Summary: The early days were perilous for the Republic. The founders flirted with military coup and tyranny. Here Jefferson tells about one such moment of weakness. Today we’re experiencing another. But we can, as they did in 1776 and 1781, prevent America from into tyranny.
Please read this prescient warning in Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson (1781; text here). He describes one of the Republic’s early brushes with tyranny.
In December 1776, our circumstances being much distressed, it was proposed in the house of delegates to create a dictator, invested with every power legislative, executive and judiciary, civil and military, of life and of death, over our persons and over our properties: and in June 1781, again under calamity, the same proposition was repeated, and wanted a few votes only of being passed.
One who entered into this contest from a pure love of liberty, and a sense of injured rights, who determined to make every sacrifice, and to meet every danger, for the re-establishment of those rights on a firm basis, who did not mean to expend his blood and substance for the wretched purpose of changing this master for that, but to place the powers of governing him in a plurality of hands of his own choice, so that the corrupt will of no one man might in future oppress him, must stand confounded and dismayed when he is told, that a considerable portion of that plurality had meditated the surrender of them into a single hand, and, in lieu of a limited monarch, to deliver him over to a despotic one! How must we find his efforts and sacrifices abused and baffled, if he may still by a single vote be laid prostrate at the feet of one man!
In God’s name, from whence have they derived this power? Is it from our ancient laws? None such can be produced. Is it from any principle in our new constitution, expressed or implied? Every lineament of that expressed or implied, is in full opposition to it. Its fundamental principle is, that the state shall be governed as a commonwealth. It provides a republican organization, proscribes under the name of prerogative the exercise of all powers undefined by the laws; places on this basis the whole system of our laws; and, by consolidating them together, choses that they shall be left to stand or fall together, never providing for any circumstances, nor admitting that such could arise, wherein either should be suspended. No, not for a moment.
Our ancient laws expressly declare, that those who are but delegates themselves shall not delegate to others powers which require judgment and integrity in their exercise. … The same laws forbid the abandonment of that post, even on ordinary occasions; and much more a transfer of their powers into other hands and other forms, without consulting the people. They never admit the idea that these, like sheep or cattle, may be given from hand to hand without an appeal to their own will.
Was it from the necessity of the case? Necessities which dissolve a government, do not convey its authority to an oligarchy or a monarchy. They throw back, into the hands of the people, the powers they had delegated, and leave them as individuals to shift for themselves.
A leader may offer, but not impose himself, nor be imposed on them. Much less can their necks be submitted to his sword, their breath be held at his will or caprice. The necessity which should operate these tremendous effects should at least be palpable and irresistible. Yet in both instances, where it was feared, or pretended with us, it was belied by the event. It was belied too by the preceding experience of our sister states, several of whom had grappled through greater difficulties without abandoning their forms of government.
When the proposition was first made, Massachusetts had found even the government of committees sufficient to carry them through an invasion. But we at the time of that proposition were under no invasion. When the second was made, there had been added to this example those of Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, in all of which the republican form had been found equal to the task of carrying them through the severest trials.
In this state alone did there exist so little virtue, that fear was to be fixed in the hearts of the people, and to become the motive of their exertions and the principle of their government? The very thought alone was treason against the people; was treason against mankind in general; as riveting for ever the chains which bow down their necks, by giving to their oppressors a proof, which they
Other notes from the past
- From the 3rd century BC, Polybius warns us about demographic collapse, 11 June 2008
- President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris, 1 July 2008
- de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
- Dr. Gulliver explains why America has become so fearful of the future, 23 October 2008
- The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008
- Napoleon’s advice to President Obama about the financial crisis, 29 April 2009
- A warning from Alexis De Tocqueville about our military, 7 August 2009
- Another note from our past, helping us see our future, 16 September 2009 — by Daniel Ellsberg
- A great philosopher and statesman comments on the Bush-Obama tweaks to the Constitution, 10 October 2010 — by Edmond Burke
- Advice from one of the British Empire’s greatest Foreign Ministers, 18 November 2011 — by Lord Palmerston
- George Orwell sends us a note, giving some perspective on our situation, 22 January 2012
- Thomas Jefferson saw our present peril. We should heed his warning., 21 April 2012