Liberty for Jefferson is a concept readily grasped, but one, he learns throughout the decades, of great difficulty in application. It is easy to understand what it means for government to be only minimally involved in the affairs of its citizens—to be involved in directing its foreign affairs and in protecting citizens’ liberties—but difficult to put into praxis such thin government. Opportunities for thickness ever get in the way.

Jeffersonian government, with its paired axioms of equality and liberty, place large volitional demands on its citizens. For republicanism to work, citizens must be utmostly involved in governmental affairs, insofar as their affairs allowed for involvement. They are expected to participate in such affairs, for instance, through jury duty, voting, overseeing the actions of elected governors, and even participation in governing, if only in local wards. They are expected to grasp the corruptive enticement of power through governing, hence overseeing governors is critical.

Here volition is critical. Citizens liberated from the yoke of suffocative government, for Jefferson, will recognize that a government protective of their rights, can only thrive when all citizens take active interest in it. They, however, are not mandated to do so, and there will be no need of any sort of trickery to entice them. They will, thinks Jefferson, merely choose to do so from recognition that Jeffersonian republicanism cannot work unless they sacrifice their time and that it is the right thing to do.

In short, Jeffersonian republicanism is not without its flaws. It instead presents itself as one horn of a dilemma.

  1. Citizens can choose an aristocratic form of government (e.g., monarchy of some sort) or they can govern themselves in some manner.
  2. All aristocratic forms of government have proven themselves to be abusive to the interests of the general citizenry.
  3. Pure self-government (as Plato has shown[1]) is anarchy.
  4. So, citizens can choose between coercion and anarchy.

This is the sort of argument that John Adams might endorse. Yet Adams merely thinks that any form of government other than aristocracy is impossible: Any form of democracy will naturally slip into an aristocracy. He argues thus in a letter to Jefferson (15 Nov. 1813). Let any 100 men choose to form of government and give to each one vote. In a short manner of time, 25 of those men will have gained, willy-nilly, the vote of 25 others, and those select 25 will be men of wealth, birth, and even beauty, not virtue and genius. “Nobility in Men is worth as much as it is in Horses Asses or Rams.”[2] Of those, men of wealth will hold the first place of power in a civilized society. Why is that the case? “Religion, superstition, oaths, education, laws, all give way before passions, interest, and power, which can be resisted by passions, interest, and power.”[3] What of Jefferson’s remedy: the diffusion of knowledge? Adams asserts, “The more knowledge is diffused, the more the passions are extended, and the more furious they grow.”[4] In short, the passions are fueled, and thus, decupled by the addition of knowledge.

Jefferson too agrees with the argument. Yet the argument for him can be salvaged by recrafting the argument by addition of a premise. While pure self-government is anarchical, self-government through elected representatives might not be so. And so, Jefferson would thus, and in its baldest sense, recast the argument:

  1. Citizens can choose an aristocratic form of government (e.g., monarchy of some sort) or they can govern themselves in some manner.
  2. All aristocratic forms of government have proven themselves to be abusive to the interests of the general citizenry.
  3. Pure self-government (as Plato has shown[5]) is anarchy.
  4. Yet self-government through elected representatives, republicanism, has not been tried.
  5. So, citizens can choose between coercion and an untried form of self-governing: republicanism.

As Jefferson’s writings show (e.g., First Inaugural Address), Jeffersonian republicanism is much more than government by the people through elected representatives. I dilate on that claim.

A Jeffersonian republic is a system of government that is grounded on robust individualism. There are individuals and their families; families are parts of small, self-sufficient governmental entities, called wards (or hundreds); wards are parts of self-sufficient counties; counties are parts of self-sufficient states; and states are parts the nation, whose function is to ensure, inter alia, that individuals thrive by protection of their rights. The key to success of this system is civic liberty, and civic liberty entails that individuals of families are freed to do as they please within wards; wards, within counties; counties, within states; and states, within the nation. Moreover, as we find in Jefferson’s fair copy of his Kentucky Resolutions, the powers granted political entities are increased as we work downward—an indication of their philosophical worth, Jefferson’s axiology. Families, as it were, are the axial “political” entities, while individuals are the axial agentive entities of the political system, graspable as Jefferson’s political philosophy.

What makes the system work, at least on paper for Jefferson, is liberty—the freedom for every person to have a self-determined life. Yet it was well-known from at least Plato’s day—premise 3 in the two articulated dilemmas—that a governmental “system” in which each citizen merely did as he pleased to do would be bedlam, hence political philosophers’ revulsion of pure democracy over the millennia and even in Jefferson’s day.

If the freedom for self-determination—to do as one wishes to do so long as one’s actions do not impede others’ self-determined actions—is essentially what makes human life worth living, why then will citizens compromise self-interest for the sake of other-interest, that is, accept limits on what they wish to do? If we grant that a Jeffersonian republic cannot work unless all participate in some significant measure in the tasks of governing as their time and talents allow, then what guarantee can anyone have that all, or at least most, citizens will do that? For Jones, as a blacksmith, to take time away from his craft to attend to political duties will entail that he spends less time at blacksmithing, at the expense of his personal wellbeing. Jefferson’s plantation, it is commonly known, ever suffered from mismanagement, when he attended as governor of Virginia, minister to France, secretary of state, vice president, and president. Upon retirement as secretary of state, Jefferson writes of the sad state of his fields and his plan to rejuvenate them through rotation of his crops to George Washington (14 May 1794): “But it will take me from 3. to. 6. years to get this plan underway. I am not yet satisfied that my acquisition of overseers from the head of Elk has been a happy one, or that much will be done this year towards rescuing my plantation from their wretched condition. Time, patience & perseverance must be the remedy; and the maxim of your letter, ‘slow & sure,’ is not less a good one in agriculture than in politics.”[6] Great-granddaughter Sarah Randolph sums the scenario prior to and during his presidency: “His private affairs were in sad need of his constant presence at home after such long absences in the public service. He now owned in his native State over ten thousand acres of land, which for ten long years had been subject to the bad cultivation, mismanagement, and ravages of hired overseers.”[7] In sum, almost any form of political participation will come at the detriment of one’s personal affairs, with little remuneration to compensate for that participation; substantial participation, substantial detriment. Thus, if not much motivated by desire for notoriety, there is, it seems, no motivation for political participation.

Here we fall back on the empiricist’s metempiricism—Jefferson’s metaphysics. Each person, except few defective sorts like Napoleon, is born with a faculty that naturally senses right from wrong action: the moral sense. When the sense is properly cultivated through maturation—encouraging morally correct action and discouraging morally opprobrious action—there is no need of deliberating on proper courses of moral action: One merely feels the right thing to do, and if schooled on acting on those feelings, one does the right thing to do. He writes to John Adams (14 Oct. 1816). “I believe that it is instinct, and innate, that the moral sense is as much a part of our constitution as that of feeling, seeing, or hearing; as a wise creator must have seen to be necessary in an animal destined to live in society: that every human mind feels pleasure in doing good to another.” Jefferson, in a letter to Peter Carr (19 Aug. 1785), compares the moral sense to a limb, whose functionality is perfected with proper use or is debilitated through overuse or underuse. The notion of proper use, for the sake of moral accountability, is critical, and here the analogies with a sensory organ or a limb invite different ways of cashing out proper use.

For Jefferson, benefaction is an instrumental part of moral sensing. We simple feel that other-concern is right, and so we act on other-interest. That is, as we might say today, just how humans are wired. Pace Plato, there is no need to appeal to human reason and to beguile it by construction of a fundamental lie to inveigle humans to conformity to a pattern of behavior that works toward the good of a polis. In sum, if humans are freed to do as they please and there are no rational impediments to what they sense as morally right, they will merely act in socially and politically beneficial ways.

Plato encountered the same nodus in Republic when Socrates expiscated what an ideal republic would be like. For Plato, there were two basic sort of persons: the courageous and the appetitive. The appetitive, dominated by passions, would comprise the laborers. The courageous, dominated by spirit, would comprise the protectors: the police-force to secure the polis and the army in times of war. The best of the courageous, those showing a capacity for intellect, would, after a lengthy education, become the rules of the polis, and Plato included women among the protectors and rulers. To parry the protest that many would object to being cast as laborer or protector, Plato devised a “great lie”: a story told at the provenance of the ideal polis that some men were made from bronze; some, from silver; and some, from gold. When one of Socrates’ interlocutors objects that no one will believe that fabrication, Socrates counters that few in the first generation will believe the story, but it will take root in subsequent generations[8]–the pretzel logic employed by Progressivists in aiming to Bolshevize American history.

Jefferson proffers no great lie to get citizens to participate as fully as they can in any Jeffersonian republic. Yet he does posit the existence of a moral sense in all humans. That is not a tendentious maneuver by Jefferson. It is part of what he inherited from the moral sentimentalists and moral-sense theorists of his day, such as Early of Shaftesbury, David Hume, Lord Kames, Francis Hutcheson, and Adam Smith.[9] It may be that Jefferson’s solution to Plato’s problem is no better than Plato’s. While Plato’s republic suffers because it is founded on a great lie, it might be that Jefferson’s suffers from great metaphysical callowness: the metempirical posit that all humans are equally moral and that they will, with gentle prodding, act on what they sense to be morally right, when governmental constraints are absent. Jefferson would surely counter that existence of a moral sense is not a metaphysical posit, but it is shown true by appeal to human experience. Against that remonstrance, one might object that no one has had experience of a moral sense till Enlightenment times. So, why then did it take so long to observe something so obvious—something that is merely part of humans’ constitution?


[1] Republic, Books VIII and IX.

[2] John Adams to TJ, 9 July 1813.

[3] John Adams, A Defense of the Constitutions of the Government of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Budd and Bartram, 1797), 158 and 324.

[4] John Adams, Discourses on Davila (Boston: Russell and Cutler, 1805), 85.

[5] Republic, Books VIII and IX.

[6] See also TJ to James Madison, 27 Apr. 1795.

[7] Sarah N. Randolph, The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson (Cambridge: University Press, 1939), 191.

[8] Plato, Republic, trans. G.MA. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992)414b–415d and 42b–423c.

[9] For more, see Antti Kauppinen, “Moral Sentimentalism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta,,

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]


  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    I am hardly a historian, but I love reading those concepts and thoughts that came before me. So, I am not arguing with you (nor Jefferson, Plato, et al). But it seems to me as a student of history, that a republic is the best deal post Reformation for fallen man. Republics also will be flawed because man is flawed. Democracies are damnable. It was after all the majority of the mob who pinned Christ to the cross.

    Monarchies gravitate toward tyrannies, though I agree with C.S. Lewis that many, if not most, don’t appreciate the true nature of a true crown. Though I don’t believe George III was the tyrant he was labeled by many “historians.”

    And it was God who tried to warn His own chosen Jewish people that the Judges He had provided were what they needed at that moment in time and not a king like the corrupt governments abounding around them had. They did not listen and got Saul.

    But I sure enjoyed your article—and learned from it.

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