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Letter from President Thomas Jefferson
Letter To John Norvell On On Hume's Histories of England - Washington, June 14, 1807
_To John Norvell_
_Washington, June 14, 1807_
SIR, -- Your letter of May 9 has been duly received. The
subject it proposes would require time & space for even moderate
development. My occupations limit me to a very short notice of them.
I think there does not exist a good elementary work on the
organization of society into civil government: I mean a work which
presents in one full & comprehensive view the system of principles on
which such an organization should be founded, according to the rights
of nature. For want of a single work of that character, I should
recommend Locke on Government, Sidney, Priestley's Essay on the first
Principles of Government, Chipman's Principles of Government, & the
Federalist. Adding, perhaps, Beccaria on crimes & punishments,
because of the demonstrative manner in which he has treated that
branch of the subject. If your views of political inquiry go
further, to the subjects of money & commerce, Smith's Wealth of
Nations is the best book to be read, unless Say's Political Economy
can be had, which treats the same subject on the same principles, but
in a shorter compass & more lucid manner. But I believe this work
has not been translated into our language.
History, in general, only informs us what bad government is.
But as we have employed some of the best materials of the British
constitution in the construction of our own government, a knolege of
British history becomes useful to the American politician. There is,
however, no general history of that country which can be recommended.
The elegant one of Hume seems intended to disguise & discredit the
good principles of the government, and is so plausible & pleasing in
it's style & manner, as to instil it's errors & heresies insensibly
into the minds of unwary readers. Baxter has performed a good
operation on it. He has taken the text of Hume as his ground work,
abridging it by the omission of some details of little interest, and
wherever he has found him endeavoring to mislead, by either the
suppression of a truth or by giving it a false coloring, he has
changed the text to what it should be, so that we may properly call
it Hume's history republicanised. He has moreover continued the
history (but indifferently) from where Hume left it, to the year
1800. The work is not popular in England, because it is republican;
and but a few copies have ever reached America. It is a single 4to.
volume. Adding to this Ludlow's Memoirs, Mrs. M'Cauley's & Belknap's
histories, a sufficient view will be presented of the free principles
of the English constitution.
To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a
newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should
answer, `by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.'
Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a
melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more
compleatly deprive the nation of it's benefits, than is done by it's
abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed
which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by
being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state
of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to
confront facts within their knolege with the lies of the day. I
really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow
citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief, that
they have known something of what has been passing in the world in
their time; whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are
just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the
present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their
fables. General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as
that Europe is now at war, that Bonaparte has been a successful
warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will,
&c., &c.; but no details can be relied on. I will add, that the man
who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads
them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he
whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing
will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.
Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as
this. Divide his paper into 4 chapters, heading the 1st, Truths.
2d, Probabilities. 3d, Possibilities. 4th, Lies. The first chapter
would be very short, as it would contain little more than authentic
papers, and information from such sources, as the editor would be
willing to risk his own reputation for their truth. The 2d would
contain what, from a mature consideration of all circumstances, his
judgment should conclude to be probably true. This, however, should
rather contain too little than too much. The 3d & 4th should be
professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their
money than the blank paper they would occupy.
Such an editor too, would have to set his face against the
demoralising practice of feeding the public mind habitually on
slander, & the depravity of taste which this nauseous aliment
induces. Defamation is becoming a necessary of life; insomuch, that
a dish of tea in the morning or evening cannot be digested without
this stimulant. Even those who do not believe these abominations,
still read them with complaisance to their auditors, and instead of
the abhorrence & indignation which should fill a virtuous mind,
betray a secret pleasure in the possibility that some may believe
them, tho they do not themselves. It seems to escape them, that it
is not he who prints, but he who pays for printing a slander, who is
it's real author.
These thoughts on the subjects of your letter are hazarded at
your request. Repeated instances of the publication of what has not
been intended for the public eye, and the malignity with which
political enemies torture every sentence from me into meanings
imagined by their own wickedness only, justify my expressing a
solicitude, that this hasty communication may in nowise be permitted
to find it's way into the public papers. Not fearing these political
bull-dogs, I yet avoid putting myself in the way of being baited by
them, and do not wish to volunteer away that portion of tranquillity,
which a firm execution of my duties will permit me to enjoy.
I tender you my salutations, and best wishes for your success.