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Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 28 May 1816

To John Taylor

Monticello May 28. 16.

Dear Sir

On my return from a long journey, and considerable absence from home, I found here the copy of your ‘Enquiry into the principles of our government’ which you had been so kind as to send me, and for which I pray you to accept my thanks. the difficulties of getting new works in our situation, inland and without a single book store, are such as had prevented my obtaining a copy before; and letters which had accumulated during my absence, & were calling for answers, have not yet permitted me to give to the whole a thorough reading: yet certain that you and I could not think differently on the fundamentals of rightful government, I was impatient, and availed myself of the intervals of repose from the writing table, to obtain a cursory1 idea of the body of the work. I see in it much matter for profound reflection; much which should confirm our adhesion, in practice, to the good principles of our constitution, and fix our attention on what is yet to be made good. the 6th section on the good moral principles of our government, I found so interesting and replete with sound principle, as to postpone my letter-writing to it’s thoro’ perusal and consideration. besides much other good matter, it settles unanswerably the right of instructing representatives, and their duty to obey. the system of banking we have both equally and ever reprobated. I contemplate it as a blot left in all our constitutions,2 which, if not covered, will end in their destruction, which is already hit by the gamblers in corruption, and is sweeping away, in it’s progress the fortunes & morals of our citizens. funding I consider as limited, rightfully, to a redemption of the debt within the lives of a majority of the generation contracting it; every generation coming equally, by the laws of the creator of the world, to the free possession of the earth he made for their subsistence, unincumbered by their predecessors, who, like them, were but tenants for life. you have succesfully and completely pulverised mr Adams’s system of orders, and his opening the mantle of republicanism to every government of laws, whether consistent or not with natural right. indeed it must be acknoleged that the term republic, is of very vague application in every language. witness the self-styled republics of Holland, Switzerland, Genoa, Venice, Poland. were I to assign to this term a precise and definite idea, I would say that, purely and simply, it means a government, by it’s citizens, in mass, acting directly and personally, according to rules established by the majority: and that every other government is more or less republican in proportion as it has in it’s composition more or less of this ingredient of the direct action of the citizens. such a government is evidently restrained to very narrow limits of space and population. I doubt if it would be practicable beyond the extent of a New England township.   the first shade from this pure element, which, like that of pure vital air cannot sustain life of itself, would be where the powers of the government, being divided, should be exercised each by representatives chosen by the citizens, either pro hâc vice, or for such short terms as should render secure the duty of expressing the will of their constituents. this I should consider as the nearest approach to a pure republic which is practicable on a large scale of country or population. and we have examples of it in some of our state-constitutions, which, if not poisoned by priest-craft, would prove it’s excellence over all mixtures with other elements; and, with only equal doses of poison, would still be the best.   other shades of republicanism may be found in other forms of government, where the Executive, Judiciary, and Legislative functions, and the different branches of the latter are chosen by the people more or less directly, for longer terms of years, or for life, or made hereditary; or where there are mixtures of authorities, some dependant, and others independant of3 the people. the further the departure from direct and constant controul by the citizens, the less has the government of the ingredient of republicanism; evidently none where the authorities are hereditary, as in France, Venice Etc. or self-chosen as in Holland; and little where for life, in proportion as the life continues in being after the act of election.4

The purest republican feature in the government of our own state is the House of Representatives. the Senate is equally so the 1st year, less the 2d and so on. the Executive still less, because not chosen by the people directly. the Judiciary seriously antirepublican because for life; and the national Arm wielded, as you observe by Military leaders, irresponsible but to themselves.   add to this the vicious constitution of our county courts (to whom the justice, the executive administration, the taxation, police, the military appointments of the county, and nearly all our daily concerns are confided) self appointed, self continued, holding their authorities for life, and with an impossibility of breaking in on the perpetual succession of any faction once possessed of the bench. they are in truth the Executive, the Judiciary, and the Military of their respective counties, and the sum of the counties makes the State.   And add also that one half of our brethren who fight and pay taxes, are excluded, like Helots, from the rights of representation; as if society were instituted for the soil, and not for5 the men inhabiting it; or one half of these could dispose of the rights, & the will, of the other half, without their consent.

       ‘What constitutes a state?
Not high-rais’d battlements, or labor’d mound,
   Thick wall, or moated gate:
Not cities proud with spires and turrets crown’d
   No: Men, high-minded men;
   Men, who their duties know;
But know their rights; and, knowing, dare maintain.
   These constitute a state.’

In the General government the House of Representatives is mainly republican; the Senate scarcely so, at all, as not elected by the people directly, and so long secured even against those who do elect them. the Executive more republican than the Senate, from it’s shorter term, it’s election by the people, in practice, (for they vote for A. only on an assurance that he will vote for B.) & because, in practice also, a principle of rotation seems to be in a course of establishment. the Judiciary independant of the Nation, their coercion by impeachment being found nugatory.

If then the controul of the people over the organs of their government be the measure of it’s republicanism, and I confess I know no other measure, it must be agreed that our governments have much less of republicanism, than ought to have been expected; in other words that the people have less regular controul over their agents than their rights & their interest required. and this I ascribe, not to any want of republican dispositions in those who formed these constitutions, but to a submission of true principle to European authorities, to Speculators on government, whose fears of the people have been inspired by the populace of their own great cities, and were unjustly entertained against the independant, the happy, & therefore orderly citizen of the US. much I apprehend that the golden moment is past for reforming these heresies. the functionaries of public power rarely strengthen in their dispositions to abridge it, and an unorganised call for timely amendment is not likely to prevail against an organised opposition to it. we are always told that things are going on well; why change them? ‘chi sta bene, non si muove,’ says the Italian, ‘let him who stands well stand still.’ this is true; & I verily believe they would go on well with us under an absolute monarch, while our present character remains, of order, industry & love of peace, and restrained as he would be by the proper spirit of the people. but it is while it remains such, we should provide against the consequences of it’s deterioration.—and let us rest in the hope that it will yet be done, & spare ourselves the pain of evils which may never happen.

On this view of the import of the term republic, instead of saying, as has been said, that ‘it may mean anything or nothing,’ we may say, with truth and meaning, that governments are more or less republican as they have more or less of the element of popular election and controul in their composition: & beleiving, as I do, that the mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights, & especially that the evils flowing from the duperies of the people are less injurious than those from the egoism of their agents, I am a friend to that composition of government which has in it the most of this ingredient. And I sincerely believe with you, that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies; & that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale

Let me turn to a more engaging subject, the honest culture of the earth. it is a shame that I should ask you a 2d time for a little seed of the Swedish turnep, if you still preserve it. my absences from home at a distant possession, which is almost a second home, occasioned a failure to save seed the last year; and the Ruta baga is so much preferable for the use of the table, that I wish to recover it again. a little may come in a letter by mail, or more if you have a plenty by my grandaughter who says she is coming shortly. I salute you with constant friendship and respect.

Th: Jefferson

RC (MHi: Washburn Autograph Collection); addressed: “John Taylor esquire at Hazlewood near Portroyal”; franked; postmarked Charlottesville, 29 May. PoC (DLC); first two pages only.

John Taylor (1753–1824), agriculturalist, author, and public official, often known as John Taylor of Caroline, was born in Orange or Caroline County and later resided at Hazelwood, his estate near Port Royal in the latter county. After attending the College of William and Mary, 1770–71, he studied law under his uncle Edmund Pendleton, and in 1774 he was admitted to the Caroline County bar. Taylor was an officer in the Continental army, 1776–79, and in the Virginia militia, 1780–81. He represented Caroline County in the Virginia House of Delegates, 1779–82, 1783–85, and 1796–1800, and he sat in the United States Senate, 1792–94, 1803, and 1822–24. Taylor sought TJ’s opinion on a complicated legal case in 1782, and TJ corresponded with him on agricultural matters beginning in 1794. His distinctive version of republicanism is reflected in his political writings, which include A Defence of the Measures of the Administration of Thomas Jefferson, written under the pseudonym “Curtius” (Washington, 1804; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 3316); An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States (Fredericksburg, 1814; TJ’s Retirement Library Catalogue, p. 88 [no. 656] [MS in DLC: TJ Papers, ser. 7]); and Construction Construed, and Constitutions Vindicated (Richmond, 1820; Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library, 1829 description ends , 11 [no. 652]). Taylor combined his political views and his interest in agricultural reform in Arator; being a series of Agricultural Essays, Practical & Political (Georgetown, 1813, and later eds.; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 814; Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library, 1829 description ends , 6 [no. 255]) (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; Garrett Ward Sheldon and C. William Hill Jr., The Liberal Republicanism of John Taylor of Caroline [2008]; Robert E. Shalhope, John Taylor of Caroline [1980]; William and Mary Provisional List description begins A Provisional List of Alumni, Grammar School Students, Members of the Faculty, and Members of the Board of Visitors of the College of William and Mary in Virginia. From 1693 to 1888, 1941 description ends , 39; Heitman, Continental Army description begins Francis B. Heitman, comp., Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution, April, 1775, to December, 1783, rev. ed., 1914 description ends , 534; Leonard, General Assembly description begins Cynthia Miller Leonard, comp., The General Assembly of Virginia, July 30, 1619–January 11, 1978: A Bicentennial Register of Members, 1978 description ends ; PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 39 vols. description ends , esp. 27:724–7, 28:68–9; Richmond Enquirer, 24, 27 Aug. 1824).

what constitutes a state?these constitute a state is based on lines 1–4, 9, 13–4, and 17 of Sir William Jones, “An Ode in Imitation of Alcæus” (John Shore, Baron Teignmouth, ed., The Works of Sir William Jones [London, 1807], 10:389–90). TJ’s grandaughter was Ann C. Bankhead.

1TJ here canceled “view.”

2Manuscript: “constituons.”

3Manuscript: “on.”

4PoC ends here.

5Preceding two words interlined.

Index Entries

  • Adams, John; on governmental systems search
  • Adams, John; TJ on search
  • An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States (J. Taylor) search
  • An Ode in Imitation of Alcæus (W. Jones); quoted by TJ search
  • Bankhead, Ann (Anne) Cary Randolph (TJ’s granddaughter; Charles Lewis Bankhead’s wife); mentioned search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; J. Adams search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; republicanism search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Va. constitution search
  • Jones, Sir William (1746–94); An Ode in Imitation of Alcæus search
  • rutabaga (Swedish turnip) search
  • seeds; sent to TJ search
  • seeds; turnip search
  • Taylor, John (of Caroline); An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States search
  • Taylor, John (of Caroline); identified search
  • Taylor, John (of Caroline); letters to search
  • Taylor, John (of Caroline); sends seeds to TJ search
  • Taylor, John (of Caroline); TJ on writings of search
  • turnips; seed search
  • United States; TJ on government of search
  • Virginia; constitution of (1776) search