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Jefferson on American Liberty

Mises Daily: Thursday, June 27, 2002 by

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It is Independence Day once again. Because Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence we commemorate today--and because he died on this day in 1826, 50 years after the Declaration's signing--it is worth taking a moment to remember some of the central ideas of Jefferson, the most prolific of our Founding Fathers on the topics of our rights and the liberty which America was to preserve and protect.

Our government exists only to defend our pre-existing rights.

"A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate."

"The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen in his person and property and in their management."

"It is to secure these rights that we resort to government at all."

Our liberty is to be limited only by others’ equal liberty.

"...rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our own will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual."

"No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him."

"What more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? . . . a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government."

Our government cannot legitimately take away our rights or our liberty to exercise them.

"Our legislators are not sufficiently apprised of the rightful limits of their power: that their true office is to declare and enforce only our natural rights and duties and to take none of them from us."

"The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others."

"...the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression."

"The right of self-government does not comprehend the government of others."

"It [is . . . ridiculous to suppose that a man had less rights in himself than one of his neighbors, or indeed all of them put together. This would be slavery, and not that liberty which the bill of rights has made inviolable, and for the preservation of which our government has been charged."

Our liberty is not to be undermined by government intervention or redistribution. 

"[The] pillars of our prosperity are the most thriving when left most free to individual enterprise."

"The policy of the American government is to leave their citizens free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits."

"To take from one because it is thought that his own industry and that of his father’s has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association--the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it."

"Our wish is that . . . [there may be] maintained that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man from his own industry or that of this fathers."

Jefferson once asked a seminal question: "Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?"  

Our founding documents were designed, in part by Jefferson's hand, to answer that question for America. We were to have a government with the reach and power to do only certain enumerated things deemed necessary to maintain our rights and sustain our experiment in liberty.  

This was to minimize the extent to which some would govern others, rather than letting them govern themselves. On the anniversary of Jefferson’s most famous words--and the anniversary of his death--it is appropriate to consider how far we have departed from that initial principle of our founding, and what can be done to reclaim the vitally important liberty we have lost in the process.


Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. Send him MAIL, and see his Mises.org Articles Archive. For more on Thomas Jefferson, see also Jefferson's Philosopher, David Gordon's The Jeffersonian Revisionism Hoax, Thomas DiLorenzo's The Founders on Government, Roderick Long's Equality: The Unknown Ideal, and The Election of 1800 by Joseph Stromberg.