The U.S. Constitution: Continuity and Change in the Governing of the United States
Excerpt from Thomas Jefferson's letter to James Madiosn
For Lesson One: Excerpt from Thomas Jefferson's letter to James Madison
20 December 1787
...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. I like the organization of the government into Legislative, Judiciary and Executive. I like the power given the Legislature to levy taxes.... I am captivated by the compromise of the opposite claims of the great and little states, of the latter to equal, and the former to proportional influence. I am much pleased too with the substitution of the method of voting by persons, instead of that of voting by states; and I like the negative given to the Executive with a third of either house, though I should have liked it better had the Judiciary been associated for that purpose, or invested with a similar and separate power. There are other good things of less moment.
I will now add what I do not like. First the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly and without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction against monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land.... Let me add that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.
The second feature I dislike, and greatly dislike, is that abandonment in every instance of the necessity of rotation in office, and most particularly in the case of the President. Experience concurs with reason in concluding that the first magistrate will always be re-elected if the constitution permits it. He is then an officer for life.... If once elected, and at a second or third election outvoted by one or two votes, he will pretend false votes, foul play hold possession of the reins of government, be supported by the states voting for him, especially if they are the central ones.... An incapacity to be elected a second term would have been the only effectual preventative. The power of removing him every fourth year by the vote of the people is a power which will not be exercised....
I have thus told you freely what I like and dislike: merely as a matter of curiosity for I know your own judgment has been formed on all these points after having heard every thing which could be urged on them. I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.... After all, it is my principle that the will of the Majority should always prevail. If they approve the proposed Convention in all it's (sic.) parts, I shall concur in it chearfully (sic.), in hopes that they will amend it whenever they shall find it work [sic.] wrong.
I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another as in Europe. Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty. I have tried you by this time with my disquisitions and will therefore only add assurances of the sincerity of those sentiments of esteem and attachment with which I am Dear Sir your affectionate friend and servant....
From Jefferson, Thomas. The Portable Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Penguin Books, 1975