The Wisdom of Thomas Jefferson

THOMAS Jefferson was the writer of the Declaration of Independence and the most prolific of our founding fathers on the topics of our liberty and the rights that America was created to preserve and protect. He recognized that American government exists only to defend our preexisting rights, that our liberty is to be limited only by others’ equal liberty, that government cannot legitimately take away rights or our liberty to exercise them, that economic freedom is not to be overridden and that American government is to be limited in power and scope. Particularly because his insights are so at odds with the everyday operation of American government, it is worth giving them careful thought.

The principles on which we engaged … issued finally in that inestimable state of freedom which alone can ensure to man the enjoyment of his equal rights.

The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them. Nothing … is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.

A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate. But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our own will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.

I do not add “within the limits of the law,” because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.

I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending to too small a degree of it. The idea is quite unfounded that on entering into society we give up any natural rights.

Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God.

It is to secure these rights that we resort to government at all. Laws abridging the natural right of the citizen should be restrained by rigorous constructions within their narrowest limits.

The purposes of society do not require a surrender of all our rights to our ordinary governors … there are certain portions of right not necessary to enable them to carry on an effective government, and which experience has nevertheless proved they will be constantly encroaching on, if submitted to them.

It were contrary to feeling and indeed ridiculous to suppose that a man had less rights in himself than one of his neighbors, or indeed all of them put together. This would be slavery, and not that liberty which the bill of rights has made inviolable, and for the preservation of which our government has been charged.

Our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them.

The equal rights of man and the happiness of every individual are now acknowledged to be the only legitimate objects of government.

Fortify the public liberty by every possible means. What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that the people preserve the spirit of resistance?

The people … are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.

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