Jefferson - Enlightenment: Social Freedom Social Freedom

"Free government is founded in jealousy..."
Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson returned from his post as minister to France in 1789, expecting to resume his private life at Monticello. Instead, he learned that he had been appointed the nation's first Secretary of State by President George Washington. For the next twenty years, with little break, he would play a leading role in the "experiment" of creating a national government.

From Jefferson's point of view, the experiment began badly. Most policies were set by the Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, who believed that "stability and order in Government...are essential to public strength and private security and happiness." Jefferson believed just the opposite: that private happiness is the source, not the result, of stable government. He saw Hamilton's approach as a form of monarchy and a betrayal of democratic principles.

Those who shared Jefferson's fears soon formed the Republican party, while Hamilton's supporters became known as the Federalists. In 1798, while Jefferson was Vice President, attacks in the press led the Federalists to pass the Sedition Act, which outlawed all opposition to the government, whether by protest or in print. Jefferson responded by secretly drafting a resolution for the Kentucky legislature (see below) that claimed states have the right to overrule any federal law they believe to be unconstitutional. For Jefferson, government had become a struggle for power.

Two years later, Jefferson was himself President, brought to power by what he would call the Revolution of 1800, which swept Federalists out of office. Delivering his first inaugural address, Jefferson now saw the workings of American government in an entirely different light.

Compare Jefferson's two descriptions of the American system of government, the one founded in "jealousy," the other in generosity of spirit.

The Kentucky Resolutions
Confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism - free government is founded in jealousy...; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power:...let the honest advocate of confidence read the alien and sedition acts, and say if the Constitution has not been wise in fixing limits to the government it created, and whether we should be wise in destroying those limits. Let him say what the government is, if it be not a tyranny, which the men of our choice have conferred on our President, and the President of our choice has assented to...In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.

Jefferson's First Inaugural Address
Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things....every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it....This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

  • To what degree are they contradictory? To what degree are they counterparts to one another?

  • What common principles or beliefs unite them as expressions of Jefferson's political philosophy?

  • How can both be attributed to Jefferson's unshakable faith in freedom as the binding force of human society?

This study sheet provided on PBS ONLINE courtesy of General Motors
for Thomas Jefferson, "A General Motors Mark of Excellence Presentation.""
Photograph courtesy of US Treasury/Corbis.