Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

 

Educating the People

An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight. It is therefore imperative that the nation see to it that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens. It should be noted, that when Jefferson speaks of "science," he is often referring to knowledge or learning in general.
"I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." --Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820. ME 15:278
"Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782. ME 2:207

"The most effectual means of preventing [the perversion of power into tyranny are] to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibits, that possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes." --Thomas Jefferson: Diffusion of Knowledge Bill, 1779. FE 2:221, Papers 2:526

"The information of the people at large can alone make them the safe as they are the sole depositary of our political and religious freedom." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1810. ME 12:417

"The diffusion of information and the arraignment of all abuses at the bar of public reason, I deem [one of] the essential principles of our government, and consequently [one of] those which ought to shape its administration." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural Address, 1801. ME 3:322

"Though [the people] may acquiesce, they cannot approve what they do not understand." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Apportionment Bill, 1792. ME 3:211

No Freedom Without Education
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." --Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, 1816. ME 14:384

"Convinced that the people are the only safe depositories of their own liberty, and that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree, I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree." --Thomas Jefferson to Littleton Waller Tazewell, 1805.

"No nation is permitted to live in ignorance with impunity." --Thomas Jefferson: Virginia Board of Visitors Minutes, 1821. ME 19:408

"Freedom [is] the first-born daughter of science." --Thomas Jefferson to Francois D'Ivernois, 1795. ME 9:297

"Light and liberty go together." --Thomas Jefferson to Tench Coxe, 1795.

"Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. Madison Version FE 4:480

Education and Republican Government
"[I have] a conviction that science is important to the preservation of our republican government, and that it is also essential to its protection against foreign power." --Thomas Jefferson to -----, 1821. ME 15:340

"There are two subjects, indeed, which I shall claim a right to further as long as I breathe: the public education, and the sub-division of counties into wards. I consider the continuance of republican government as absolutely hanging on these two hooks." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1814. ME 14:84

"The value of science to a republican people, the security it gives to liberty by enlightening the minds of its citizens, the protection it affords against foreign power, the virtue it inculcates, the just emulation of the distinction it confers on nations foremost in it; in short, its identification with power, morals, order and happiness (which merits to it premiums of encouragement rather than repressive taxes), are considerations [that should] always [be] present and [bear] with their just weight." --Thomas Jefferson: On the Book Duty, 1821.

"Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government;... whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights." --Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price, 1789. ME 7:253

"[In a republic, according to Montesquieu in Spirit of the Laws, IV,ch.5,] 'virtue may be defined as the love of the laws and of our country. As such love requires a constant preference of public to private interest, it is the source of all private virtue; for they are nothing more than this very preference itself... Now a government is like everything else: to preserve it we must love it... Everything, therefore, depends on establishing this love in a republic; and to inspire it ought to be the principal business of education; but the surest way of instilling it into children is for parents to set them an example.'" --Thomas Jefferson: copied into his Commonplace Book.

"In the constitution of Spain as proposed by the late Cortes, there was a principle entirely new to me:... that no person born after that day should ever acquire the rights of citizenship until he could read and write. It is impossible sufficiently to estimate the wisdom of this provision. Of all those which have been thought of for securing fidelity in the administration of the government, constant reliance to the principles of the constitution, and progressive amendments with the progressive advances of the human mind or changes in human affairs, it is the most effectual." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:491

"[The] provision [in the new constitution of Spain] which, after a certain epoch, disfranchises every citizen who cannot read and write... is the fruitful germ of the improvement of everything good and the correction of everything imperfect in the present constitution. This will give you an enlightened people and an energetic public opinion which will control and enchain the aristocratic spirit of the government." --Thomas Jefferson to Chevalier de Ouis, 1814. ME 14:130

Government's Responsibility to Educate
"And say, finally, whether peace is best preserved by giving energy to the government or information to the people. This last is the most certain and the most legitimate engine of government. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. (Forrest version) ME 6:392

"It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that, too, of the people with a certain degree of instruction. This is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1786. ME 19:24

Educate Every Citizen
"A system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest, as it was the earliest, so will it be the latest of all the public concerns in which I shall permit myself to take an interest." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1818. FE 10:102

"It is highly interesting to our country, and it is the duty of its functionaries, to provide that every citizen in it should receive an education proportioned to the condition and pursuits of his life." --Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1814. ME 19:213

"The mass of our citizens may be divided into two classes -- the laboring and the learned. The laboring will need the first grade of education to qualify them for their pursuits and duties; the learned will need it as a foundation for further acquirements." --Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1814. ME 19:213

"By... [selecting] the youths of genius from among the classes of the poor, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use if not sought for and cultivated." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782. ME 2:206

"Instead of an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger than benefit to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society and scattered with equal hand through all its conditions, was deemed essential to a well-ordered republic." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. MW 1:54

"I do most anxiously wish to see the highest degrees of education given to the higher degrees of genius and to all degrees of it, so much as may enable them to read and understand what is going on in the world and to keep their part of it going on right; for nothing can keep it right but their own vigilant and distrustful superintendence." --Thomas Jefferson to Mann Page, 1795. ME 9:30

Importance for Personal Development
"If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1818. FE 10:99

"If the Wise be the happy man... he must be virtuous too; for, without virtue, happiness cannot be. This then is the true scope of all academical emulation." --Thomas Jefferson to Amos J. Cook, 1816. ME 14:405

"The boys of the rising generation are to be the men of the next, and the sole guardians of the principles we deliver over to them." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Knox, 1810. ME 12:360

"The reflections that the boys of this age are to be the men of the next; that they should be prepared to receive the holy charge which we are cherishing to deliver over to them; that in establishing an institution of wisdom for them, we secure it to all our future generations; that in fulfilling this duty, we bring home to our own bosoms the sweet consolation of seeing our sons rising under a luminous tuition, to destinies of high promise; these are considerations which will occur to all." --Thomas Jefferson to James Breckinridge, 1821. ME 15:314

Training Republican Statesmen
"Nor must we omit to mention among the benefits of education the incalculable advantage of training up able counselors to administer the affairs of our country in all its departments, legislative, executive and judiciary, and to bear their proper share in the councils of our national government: nothing more than education advancing the prosperity, the power, and the happiness of a nation." --Thomas Jefferson: Report for University of Virginia, 1818.

"Laws will be wisely formed and honestly administered in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest; whence it becomes expedient for promoting the public happiness that those persons whom nature has endowed with genius and virtue should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens; and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance. But the indigence of the greater number disabling them from so educating at their own expense those of their children whom nature has fitly formed and disposed to become useful instruments for the public, it is better that such should be sought for and educated at the common expense of all, than that the happiness of all should be confined to the weak or wicked." --Thomas Jefferson: Diffusion of Knowledge Bill, 1779. FE 2:221, Papers 2:527

"We are now trusting to those who are against us in position and principle, to fashion to their own form the minds and affections of our youth... This canker is eating on the vitals of our existence, and if not arrested at once, will be beyond remedy." --Thomas Jefferson to James Breckinridge, 1821. ME 15:315

"The reward of esteem, respect and gratitude [is] due to those who devote their time and efforts to render the youths of every successive age fit governors for the next." --Thomas Jefferson to Hugh L. White, et al., 1810. ME 12:388

Hope for the Improvement of Mankind
"I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource most to be relied on for ameliorating the conditions, promoting the virtue and advancing the happiness of man." --Thomas Jefferson to Cornelius Camden Blatchly, 1822. ME 15:399

"If the condition of man is to be progressively ameliorated, as we fondly hope and believe, education is to be the chief instrument in effecting it." --Thomas Jefferson to M. A. Jullien, 1818. ME 15:172

"What but education has advanced us beyond the condition of our indigenous neighbors? And what chains them to their present state of barbarism and wretchedness but a bigoted veneration for the supposed superlative wisdom of their fathers and the preposterous idea that they are to look backward for better things and not forward, longing, as it should seem, to return to the days of eating acorns and roots rather than indulge in the degeneracies of civilization?" --Thomas Jefferson: Report for University of Virginia, 1818.

"I feel... an ardent desire to see knowledge so disseminated through the mass of mankind that it may, at length, reach even the extremes of society: beggars and kings." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to American Philosophical Society, 1808.