Saturday, June 27, 2009

Jefferson on Revolution and Reformation

Revolution and Reformation

How can a people who have struggled long years under oppression throw off their oppressors and establish a free society? The problems are immense, but their solution lies in the education and enlightenment of the people and the emergence of a spirit that will serve as a foundation for independence and self-government.

"If Caesar had been as virtuous as he was daring and sagacious, what could he, even in the plenitude of his usurped power, have done to lead his fellow citizens into good government?... If their people indeed had been, like ourselves, enlightened, peaceable, and really free, the answer would be obvious. 'Restore independence to all your foreign conquests, relieve Italy from the government of the rabble of Rome, consult it as a nation entitled to self-government, and do its will.' But steeped in corruption, vice and venality, as the whole nation was,... what could even Cicero, Cato, Brutus have done, had it been referred to them to establish a good government for their country?... No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and their people were so demoralized and depraved as to be incapable of exercising a wholesome control. Their reformation then was to be taken up ab incunabulis. Their minds were to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and deterred from those of vice by the dread of punishments proportioned, indeed, but irremissible; in all cases, to follow truth as the only safe guide, and to eschew error, which bewilders us in one false consequence after another in endless succession. These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure of order and good government. But this would have been an operation of a generation or two at least, within which period would have succeeded many Neros and Commoduses, who would have quashed the whole process. I confess, then, I can neither see what Cicero, Cato and Brutus, united and uncontrolled could have devised to lead their people into good government, nor how this enigma can be solved." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1819. ME 15:233

Preparation Necessary for Self-Government

"Some preparation seems necessary to qualify the body of a nation for self-government." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, 1802. FE 8:179

"Reformation in government follows reformation in opinion." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price, 1789. ME 7:366, Papers 15:138

"More than a generation will be requisite [for an unprepared people], under the administration of reasonable laws favoring the progress of knowledge in the general mass of the people, and their habituation to an independent security of person and property, before they will be capable of estimating the value of freedom, and the necessity of a sacred adherence to the principles on which it rests for preservation." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1815. ME 14:245

"The people of England, I think, are less oppressed than here [in France]. But it needs but half an eye to see, when among them, that the foundation is laid in their dispositions for the establishment of a despotism. Nobility, wealth, and pomp are the objects of their admiration." --Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, 1786. ME 5:397

"An enlightened people, and an energetic public opinion... will control and enchain the aristocratic spirit of the government." --Thomas Jefferson to Chevalier de Ouis, 1814. ME 14:130

"Instead of that liberty which takes root and growth in the progress of reason, if recovered by mere force or accident, it becomes with an unprepared people a tyranny still of the many, the few, or the one." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1815. ME 14:245

"In these countries [of Europe],... ignorance, superstition, poverty, and oppression of body and mind, in every form, are so firmly settled on the mass of the people, that their redemption from them can never be hoped. If the Almighty had begotten a thousand sons, instead of one, they would not have sufficed for this task. If all the sovereigns of Europe were to set themselves to work, to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance and prejudices, and that, as zealously as they now endeavor the contrary, a thousand years would not place them on that high ground, on which our common people are now setting out." --Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, 1786. ME 5:396

The Limits of Reform

"Should [reformers] attempt more than the established habits of the people are ripe for, they may lose all and retard indefinitely the ultimate object of their aim." --Thomas Jefferson to Mme de Tesse, Mar 20, 1787. (*) ME 6:105

"To be really useful, we must keep pace with the state of society, and not dishearten it by attempts at what its population, means, or occupations will fail in attempting." --Thomas Jefferson to G. C. de La Costa, 1807. ME 11:206

"No one, I hope, can doubt my wish to see... all mankind exercising self-government, and capable of exercising it. But the question is not what we wish, but what is practicable." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1817. ME 15:116

"It can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XVII, 1782. ME 2:224

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