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Letter from Thomas Jefferson

Letter To Samuel Kercheval - Monticello, July 12, 1816

        _To Samuel Kercheval_
        _Monticello, July 12, 1816_

        SIR, -- I duly received your favor of June the 13th, with the
copy of the letters on the calling a convention, on which you are
pleased to ask my opinion.  I have not been in the habit of
mysterious reserve on any subject, nor of buttoning up my opinions
within my own doublet.  On the contrary, while in public service
especially, I thought the public entitled to frankness, and
intimately to know whom they employed.  But I am now retired: I
resign myself, as a passenger, with confidence to those at present at
the helm, and ask but for rest, peace and good will.  The question
you propose, on equal representation, has become a party one, in
which I wish to take no public share.  Yet, if it be asked for your
own satisfaction only, and not to be quoted before the public, I have
no motive to withhold it, and the less from you, as it coincides with
your own.  At the birth of our republic, I committed that opinion to
the world, in the draught of a constitution annexed to the "Notes on
Virginia," in which a provision was inserted for a representation
permanently equal.  The infancy of the subject at that moment, and
our inexperience of self-government, occasioned gross departures in
that draught from genuine republican canons.  In truth, the abuses of
monarchy had so much filled all the space of political contemplation,
that we imagined everything republican which was not monarchy.  We
had not yet penetrated to the mother principle, that "governments are
republican only in proportion as they embody the will of their
people, and execute it." Hence, our first constitutions had really no
leading principles in them.  But experience and reflection have but
more and more confirmed me in the particular importance of the equal
representation then proposed.  On that point, then, I am entirely in
sentiment with your letters; and only lament that a copy-right of
your pamphlet prevents their appearance in the newspapers, where
alone they would be generally read, and produce general effect.  The
present vacancy too, of other matter, would give them place in every
paper, and bring the question home to every man's conscience.

        But inequality of representation in both Houses of our
legislature, is not the only republican heresy in this first essay of
our revolutionary patriots at forming a constitution.  For let it be
agreed that a government is republican in proportion as every member
composing it has his equal voice in the direction of its concerns
(not indeed in person, which would be impracticable beyond the limits
of a city, or small township, but) by representatives chosen by
himself, and responsible to him at short periods, and let us bring to
the test of this canon every branch of our constitution.

        In the legislature, the House of Representatives is chosen by
less than half the people, and not at all in proportion to those who
do choose.  The Senate are still more disproportionate, and for long
terms of irresponsibility.  In the Executive, the Governor is
entirely independent of the choice of the people, and of their
control; his Council equally so, and at best but a fifth wheel to a
wagon.  In the Judiciary, the judges of the highest courts are
dependent on none but themselves.  In England, where judges were
named and removable at the will of an hereditary executive, from
which branch most misrule was feared, and has flowed, it was a great
point gained, by fixing them for life, to make them independent of
that executive.  But in a government founded on the public will, this
principle operates in an opposite direction, and against that will.
There, too, they were still removable on a concurrence of the
executive and legislative branches.  But we have made them
independent of the nation itself.  They are irremovable, but by their
own body, for any depravities of conduct, and even by their own body
for the imbecilities of dotage.  The justices of the inferior courts
are self-chosen, are for life, and perpetuate their own body in
succession forever, so that a faction once possessing themselves of
the bench of a county, can never be broken up, but hold their county
in chains, forever indissoluble.  Yet these justices are the real
executive as well as judiciary, in all our minor and most ordinary
concerns.  They tax us at will; fill the office of sheriff, the most
important of all the executive officers of the county; name nearly
all our military leaders, which leaders, once named, are removable
but by themselves.  The juries, our judges of all fact, and of law
when they choose it, are not selected by the people, nor amenable to
them.  They are chosen by an officer named by the court and
executive.  Chosen, did I say?  Picked up by the sheriff from the
loungings of the court yard, after everything respectable has retired
from it.  Where then is our republicanism to be found?  Not in our
constitution certainly, but merely in the spirit of our people.  That
would oblige even a despot to govern us republicanly.  Owing to this
spirit, and to nothing in the form of our constitution, all things
have gone well.  But this fact, so triumphantly misquoted by the
enemies of reformation, is not the fruit of our constitution, but has
prevailed in spite of it.  Our functionaries have done well, because
generally honest men.  If any were not so, they feared to show it.

        But it will be said, it is easier to find faults than to amend
them.  I do not think their amendment so difficult as is pretended.
Only lay down true principles, and adhere to them inflexibly.  Do not
be frightened into their surrender by the alarms of the timid, or the
croakings of wealth against the ascendency of the people.  If
experience be called for, appeal to that of our fifteen or twenty
governments for forty years, and show me where the people have done
half the mischief in these forty years, that a single despot would
have done in a single year; or show half the riots and rebellions,
the crimes and the punishments, which have taken place in any single
nation, under kingly government, during the same period.  The true
foundation of republican government is the equal right of every
citizen, in his person and property, and in their management.  Try by
this, as a tally, every provision of our constitution, and see if it
hangs directly on the will of the people.  Reduce your legislature to
a convenient number for full, but orderly discussion.  Let every man
who fights or pays, exercise his just and equal right in their
election.  Submit them to approbation or rejection at short
intervals.  Let the executive be chosen in the same way, and for the
same term, by those whose agent he is to be; and leave no screen of a
council behind which to skulk from responsibility.  It has been
thought that the people are not competent electors of judges _learned
in the law_.  But I do not know that this is true, and, if doubtful,
we should follow principle.  In this, as in many other elections,
they would be guided by reputation, which would not err oftener,
perhaps, than the present mode of appointment.  In one State of the
Union, at least, it has long been tried, and with the most
satisfactory success.  The judges of Connecticut have been chosen by
the people every six months, for nearly two centuries, and I believe
there has hardly ever been an instance of change; so powerful is the
curb of incessant responsibility.  If prejudice, however, derived
from a monarchical institution, is still to prevail against the vital
elective principle of our own, and if the existing example among
ourselves of periodical election of judges by the people be still
mistrusted, let us at least not adopt the evil, and reject the good,
of the English precedent; let us retain amovability on the
concurrence of the executive and legislative branches, and nomination
by the executive alone.  Nomination to office is an executive
function.  To give it to the legislature, as we do, is a violation of
the principle of the separation of powers.  It swerves the members
from correctness, by temptations to intrigue for office themselves,
and to a corrupt barter of votes; and destroys responsibility by
dividing it among a multitude.  By leaving nomination in its proper
place, among executive functions, the principle of the distribution
of power is preserved, and responsibility weighs with its heaviest
force on a single head.

        The organization of our county administrations may be thought
more difficult.  But follow principle, and the knot unties itself.
Divide the counties into wards of such size as that every citizen can
attend, when called on, and act in person.  Ascribe to them the
government of their wards in all things relating to themselves
exclusively.  A justice, chosen by themselves, in each, a constable,
a military company, a patrol, a school, the care of their own poor,
their own portion of the public roads, the choice of one or more
jurors to serve in some court, and the delivery, within their own
wards, of their own votes for all elective officers of higher sphere,
will relieve the county administration of nearly all its business,
will have it better done, and by making every citizen an acting
member of the government, and in the offices nearest and most
interesting to him, will attach him by his strongest feelings to the
independence of his country, and its republican constitution.  The
justices thus chosen by every ward, would constitute the county
court, would do its judiciary business, direct roads and bridges,
levy county and poor rates, and administer all the matters of common
interest to the whole country.  These wards, called townships in New
England, are the vital principle of their governments, and have
proved themselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man
for the perfect exercise of self-government, and for its
preservation.  We should thus marshal our government into, 1, the
general federal republic, for all concerns foreign and federal; 2,
that of the State, for what relates to our own citizens exclusively;
3, the county republics, for the duties and concerns of the county;
and 4, the ward republics, for the small, and yet numerous and
interesting concerns of the neighborhood; and in government, as well
as in every other business of life, it is by division and subdivision
of duties alone, that all matters, great and small, can be managed to
perfection.  And the whole is cemented by giving to every citizen,
personally, a part in the administration of the public affairs.

        The sum of these amendments is, 1. General Suffrage.  2. Equal
representation in the legislature.  3. An executive chosen by the
people.  4. Judges elective or amovable.  5. Justices, jurors, and
sheriffs elective.  6. Ward divisions.  And 7. Periodical amendments
of the constitution.

        I have thrown out these as loose heads of amendment, for
consideration and correction; and their object is to secure
self-government by the republicanism of our constitution, as well as
by the spirit of the people; and to nourish and perpetuate that
spirit.  I am not among those who fear the people.  They, and not the
rich, are our dependence for continued freedom.  And to preserve
their independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual
debt.  We must make our election between _economy and liberty_, or
_profusion and servitude_.  If we run into such debts, as that we
must be taxed in our meat and in our drink, in our necessaries and
our comforts, in our labors and our amusements, for our callings and
our creeds, as the people of England are, our people, like them, must
come to labor sixteen hours in the twenty-four, give the earnings of
fifteen of these to the government for their debts and daily
expenses; and the sixteenth being insufficient to afford us bread, we
must live, as they now do, on oatmeal and potatoes; have no time to
think, no means of calling the mismanagers to account; but be glad to
obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet their chains on the
necks of our fellow-sufferers.  Our landholders, too, like theirs,
retaining indeed the title and stewardship of estates called theirs,
but held really in trust for the treasury, must wander, like theirs,
in foreign countries, and be contented with penury, obscurity, exile,
and the glory of the nation.  This example reads to us the salutary
lesson, that private fortunes are destroyed by public as well as by
private extravagance.  And this is the tendency of all human
governments.  A departure from principle in one instance becomes a
precedent for a second; that second for a third; and so on, till the
bulk of the society is reduced to be mere automatons of misery, and
to have no sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering.  Then
begins, indeed, the _bellum omnium in omnia_, which some philosophers
observing to be so general in this world, have mistaken it for the
natural, instead of the abusive state of man.  And the fore horse of
this frightful team is public debt.  Taxation follows that, and in
its train wretchedness and oppression.

        Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence,
and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched.
They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than
human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment.  I knew that
age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it.  It deserved well of
its country.  It was very like the present, but without the
experience of the present; and forty years of experience in
government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would
say themselves, were they to rise from the dead.  I am certainly not
an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and
constitutions.  I think moderate imperfections had better be borne
with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and
find practical means of correcting their ill effects.  But I know
also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the
progress of the human mind.  As that becomes more developed, more
enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and
manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances,
institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.  We
might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him
when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of
their barbarous ancestors.  It is this preposterous idea which has
lately deluged Europe in blood.  Their monarchs, instead of wisely
yielding to the gradual change of circumstances, of favoring
progressive accommodation to progressive improvement, have clung to
old abuses, entrenched themselves behind steady habits, and obliged
their subjects to seek through blood and violence rash and ruinous
innovations, which, had they been referred to the peaceful
deliberations and collected wisdom of the nation, would have been put
into acceptable and salutary forms.  Let us follow no such examples,
nor weakly believe that one generation is not as capable as another
of taking care of itself, and of ordering its own affairs.  Let us,
as our sister States have done, avail ourselves of our reason and
experience, to correct the crude essays of our first and
unexperienced, although wise, virtuous, and well-meaning councils.
And lastly, let us provide in our constitution for its revision at
stated periods.  What these periods should be, nature herself
indicates.  By the European tables of mortality, of the adults living
at any one moment of time, a majority will be dead in about nineteen
years.  At the end of that period, then, a new majority is come into
place; or, in other words, a new generation.  Each generation is as
independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone
before.  It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the
form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness;
consequently, to accommodate to the circumstances in which it finds
itself, that received from its predecessors; and it is for the peace
and good of mankind, that a solemn opportunity of doing this every
nineteen or twenty years, should be provided by the constitution; so
that it may be handed on, with periodical repairs, from generation to
generation, to the end of time, if anything human can so long endure.
It is now forty years since the constitution of Virginia was formed.
The same tables inform us, that, within that period, two-thirds of
the adults then living are now dead.  Have then the remaining third,
even if they had the wish, the right to hold in obedience to their
will, and to laws heretofore made by them, the other two-thirds, who,
with themselves, compose the present mass of adults?  If they have
not, who has?  The dead?  But the dead have no rights.  They are
nothing; and nothing cannot own something.  Where there is no
substance, there can be no accident.  This corporeal globe, and
everything upon it, belong to its present corporeal inhabitants,
during their generation.  They alone have a right to direct what is
the concern of themselves alone, and to declare the law of that
direction; and this declaration can only be made by their majority.
That majority, then, has a right to depute representatives to a
convention, and to make the constitution what they think will be the
best for themselves.  But how collect their voice?  This is the real
difficulty.  If invited by private authority, or county or district
meetings, these divisions are so large that few will attend; and
their voice will be imperfectly, or falsely pronounced.  Here, then,
would be one of the advantages of the ward divisions I have proposed.
The mayor of every ward, on a question like the present, would call
his ward together, take the simple yea or nay of its members, convey
these to the county court, who would hand on those of all its wards
to the proper general authority; and the voice of the whole people
would be thus fairly, fully, and peaceably expressed, discussed, and
decided by the common reason of the society.  If this avenue be shut
to the call of sufferance, it will make itself heard through that of
force, and we shall go on, as other nations are doing, in the endless
circle of oppression, rebellion, reformation; and oppression,
rebellion, reformation, again; and so on forever.

        These, Sir, are my opinions of the governments we see among
men, and of the principles by which alone we may prevent our own from
falling into the same dreadful track.  I have given them at greater
length than your letter called for.  But I cannot say things by
halves; and I confide them to your honor, so to use them as to
preserve me from the gridiron of the public papers.  If you shall
approve and enforce them, as you have done that of equal
representation, they may do some good.  If not, keep them to yourself
as the effusions of withered age and useless time.  I shall, with not
the less truth, assure you of my great respect and consideration.