The Consent of the Governed According to Jefferson
James Hall, From the Left
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit
of Happiness; that to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent
of the governed..." Declaration of Independence, 1776
When the founding fathers set up that government which derived its powers
"from the consent of the governed," they knew exactly what they'd been missing. As colonists they'd had their taxes
and their foreign and domestic policies determined for them by a distant government in which they'd had no representation
whatsoever. People who lived thousands of miles away made decisions for them without their input and without recourse
to anything but eventual revolution and separation.
When the founding fathers conceived of the "consent of the governed,"
they thought of the people as a whole, realizing that not every individual would or could approve of every act of government.
Indeed, it is inconceivable to think of a government acting in such a way that each person in the nation agrees with each
decision arrived at by their government. The reality is that even in a government wonderfully representative of its
people, some decisions are made that some people will disagree with.
Was "consent of the governed" created with this problem in mind?
Must government keep every citizen completely happy and in agreement with each law and regulation it promulgates?
Not according to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson envisioned the "consent
of the governed" he wrote about not as individual consent, but as the consent of the people coming together to make their
political decisions. Jefferson wrote "It must be acknowledged that the term 'republic' is of 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 its composition more or less of this ingredient of direct action
of the citizens." (To J. Taylor, 1816)
In another letter to F. von Humboldt in 1817, Jefferson called the first
principle of republicanism the "majority law," and considered a majority of one to be as binding upon the whole as an unanimous
vote. "This law disregarded, no other remains but that of force, which ends necessarily in military despotism."
For Jefferson this was a simple equation. A government of minority
interests supports its own self-interest and inevitably oppresses the majority. No government at all--anarchy--leads
inevitably to evil forces organizing oppressive regimes. Only a government by and of the majority has the capability
of preserving the individual's rights.
The sacredness of a one-vote majority for Jefferson was based on his
understanding of the contentious nature of humanity. "An association of men who will not quarrel with one another is
a thing that never yet existed, from the greatest confederacy of nations down to a town meeting or a vestry." (Letter to J.
What then, of the rights of the minority? Jefferson was well aware
that a majority rule could be oppressive if the equal rights of minorities were violated. In his first inaugural address,
he said, "Bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will,
to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate
would be oppression." (1801)
But Jefferson relied on a polticially active, fair-minded majority to
insist that individual rights of those they disagreed with be respected, if for nothing else, through their own self-interest.
No other mechanism, no government or piece of paper can protect those rights. Power inevitably leads to corruption,
so the power to protect the people's rights must be invested in the people themselves. It thus becomes each citizen's
responsibility to look after his or her own rights and the rights of his neighbors.
But what about an apathetic or ignorant citizenry? How do we overcome
the people not acting in their interests, or acting in a way we think foolish? Jefferson had an answer to this, too:
"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened
enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their
discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." (Letter to W. Jarvis, 1820)
Perhaps nothing is more important to an understanding of individual self-determination
than the phrase, "consent of the governed." Individuals continually confront others with different experiences or prejudices
at odd with their own. In such an environment, a community must make its political decisions according to the will of
the majority. It is that majority which, fairly instituted, constitutes the guarantor of individuals rights and the
consent of the governed.
I won't play SARTRE's shell game which makes Jefferson's phrase "consent
of the governed" apply to individual states, to counties, to townships, to individuals, or anything but what Jefferson meant
it apply to. "Consent of the governed" refers to our nation's people, as Jefferson constantly made plain. Had it meant
anything less, we would have remained a confederation of states, become a collection of balkanized states or the anarchy that
SARTRE himself desires so much.
Despite SARTRE's weaseling, the Declaration of Independence is a
national document and "consent of the governed" refers to the people as a whole--"the mass of the people" as Jefferson himself
stated it. Jefferson helped create a nation and presided over that national government in 1801--nothing could be plainer.
Jefferson's insistence that a majority of one be accepted as an unanimous
vote also made it plain that he would not accept even a near equally divided minority opinion as the nation's choice.
No minority opinion can dictate the nation's policies. As Jefferson frequently pointed out, the idea that a minority
knows better than a majority what policies to promote and what rights to protect is what created the British tyranny to begin
Jefferson's 'majority rules' attitude makes it hard for SARTRE to
characterize Jefferson in any other way. The government of the people requires that the will of majority makes policy.
SARTRE can quibble about who votes and who doesn't, but our legal traditions, which go back to English common law, agree that
"silence means assent." The voters of our nation have the opportunity for vote for candidates from many parties, many
backgrounds and experiences, and their failure to vote makes them another minority who have made a choice.
The state that SARTRE hates is the people's state. As Jefferson
once wrote to George Washington: "I consider the source of authority with us to be the nation. Their will, declared
through its proper organ, is valid till revoked by their will declared through its proper organ again also." (1792)
Heed the will of the people, SARTRE, or do your best to change it through argument. But don't declare its exercise illegitimate
when it is not.
James Hall, From the Left