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These great quotes were compiled through the diligent efforts of Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.  His work is reproduced here by permission.  You can see a more complete collection of Jefferson quotes at

Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

Separation of Powers:

Federal and State
The Federative Principle was the mechanism introduced by the Founders that made possible a republic spread over a vast continent. In addition, by dividing governmental power into co-equal, independent responsibilities, each branch of government might serve as a check on the other and thus prevent either one from undermining the safety of the public liberty.

"Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single government. Public servants at such a distance, and from under the eye of their constituents, must, from the circumstance of distance, be unable to administer and overlook all the details necessary for the good government of the citizens; and the same circumstance, by rendering detection impossible to their constituents, will invite public agents to corruption, plunder and waste." --Thomas Jefferson to Gideon Granger, 1800. ME 10:167

"While smaller governments are better adapted to the ordinary objects of society, larger confederations more effectually secure independence and the preservation of republican government." --Thomas Jefferson to the Rhode Island Assembly, 1801. ME 10:262

"The extent of our country was so great, and its former division into distinct States so established, that we thought it better to confederate as to foreign affairs only. Every State retained its self-government in domestic matters, as better qualified to direct them to the good and satisfaction of their citizens, than a general government so distant from its remoter citizens and so little familiar with the local peculiarities of the different parts." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Coray, 1823. ME 15:483

"I believe the States can best govern our home concerns, and the General Government our foreign ones." --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:450

"My general plan would be, to make the States one as to everything connected with foreign nations, and several as to everything purely domestic." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:227

"Distinct States, amalgamated into one as to their foreign concerns, but single and independent as to their internal administration, regularly organized with a legislature and governor resting on the choice of the people and enlightened by a free press, can never be so fascinated by the arts of one man as to submit voluntarily to his usurpation. Nor can they be constrained to it by any force he can possess. While that may paralyze the single State in which it happens to be encamped, [the] others, spread over a country of two thousand miles diameter, rise up on every side, ready organized for deliberation by a constitutional legislature and for action by their governor, constitutionally the commander of the militia of the State, that is to say, of every man in it able to bear arms." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811. ME 13:19

"It is hoped that by a due poise and partition of powers between the General and particular governments, we have found the secret of extending the benign blessings of republicanism over still greater tracts of country than we possess, and that a subdivision may be avoided for ages, if not forever." --Thomas Jefferson to James Sullivan, 1791. FE 5:369

The Basis of Separation of Powers

"Our citizens have wisely formed themselves into one nation as to others and several States as among themselves. To the united nation belong our external and mutual relations; to each State, severally, the care of our persons, our property, our reputation and religious freedom." --Thomas Jefferson: To Rhode Island Assembly, 1801. ME 10:262

"The States in North America which confederated to establish their independence of the government of Great Britain, of which Virginia was one, became on that acquisition, free and independent States, and as such, authorized to constitute governments, each for itself, in such form as it thought best. They entered into a compact (which is called the Constitution of the United States of America), by which they agreed to unite in a single government as to their relations with each other and with foreign nations, and as to certain other articles particularly specified. They retained at the same time each to itself, the other rights of independent government, comprehending mainly their domestic interests." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration and Protest of Virginia, 1825. ME 17:442

"The radical idea of the character of the constitution of our government, which I have adopted as a key in cases of doubtful construction, is, that the whole field of government is divided into two departments, domestic and foreign (the States in their mutual relations being of the latter); that the former department is reserved exclusively to the respective States within their own limits, and the latter assigned to a separate set of functionaries, constituting what may be called the foreign branch, which, instead of a federal basis, is established as a distinct government quoad hoc [to this extent], acting as the domestic branch does on the citizens directly and coercively; that these departments have distinct directories, co-ordinate, and equally independent and supreme, each within its own sphere of action." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Livingston, 1824. ME 16:23

"Nor is it admitted... that the people of these States, by not investing their federal branch with all the means of bettering their condition, have denied to themselves any which may effect that purpose; since, in the distribution of these means, they have given to that branch those which belong to its department, and to the States have reserved separately the residue which belong to them separately. And thus by the organization of the two branches taken together, have completely secured the first object of human association, the full improvement of their condition, and reserved to themselves all the faculties of multiplying their own blessings." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration and Protest of Virginia, 1825. ME 17:444

"To the State governments are reserved all legislation and administration in affairs which concern their own citizens only, and to the federal government is given whatever concerns foreigners or the citizens of other States; these functions alone being made federal. The one is the domestic, the other the foreign branch of the same government; neither having control over the other, but within its own department. There are one or two exceptions only to this partition of power." --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:47

"I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground: That "all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people." [X Amendment] To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specifically drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition." --Thomas Jefferson: National Bank Opinion, 1791. ME 3:146

"The States supposed that by their tenth amendment, they had secured themselves against constructive powers." --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:450

"The true theory of our Constitution is surely the wisest and best, that the States are independent as to everything within themselves, and united as to everything respecting foreign nations." --Thomas Jefferson to Gideon Granger, 1800. ME 10:168

"The best general key for the solution of questions of power between our governments is the fact that 'every foreign and federal power is given to the Federal Government, and to the States every power purely domestic.' I recollect but one instance of control vested in the Federal over the State authorities in a matter purely domestic, which is that of metallic tenders. The Federal is, in truth, our foreign government, which department alone is taken from the sovereignty of the separate States." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert J. Garnett, 1824. ME 16:15

"To draw around the whole nation the strength of the General Government as a barrier against foreign foes; to watch the border of every State that no external hand may intrude or disturb the exercise of self-government reserved to itself; to equalize and moderate the public contributions that while the requisite services are invited by due remuneration, nothing beyond this may exist to attract the attention of our citizens from the pursuits of useful industry, nor unjustly to burden those who continue in those pursuits--these are the functions of the General Government on which you have a right to call." --Thomas Jefferson to Amos Marsh, 1801. ME 10:293

"The preservation of the general government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad, I deem [one of] the essential principles of our government, and consequently [one of] those which ought to shape its administration." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural Address, 1801. ME 3:321

Maintaining Separate Responsibilities

"It has been so often said, as to be generally believed, that Congress have no power by the [Articles of] Confederation to enforce anything; for example, contributions of money. It was not necessary to give them that power expressly; they have it by the law of nature. When two parties make a compact, there results to each a power of compelling the other to execute it." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:227

"I like much the general idea of framing a government which should go on of itself, peaceably, without needing continual recurrence to the State legislatures." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787. ME 6:386

"The States should be left to do whatever acts they can do as well as the General Government." --Thomas Jefferson to John Harvie, 1790. FE 5:214

"It is of immense consequence that the States retain as complete authority as possible over their own citizens. The withdrawing themselves under the shelter of a foreign jurisdiction is so subversive of order and so pregnant of abuse, that it may not be amiss to consider how far a law of praemunire [a punishable offense against government] should be revised and modified, against all citizens who attempt to carry their causes before any other than the State courts, in cases where those other courts have no right to their cognizance." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1797. ME 9:424

"[Regulating] the condition of the descriptions of men composing a State... certainly is the exclusive right of every State, which nothing in the Constitution has taken from them and given to the General Government. Could Congress, for example, say that the non-freemen of Connecticut shall be freemen, or that they shall not emigrate into any other State?" --Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, 1820. ME 15:250

Relation of State to Federal

"With respect to our State and federal governments, I do not think their relations correctly understood by foreigners. They generally suppose the former subordinate to the latter. But this is not the case. They are co-ordinate departments of one simple and integral whole." --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:47

"The several States composing the United States of America are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their General Government; but... by a compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States, and of amendments thereto, they constituted a General Government for special purposes,-- delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving, each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft Kentucky Resolutions, 1798. ME 17:379

"It is a fatal heresy to suppose that either our State governments are superior to the Federal or the Federal to the States. The people, to whom all authority belongs, have divided the powers of government into two distinct departments, the leading characters of which are foreign and domestic; and they have appointed for each a distinct set of functionaries. These they have made coordinate, checking and balancing each other like the three cardinal departments in the individual States; each equally supreme as to the powers delegated to itself, and neither authorized ultimately to decide what belongs to itself or to its coparcener in government. As independent, in fact, as different nations." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1821. ME 15:328

"Comparing the two governments together, it is observable that in all those cases where the independent or reserved rights of the States are in question, the two executives, if they are to act together, must be exactly co-ordinate; they are, in these cases, each the supreme head of an independent government. In other cases, to wit, those transferred by the Constitution to the General Government, the general executive is certainly preordinate; e. g. in a question respecting the militia, and others easily to be recollected." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1801. ME 10:267

"I do not think it for the interest of the General Government itself, and still less of the Union at large, that the State governments should be so little respected as they have been. However, I dare say that in time all these as well as their central government, like the planets revolving round their common sun, acting and acted upon according to their respective weights and distances, will produce that beautiful equilibrium on which our Constitution is founded, and which I believe it will exhibit to the world in a degree of perfection, unexampled but in the planetary system itself. The enlightened statesman, therefore, will endeavor to preserve the weight and influence of every part, as too much given any member of it would destroy the general equilibrium." --Thomas Jefferson to Peregrine Fitzhugh, 1798. ME 10:3

Separation is Essential for a Free Nation

"The true barriers of our liberty in this country are our State governments; and the wisest conservative power ever contrived by man is that of which our Revolution and present government found us possessed." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811. ME 13:19

"To preserve the republican forms and principles of our Constitution and cleave to the salutary distribution of powers which that has established... are the two sheet anchors of our Union. If driven from either, we shall be in danger of foundering." --Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:452

"The spirit of concord [amongst] sister States... alone carried us successfully through the revolutionary war, and finally placed us under that national government, which constitutes the safety of every part, by uniting for its protection the powers of the whole." --Thomas Jefferson to William Eustis, 1809. ME 12:227

"It is a singular phenomenon that while our State governments are the very best in the world, without exception or comparison, our General Government has, in the rapid course of nine or ten years, become more arbitrary and has swallowed more of the public liberty than even that of England." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1798. ME 10:65

Drawing the Line

"I have always thought that where the line of demarcation between the powers of the General and the State governments was doubtfully or indistinctly drawn it would be prudent and praiseworthy in both parties never to approach it but under the most urgent necessity." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1814. ME 14:83

"In one sentiment of [Edward Livingston's] speech I particularly concur. 'If we have a doubt relative to any power, we ought not to exercise it.' When we consider the extensive and deep-seated opposition to [a certain] assumption, the conviction entertained by so many, that this deduction of powers by elaborate construction prostrates the rights reserved to the States, the difficulties with which it will rub along in the course of its exercise; that changes of majorities will be changing the system backwards and forwards, so that no undertaking under it will be safe; that there is not a State in the Union which would not give the power willingly by way of amendment with some little guard, perhaps, against abuse; I cannot but think it would be the wisest course to ask an express grant of the power." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Livingston, 1824. (*) ME 16:24

"A spirit of forbearance and compromise, therefore, and not of encroachment and usurpation, is the healing balm of such a Constitution [as ours]; and each party should prudently shrink from all approach to the line of demarcation, instead of rashly overleaping it, or throwing grapples ahead to haul to hereafter." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1821. ME 15:328

"The interests of the States... ought to be made joint in every possible instance in order to cultivate the idea of our being one nation, and to multiply the instances in which the people shall look up to Congress as their head." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1785. ME 5:14, Papers 8:229

"By [the] operations [of public improvement] new channels of communication will be opened between the States; the lines of separation will disappear, their interests will be identified, and their union cemented by new and indissoluble ties." --Thomas Jefferson: 6th Annual Message, 1806. ME 3:423

"Many are the exercises of power reserved to the States wherein a uniformity of proceeding would be advantageous to all. Such are quarantines, health laws, regulations of the press, banking institutions, training militia, etc., etc." --Thomas Jefferson to James Sullivan, 1807. ME 11:237

Contests for Power

"The system of the General Government is to seize all doubtful ground. We must join in the scramble, or get nothing. Where first occupancy is to give right, he who lies still loses all." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1797. ME 9:423

"Were it observed that either party [i.e., State or General government] set up unjustifiable pretensions, perhaps the other might be right in opposing them by a tenaciousness of his own rigorous rights." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1801. ME 10:267

"If the two departments [Federal and State] should claim each the same subject of power, where is the common umpire to decide ultimately between them? In cases of little importance or urgency, the prudence of both parties will keep them aloof from the questionable ground; but if it can neither be avoided not compromised, a convention of the States must be called to ascribe the doubtful power to that department which they may think best." --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:47

"Congress... has always shown that it would wait, as it ought to do, to the last extremities, before it would execute any of its powers which are disagreeable." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:228

"The peculiar happiness of our blessed system is that in differences of opinion between these different sets of servants, the appeal is to neither, but to their employers peaceably assembled by their representatives in convention. This is more rational than the jus fortioris, or the canon's mouth, the ultima et sola ratio regum." --Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1821. ME 15:328

A Gradation of Republics

"The way to have good and safe government is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the function he is competent to. Let the National Government be entrusted with the defence of the nation and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man's farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1816. ME 14:421

"It is not by the consolidation or concentration of powers, but by their distribution that good government is effected. Were not this great country already divided into States, that division must be made that each might do for itself what concerns itself directly and what it can so much better do than a distant authority. Every state again is divided into counties, each to take care of what lies within its local bounds; each county again into townships or wards, to manage minuter details; and every ward into farms, to be governed each by its individual proprietor... It is by this partition of cares descending in gradation from general to particular that the mass of human affairs may be best managed for the good and prosperity of all." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. ME 1:122

"We should thus marshal our government into, 1. the general federal republic, for all concerns foreign and federal; 2. that of the State, for what relates to our own citizens exclusively; 3. the county republics, for the duties and concerns of the county; and 4. the ward republics, for the small and yet numerous and interesting concerns of the neighborhood; and in government, as well as in every other business of life, it is by division and subdivision of duties alone, that all matters, great and small, can be managed to perfection. And the whole is cemented by giving to every citizen, personally, a part in the administration of the public affairs." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:38

"But how collect [the people's] voice? This is the real difficulty. If invited by private authority, [to] county or district meetings, these divisions are so large that few will attend; and their voice will be imperfectly, or falsely, pronounced. Here, then, would be one of the advantages of the ward divisions I have proposed. The mayor of every ward, on a question like the present, would call his ward together, take the simple yea or nay of its members, convey these to the country court, who would hand on those of all its wards to the proper general authority; and the voice of the whole people would be thus fairly, fully, and peaceably expressed, discussed, and decided by the common reason of the society." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:43

The Ward Republics

"These wards once established, will be found convenient and salutary aids in the administration of government, of which they will constitute the organic elements, and the first integral members in the composition of the military." --Thomas Jefferson: Note to Elementary School Act, 1817. ME 17:419

"These wards, called townships in New England, are the vital principle of their governments and have proved themselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and for its preservation." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:38

"The elementary republics of the wards, the county republics, the State republics, and the Republic of the Union, would form a gradation of authorities, standing each on the basis of law, holding every one its delegated share of powers and constituting truly a system of fundamental balances and checks for the government. Where every man is a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic, or of some of the higher ones, and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day; when there shall not be a man in the State who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great or small, he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1816. ME 14:422

"My proposition [to divide every county into wards and to establish in each a free school] had for a further object, to impart to these wards those portions of self-government for which they are best qualified, by confiding to them the care of their poor, their roads, police, elections, the nomination of jurors, administration of justice in small cases, elementary exercises of militia; in short, to have made them little republics, with a warden at the head of each, for all those concerns which, being under their eye, they would better manage than the larger republics of the county or State. A general call of ward meetings by their wardens on the same day through the State, would at any time produce the genuine sense of the people on any required point, and would enable the State to act in mass." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:400

"The article... nearest my heart is the division of counties into wards. These will be pure and elementary republics, the sum of which taken together composes the State, and will make of the whole a true democracy as to the business of the wards, which is that of nearest and daily concern. The affairs of the larger sections, of counties, of States, and of the Union, not admitting personal transactions by the people, will be delegated to agents elected by themselves; and representation will thus be substituted where personal action becomes impracticable. Yet even over these representative organs, should they become corrupt and perverted, the division into wards constituting the people, in their wards, a regularly organized power, enables them by that organization to crush, regularly and peaceably, the usurpations of their unfaithful agents, and rescues them from the dreadful necessity of doing it insurrectionally. In this way we shall be as republican as a large society can be, and secure the continuance of purity in our government by the salutary, peaceable, and regular control of the people." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:70

"Divide the counties into wards of such size as that every citizen can attend, when called on, and act in person. Ascribe to them the government of their wards in all things relating to themselves exclusively. A justice chosen by themselves, in each a constable, a military company, a patrol, a school, the care of their own poor, their own portion of the public roads, the choice of one or more jurors to serve in some court, and the delivery within their own wards of their own votes for all elective officers of higher sphere, will relieve the county administration of nearly all its business, will have it better done, and by making every citizen an acting member of the government, and in the offices nearest and most interesting to him, will attach him by his strongest feelings to the independence of his country and its republican Constitution." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:37

"Each ward would thus be a small republic within itself, and every man in the State would thus become an acting member of the common government, transacting in person a great portion of its rights and duties, subordinate indeed, yet important, and entirely within his competence. The wit of man cannot devise a more solid basis for a free, durable and well-administered republic." --Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:46

"These little republics would be the main strength of the great one. We owe to them the vigor given to our revolution in its commencement in the Eastern States." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1810. ME 12:394

"If it is believed that... elementary schools will be better managed by the governor and council, the commissioners of the literary fund or any other general authority of the government than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience. Try the principle one step further, and... commit to the governor and council the management of all our farms, our mills and merchants' stores. No, my friend, the way to have good and safe government is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1816. ME 14:420

"I have long contemplated a division of [our own state of Virginia] into hundreds or wards, as the most fundamental measure securing good government, and for instilling the principles and exercise of self-government into every fibre of every member of our commonwealth." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1814. ME 14:70

"There are two subjects, indeed, which I shall claim a right to further as long as I breathe: the public education, and the sub-division of counties into wards. I consider the continuance of republican government as absolutely hanging on these two hooks." --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1814. ME 14:84

"As Cato, then concluded every speech with the words, 'Cathago delenda est,' so do I every opinion with the injunction, 'divide the counties into wards.'" --Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1816. ME 14:423

ME, FE = Memorial Edition, Ford Edition.

Copyright 1995-99 Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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