verdict, honorable to those who had served them and consolatory to the friend of man who believes he may be intrusted with his own affairs." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Inaugural Address, 1805. ME 3:381

"If virtuous, [the government] need not fear the fair operation of attack and defense. Nature has given to man no other means of sifting the truth, either in religion, law, or politics." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792. ME 8:406

"The Indian chief said he did not go to war for every petty injury by itself, but put it into his pouch, and when that was full, he then made war. Thank Heaven, we have provided a more peaceable and rational mode of redress." --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:446

"We shall have our follies without doubt. Some one or more of them will always be afloat. But ours will be the follies of enthusiasm, not of bigotry, not of Jesuitism. Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both. We are destined to be a barrier against the return of ignorance and barbarism." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1816. ME 15:58

"[Let us] go on in doing with [the] pen what in other times was done with the sword, [and] show that reformation is more practicable by operating on the mind than on the body of man." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Paine, 1792. FE 6:88

"If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801. ME 3:319

ME, FE = Memorial Edition, Ford Edition.   See Sources.

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