Adams v. Jefferson: the Necessity of Government

A debate between Adams and Jefferson from the John Adams mini-series on the necessity of a written constitution.  I am all on the side of Adams.  Putting one’s faith in the good sense and decency of people in general, and being cavalier about political arrangements as to government, is a short route to chaos as History woefully tells us.  Jefferson’s views on this topic were tellingly set forth in a letter to William Smith on November 13, 1787:

God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. … What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

Jefferson, for a man who did not spend a single day in the Continental Army during the Revolution, was quite free in his talk about bloodshed.  Most of the Founding Fathers, including Adams, viewed the misery and the blood of the Revolution as a regrettable necessity in the setting up of a new nation, and dreaded a repetition of such a conflict.  Not so Jefferson who seemed to view such conflict as a necessary and normal part of a free society.  Fortunately, heads wiser than Jefferson’s helped frame an enduring Constitution.  James Madison, ironically the closest political associate of Jefferson throughout most of Jefferson’s later political career, summed up the necessity of government well in Federalist 51:

But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Published in: on November 17, 2019 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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