One Hundred and Seventy-three Despots …

Liberty Letters with Steve Farrell

Volume I, Letter 16, Jefferson

jeffpic10There is too much talk about democracy and equality today, and not enough about republicanism and the rule of law.

More than one Founding Father called democracy “the worst of all forms of government.”

Thomas Jefferson, like all of the Founding Fathers, believed in the democratic process for republics, but not in pure democracy as a form of government.

Writing in his Notes On Virginia, p. 195, Jefferson came out strong for the complexity of a republic — not a democracy — with its separation and mixtures of powers, and its checks and balances, as absolute necessities in checking tyranny, whether from the one, the few, or the many. He wrote:

All the powers of government, legislative, executive, and judiciary, result to the legislative body. The concentrating these in the same hands, is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation, that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one. One hundred and seventy-three despots would surely be as oppressive as one. Let those who doubt it, turn their eyes on the republic of Venice. As little will it avail us, that they are chosen by ourselves. An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one which should not only be founded on free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.

This is wisdom. Democracy has just as much a potential for despotism as anything else; thus Jefferson’s emphasis on division of powers and checks and balances.

Yet, Jefferson understood checking tyranny required something else:

It is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power… Our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which, and no further, our confidence may go… In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution. 1

Added, therefore, to division of powers, and checks and balances, was a written Constitution with an emphasis on limited rather than open ended powers (firmly rejecting the Living Constitution idea that many today claim for our Constitution) and a people who are jealous, or guarded about that power, keeping an ever watchful eye on the state and its players.

Finally, vital to this bit about jealousy, or eternal vigilance, there was the matter of education. “Any nation that expects to be ignorant and free,” he warned, “expects what never was and never can be.”

You see, self-government practiced by the ignorant, ill informed, and immoral (“the moral sense” Jefferson taught was the most critical component of an education) is just as much a sure formula for tyranny as a government bereft of divisions of powers, checks and balances, a written Constitution, and a limitation of powers doctrine.

Steve Farrell 128X128Steve Farrell is one of the original pundits at Silver Eddy Award Winner, (1999-2008), associate professor of political economy at George Wythe University, the author of the highly praised inspirational novel “Dark Rose,” and editor in chief of The Moral Liberal.


1. Thomas Jefferson, Draft Kentucky Resolution, 798. ME 17:388.


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