“A democracy should never be practiced outside the limits of a town.”

"It must be acknowledged that the term 'republic' is of very vague application in every language..."

Did Jefferson really say that?

On July Fourth, an essay by Nicole Swinford titled 10 Things You Might Not Know About America’s Independence that appeared on the Fox News Web site was regurgitated in full or in part on dozens of right-wing blogs, including one I commented on in a previous post. This essay is almost certain to become one of those annoying endlessly forwarded e-mails decorated with irritating gifs of flying hummingbirds and flapping flags that will be sent around next Independence Day and every one thereafter.

One should always beware of what America’s right-wing amateur historians of the revolution claim Thomas Jefferson said. Many times, when you’re given a Jefferson “quote” from one of these sources, though it’s always intended to back up their faith that the Founders were exactly in line with their own political beliefs, you can almost certainly guarantee that Jefferson meant the opposite of what they claim he meant.

Take for example Swinford’s 6th “Thing,” which reiterates the Republican talking point about what kind of government the Founders intended. (Note that this is word for word what my right-wing friend posted on his blog in that previous post):

6.) We Are Not a Democracy: People often associate democracy with freedom. We hear this word used all the time by our politicians, by our neighbors, even sometimes by our educators. But the fact is we are not a democracy. We are a republic. Our Founding Fathers deemed this an important distinction to make and discussed the matter quite a bit. In the end, our Founding Fathers claimed that a democracy was both extreme and dangerous for a country as it would most assuredly result in the oppression of the minority by the majority. Take this one example from Founding Father, Elbridge Gerry: “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy.” And Thomas Jefferson said that democracy should never be practiced outside the limits of a town. Our Founders were very wary of power no matter who had it and thus limited it as much as possible — this is why we have such a unique system of checks and balances.

Before we get to Jefferson, let’s consider the quote overall. Is it true that the Founders deemed the distinction between democracy and republicanism to be important? Look at the Elbridge Gerry quote. It is accurate, but the context is interesting. It was made at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 during a debate on the procedure for electing the House of Representatives, and is taken from Madison’s notes (my emphasis):

Mr. GERRY [Madison notes]. The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots. In Massachusetts it had been fully confirmed by experience, that they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions, by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which no one on the spot can refute. One principal evil arises from the want of due provision for those employed in the administration of government. It would seem to be a maxim of democracy to starve the public servants. He mentioned the popular clamor in Massachusetts for the reduction of salaries, and the attack made on that of the Governor, though secured by the spirit of the Constitution itself. He had, he said, been too republican heretofore: he was still, however, republican; but had been taught by experience the danger of the leveling spirit.

Does anyone doubt where most of the Fox viewers who parrot Gerry’s quote would have stood on the question of “due provision for those employed in the administration of government” in Gerry’s day? Yes, my right-wing friends, you would have stood on the side of “democracy,” or as some of the more delicate of your beloved Founders might have put it, with the rule of the mob. But notice that Gerry does not seem to make the distinction Swinford claims he made, in this context at least, between “republicanism” and “democracy.” On the contrary, he says “he had been too republican before…but had been taught by experience the danger of the leveling spirit.” There doesn’t seem to be any separation for him between the two concepts. For Gerry, it seems, a republic is democratic to various degrees. The question for him is, what degree is optimal?

Was Jefferson, too, against democracy on a large scale, as Swinford implies? Again, it’s revealing to look at the context. Swinford (whether she knows it or not)  is paraphrasing an 1816 letter Jefferson wrote to J. Taylor–after Jefferson’s presidency and long after his participation in the founding of the republic. Here’s the context:

It must be acknowledged that the term “republic” is of very vague application in every language… Were I to assign to this term a precise and definite idea, I would say purely and simply it means a government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally according to rules established by the majority; and that every other government is more or less republican in proportion as it has in its composition more or less of this ingredient of direct action of the citizens. Such a government is evidently restrained to very narrow limits of space and population. I doubt if it would be practicable beyond the extent of a New England township.

Notice that Jefferson doesn’t once use the word “democracy” in this pronouncement. His subject is “what is a republic?” If we take the context seriously then, he actually seems to be saying that he doubts a republic would be practicable outside the limits of a town. Notice that he doesn’t say it shouldn’t be practiced, but that he doubts it can be practiced well. Clearly Jefferson believed in the necessity of citizen involvement in a republic–not just passive or representative involvement, but (words he uses in combination twice as if for emphasis) direct, active involvement.

These kinds of pronouncements show Jefferson’s lasting affiliation with the Jacobins on notions of citizenship in the revolutionary era, even after the worst excesses of the French Revolution were known. He was not the constipated mob-fearing aristocrat that Gerry appears to be, but, rather, a true believer in the expression of the people’s will. His words echo down to us through those of the communards of 1872, the Spanish syndicalists of 1939,  the students of 1968.

My friends on the right, are you really comfortable agreeing with Jefferson?

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One thought on ““A democracy should never be practiced outside the limits of a town.”

  1. Pingback: Does the Left Have a Patriotism Problem? « Tragic Farce

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