Site Home

Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

14. Constitutions: State & Federal

A written constitution was an essential feature of the government created by the Founding Fathers. The term "constitution" refers to the nature or manner in which a society is organized and the principles by which governmental powers are distributed. It is the fundamental law of a nation, and may be a single document, as in the United States, or the totality of basic legislation, as in England. The Founders preferred a written constitution, founded in the authority of the people, in order more surely to limit the power of the governors and protect the rights of the governed.

"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. ME 16:346

"It is true, we are as yet secured against [tyrannical laws] by the spirit of the times... But is the spirit of the people an infallible, a permanent reliance? Is it government? Is this the kind of protection we receive in return for the rights we give up? Besides, the spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, Q.XVII, 1782. ME 2:224

"[To establish republican government, it is necessary to] effect a constitution in which the will of the nation shall have an organized control over the actions of its government, and its citizens a regular protection against its oppressions." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1816. ME 19:240

"[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 Q.XIII, 1782. ME 2:178

"No interests are dearer to men than those which ought to be secured to them by their form of government, and none deserve better of them than those who contribute to the amelioration of that form." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Ruelle, 1809. ME 12:256

"A permanent constitution must be the work of quiet, leisure, much inquiry, and great deliberation." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823. ME 15:483

"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. ME 10:325

"I am persuaded no Constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self-government." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1809. ME 12:277

"[Ours is] a constitution of government destined to be the primitive and precious model of what is to change the condition of man over the globe." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Livingston, 1824. ME 16:26

14.1 Constitutional Authority

"The authority of [the] people [is] a necessary foundation for a constitution." --Thomas Jefferson to John Hampden Pleasants, 1824. ME 16:28

"Every... constitution [should] lay its foundation in the authority of the nation... [If] no special authority [is] delegated [to the legislative body] by the people to form a permanent constitution over which their successors in legislation should have no powers of alteration,... although... they [give] to this act the title of a constitution, yet it could be no more than an act of legislation subject, as their other acts [are], to alteration by their successors." --Thomas Jefferson to John Hampden Pleasants, 1824. ME 16:27

"I question if any Congress (much less all successively) can have self-denial enough to go through with this distribution [of executive business, so that Congress itself should meddle only with what should be legislative.] The distribution, then, should be imposed on them." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1786. ME 6:9

"All of the States [except] Virginia... had... delineated [the] unceded portions of right and [the] fences against wrong which they meant to exempt from the powers of their governors, in instruments called declarations of rights and constitutions. And as they did this by conventions which they appointed for the express purpose of reserving these rights and of delegating others to their ordinary legislative, executive, and judiciary bodies, none of the reserved rights can be touched without resorting to the people to appoint another convention for the express purpose of permitting it. Where the constitutions then have been so formed by conventions named for this express purpose, they are fixed and unalterable but by a convention or other body to be specially authorized." --Thomas Jefferson to Noah Webster, 1790. ME 8:113

14.2 Foundational Principles

"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, 1784. ME 4:217, Papers 7:106

"The basis of our constitution is in opposition to the principle of equal political rights [if it refuses] to all but freeholders any participation in the natural right of self-government... And even among our citizens who participate in the representative privilege, the equality of political rights is entirely prostrated by our constitution... [if it gives] to every citizen of [one county] as much weight in the government as to twenty-two equal citizens in [another]... If these fundamental principles are of no importance in actual government, then no principles are important, and it is as well to rely on the dispositions of an administration, good or evil, as on the provisions of a constitution." --Thomas Jefferson to John Hampden Pleasants, 1824. ME 16:28

"The true principles of our Constitution... are wisely opposed to all perpetuations of power, and to every practice which may lead to hereditary establishments." --Thomas Jefferson to Messrs. Bloodgood and Hammond, 1809. ME 12:318

14.3 Constitutional Limitations

"I consider the foundation of the [Federal] 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: Opinion on National Bank, 1791. ME 3:146

"I was in Europe when the Constitution was planned, and never saw it till after it was established. On receiving it, I wrote strongly to Mr. Madison, urging the want of provision for... an express reservation to the States of all rights not specifically granted to the Union." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1802. ME 10:325

"Whensoever the General Government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft Kentucky Resolutions, 1798. ME 17:380

"[An] act of the Congress of the United States... which assumes powers... not delegated by the Constitution, is not law, but is altogether void and of no force." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft Kentucky Resolutions, 1798. ME 17:383

"To keep in all things within the pale of our constitutional powers... [is one of] the landmarks by which we are to guide ourselves in all our proceedings." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Annual Message, 1802. ME 3:348

"[We considered the Alien and Sedition] acts as so palpably against the Constitution as to amount to an undisguised declaration that that compact is not meant to be the measure of the powers of the General Government, but that it will proceed in the exercise over these States of all powers whatsoever... [We] view this as seizing the rights of the States and consolidating them in the hands of the General Government, with a power assumed to bind the States, not merely as [to] cases made federal (casus foederis), but in all cases whatsoever, by laws made, not with their consent, but by others against their consent... This would be to surrender the form of government we have chosen and live under one deriving its powers from its own will and not from our authority." --Thomas Jefferson, Draft Kentucky Resolutions, 1798. ME 17:390

14.4 Legitimate Restrictions on Power

"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, prerogatives or emoluments without restraint." --Thomas Jefferson: Virginia Allowance Bill, 1778. Papers 2:231

"The Legislature... can neither pass a law that my head shall be stricken from my body without trial, nor my freehold taken from me without indemnification, and when not necessary for a public use." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1911. ME 19:181

"Laws provide against injury from others, but not from ourselves." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Religion, 1776 Papers 1:546

"The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782. ME 2:221

"No man on earth has more implicit confidence than myself in the integrity and discretion of [the confidential officers of the government, who are the choice of the people themselves]... But is confidence or discretion, or is strict limit, the principle of our Constitution?" --Thomas Jefferson to Jedidiah Morse, 1822. ME 15:359

"Had [the election of 1800] terminated in the elevation of Mr. Burr, every republican would, I am sure, have acquiesced in a moment; because, however it might have been variant from the intentions of the voters, yet it would have been agreeable to the Constitution... But in the event of an usurpation, I was decidedly with those who were determined not to permit it. Because that precedent once set, would be artificially reproduced, and end soon in a dictator." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas M'Kean, 1801. ME 10:221

"The Tory principle of passive obedience [seeks to] become entirely triumphant under the new-fangled names of confidence and responsibility." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert Livingston, 1799. ME 10:118

"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. 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... In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft Kentucky Resolutions, 1798. ME 17:388

"Let the honest advocate of confidence read the Alien and Sedition Acts and say if the Constitution has not been wise in fixing limits to the government it created, and whether we should be wise in destroying those limits." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft Kentucky Resolutions, 1798. ME 17:389

14.5 Constitutional Control

"Leave no authority existing not responsible to the people." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1816. ME 15:66

"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. ME 13:136

"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. ME 10:237

14.6 Needed Revisions

"Smaller objections [I have to the new Constitution] are [the omission of] the appeals on matters of fact as well as law, and the binding of all persons, Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary, by oath to maintain that constitution." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. ME 6:390

"I apprehend... that the total abandonment of the principle of rotation in the offices of President and Senator will end in abuse." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, 1788. ME 7:81

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

Cross References

To other sections in Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government:

Top | Previous Section | Next Section | Table of Contents | Politics Home