Jefferson on Government

“History, in general, only informs us of what bad government is.”  This is a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the man who penned our Declaration of Independence. What examples of bad government did history offer in the second half of the 18th century? The answers are countless, however there are two forms of government that, when inspected, help us understand our own.

Democracy in its purest form takes a vote of the people and makes it law. A historical example of a democracy is the ancient Greek city-state of Athens.  The Plato work, The Apology, gives an account of the trial, in 399 B.C.E., of Socrates, Plato’s teacher. In the Apology, Socrates is tried for the crime of impiety, or godlessness. He defends himself with reason, but is found guilty and sentenced to execution. What is relevant to our present discussion is the way in which he was convicted. Something like 500 of his fellow citizens sat as judge and jury in his trial. He was found guilty by a margin of 30 votes. By a slimmer margin he was sentenced to death.

This is the repression of freedom that is inevitable under democracy; the right of the individual is destroyed by the will of the majority. This, however, is not the form of government under which we live. Our Constitution empowers a government of the form of a Republic. The above argument against democracy is given only because one hears so much talk about “our great Democracy” on television, in books and magazines, and, perversely, in our public schools. Another Jefferson quote, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

A Republic is, as defined by Merriam-Webster (, (1) : a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law

This, obviously, is a definition of our own form of government, as outlined in the Constitution. But is it infallible?

Ancient Rome is said to have been a republic. Certainly, Senators were elected by citizens of Rome. However, the citizens of Rome were denied any chance of a fair government by the informal system known as patronization, in which poor citizens would, in effect, sell their vote to get limited recognition of their rights.

The great difference between the Roman constitution and our own is that, to ours is attached a Bill of Rights, which guarantees (or is supposed to guarantee) the rights of the individual against encroachments of the government. Jefferson said, “A Bill of Rights is what the people are entitled to against every government, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.”

We are now in the grip of a tyrannical government that ignores our Bill of Rights with their laws on gun control, drug laws, and unrepresentative taxation (see ). So what’s the solution? According to one of our most important founding fathers, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” “Nothing is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.” And “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.”

Jefferson quotes from

Start the Conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *