Both parties, says Jefferson to Abigail Adams (11 Sept. 1804), agree that the proper object of governing is the public good, yet they disagree concerning how it is best to promote that good.

One fears most the ignorance of the people; the other, the selfishness of rulers independent of them. Which is right, time and experience will prove. We think that one side of this experiment has been long enough tried, and proved not to promote the good of the many; and that the other has not been fairly and sufficiently tried.

Here and in numerous other passages, Jefferson writes of Federalism and Republicanism as mutually exclusive political alternatives. Federalism has been fairly tried; Republicanism has not.

Moreover, Jefferson believes that Republicanism—comprising, inter alia, thin government of and by the people through elected officials—is an improvement over prior aristocratic or monarchical, thick Federalist-styled governments. Whereas in the latter wealth and birth are determining factors for right to govern, in a Jeffersonian republic, genius and morality are the only criteria. Federalists are dubbed “stock jobbers & king-jobbers” (TJ to Lafayette, 16 June 1792); “aristocrats and monocrats,” who “float on the surface, … shew much, though they weight little” (TJ to J.P.B. de Warville, 8 May 1793); “monocrats and paper men,” who want “armies & debts” (TJ to James Madison, 3 Apr. 1794); and even “subjects for a madhouse” (TJ to Dr. Thomas Leib, 23 Jan. 1808). Republicanism, in contrast, is “a government of laws addressed to the reason of the people, and not to their weaknesses” (TJ to Thomas Mann Randolph, 7 Jan. 1793); “the control of the people over the organs of their government” (TJ to John Taylor, 28 May 1816); and “the equal right of every citizen, in his person and property, and in their management” (TJ to Samuel Kercheval, 12 July 1816). To Levi Lincoln (25 Oct. 1802), he speaks with optimism of Federalists finding sobriety of thought and turning into republicans “by degrees.” To John Melish (13 Jan. 1813), he suggests a moral difference: Republicans govern from a sense of duty to their fellow citizens, while Federalists govern from a love of “the exercise of power.” In sum, whereas Federalism is founded on conservative political principles, monarchical in nature, which have had their day and failed, Republicanism is forward-looking, progressive, and liberal. It is an experiment to be tried, and Jefferson gives every reason to think that the experiment will be rousingly successful.

Such things noted, Jefferson in several letters writes differently of Republicanism and Federalism: They are two complementary fundamental dispositions in the nature of humans.

Consider this letter to Joel Barlow (3 May 1802):

As the division into whig and tory [republican and federalist] is founded in the nature of man; the weakly and nerveless, the rich and the corrupt, seeing more safety and accessibility in a strong executive; the healthy, firm, and virtuous, feeling a confidence in their physical and moral resources, and willing to part with only so much power as is necessary for their good government.

Twenty-two years later, Jefferson writes to Henry Lee (10 Aug. 1824):

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties. 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2ndly those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest & safe, altho’ not the most wise depository of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves.

To John Cartwright (5 June 1824), Jefferson states that the natural differences in disposition of thought are rooted in Anglo-Saxon and Norman thinking. He writes: “It has ever appeared to me, that the differences between Whig and Tory of England is, that the Whig deduces his rights from the Anglo-Saxon source, and the Tory from the Norman.”

To William Short, months later (8 Jan. 1825), Jefferson writes:

Men, according to their constitutions, and the circumstances in which they are placed, differ honestly in opinion. Some are whigs, liberals, democrats, call them what you please. Others are tories, serviles, aristocrats, &c. The latter fear the people, and wish to transfer all power to the higher classes of society; the former consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them therefore, and wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competent.

Here he adds “circumstances”—and here he has in mind mostly climate—to constitution. Climate, it seems, can mitigate or enhance a constitutional disposition. Moreover, there is something unexpectedly adscetitious. This division is “the most salutary of all divisions.” The justification for this claim is not much: If not fostered, “some more dangerous principle of division will take its place.” What principle is that? Here Jefferson is silent, and it is perhaps best not to surmise.

In reply to letter to the Marquis de Chastellux (2 Sept. 1785) concerning his fellow Virginians, Jefferson expatiates on “circumstances.” He essays to explain certain human regional behavioral dissimilarities, which are the result of climate. The reply lists those dissimilarities between northerners and southerners that are the result, Jefferson unabashedly adds, of “that warmth of their [southern] climate which unnerves and unmans both body and mind.”







jealous of own liberties; just to others’



superstitious and hypocritical in religion







zealous of own liberties; trampling on others’



attached only to religion of the heart

The nine character traits are each contraries, with the exception of the middle trait, which is independency of spirit, endemic to America. “These characteristics grow weaker and weaker by gradation from North to South and South to North,” writes Jefferson, “insomuch that an observing traveler, without the aid of the quadrant may always know his latitude by the character of the people among whom he finds himself.” Pennsylvania, being roughly situated neatly between north and south, forms a people “free from the extremes of both vice and virtue.”

Thus, two basal “climate-conditioned” types of constitution, for Jefferson, are needed aspects of good governing. He writes to John Taylor (1 June 1798): “In every free and deliberating society, there must, from the nature of man, be opposite parties and violent dissensions and discords; and one of these, for the most part, must prevail over the other for a longer or shorter time. Perhaps this party division is necessary to induce each to watch and relate to the people the proceedings of the other.

These two strands in Jefferson’s writings—what might be dubbed the Mutual Exclusivity Thesis (MET) and the Complementarity Thesis (CT)—seem clearly at odds with each other. Was Jefferson such a casual, discretionary thinker on such issues?

Not at all. The principles are not inconsistent.

The Federalism and Republicanism of which Jefferson speaks in the passages supporting the MET are the two parties—the Federalism articulated by Adams and Hamilton, founded on birth and wealth, and Jeffersonian Republicanism, founded on genius (talent and intelligence) and virtue and illustrated in his First Inaugural Address. Thus, to speak of Republicanism as an improvement over Federalism is to speak of the principles embraced by the political movement (demassified and thin government, progressivism, suspiciousness of power, protection of citizens’ rights, and trust of the citizenry, etc.) as philosophically superior to those of Federalism (centralized and large federal government, filiopiety, hunger for power, heavy-handed governing, distrust of the citizenry, etc.).

The federalism and republicanism of which Jefferson speaks in the passages supporting CT are merely two climate-controlled human dispositions—one not superior to the other—limned in his letter to Chastellux and conformable to the principles of Jeffersonian republicanism. The fieriness, love of luxury, indolence, and unsteadiness of the republican disposition needs to be counterbalanced in government by the coolness, sobriety, laboriousness, and perseverance of the federalist disposition. Moreover, the chicanery and religious hypocrisy of the federalist disposition needs to be counterbalanced in government by the candidness and moral sentimentality of the republican disposition. Finally, northern interestedness and southern generosity—the only coupling other than independent/independent where both elements are positive characteristics—are each welcome characteristics. Thus, the natural aristocracy of his famous letter to Adams (28 Oct. 1813), listing genius and virtue as the only two desiderata of governing, must be grasped as comprising those of a northerly, federalist disposition and those of a southerly disposition.

M. Andrew Holowchak

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and history, who taught at institutions such as University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, and Rutgers University, Camden. He is editor of Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time and author/editor of over 65 books and over 275 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars to be the world’s foremost authority—and has published over 200 essays and 27 books on Jefferson. He also has numerous videos and a weekly series with Donna Vitak, titled “One Work, Five Questions,” on Jefferson on YouTube. He can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a Reply