The Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson
REPUBLICS / FORMS OF
Indeed, it must be acknowledged, 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, purely and simply, it means a government by its
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 its 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 further the departure from direct and
constant control by the citizens, the less has the government of the
ingredient of republicanism.
The purest republican feature in the government of our own State, is
the House of Representatives. The Senate is equally so the first year,
less the second, and so on.
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 for the men inhabiting it; or one-half of these could dispose
of the rights and the will of the other half, without their consent.
If, then, the control of the people over the organs of their
government be the measure of its 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 control over their agents,
than their rights and their interests require. 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 independent, the happy, and therefore
orderly citizens of the United States. 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 unorganized call for timely amendment is not likely to prevail
against an organized opposition to it. We are always told that things
are going on well why change them? "Chi sta bene, non si
muove," said the Italian, "let him who stands well,
stand still." This is true; and I verily believe they would go on
well with us under an absolute monarch, while our present character
remains, of order, industry and 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 its
deterioration. And let us rest in the hope that it will yet be done.
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 control in their composition; and believing, as I do,
that the mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own
rights and 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.
to John Taylor, 28 May 1816