Letters on Liberty and Power
There should be no doubt, either, that Jefferson believed that
government was the greatest, if not only, threat to individual liberty. He wrote
that "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to
gain ground.1 This is so because those who gain positions of power
tend always to extend the bounds of it. Power must always be constrained or
limited else it will increase to the level that it will be despotic. Jefferson
wrote to Judge Spencer Roane in 1819, "It should be remembered, as an axiom of
eternal truth in politics, that whatever power in any government is independent,
is absolute also ...."2 With this principle of necessary limitation
in mind, Jefferson declared "that a bill of rights is what the people are
entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular; and what
no just government should refuse, or rest upon inference."3
1. Edward Dumbauld, ed., The Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson (
New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1955), p. 138.
2. Frank Irwin, ed., Letters of Thomas Jefferson (Tilton, N.H.: Sanbornton
Bridge Press, 1975), p. 215.
3. Irwin, p. 40.
(Jefferson] wrote in a letter in 1820: "You [William C. Jarvis] seem ... to
consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions, a
very dangerous doctrine indeed and one which would place us under the despotism
of an oligarchy . . . The constitution has erected no such single tribunal,
knowing that, to whatever hands confided, with the corruptions of time and party
its members would become despots."4
4. Dumbauld, p. 153.
"At the establishment of our constitution," Jefferson wrote, "the judiciary
bodies were supposed to be the most helpless and harmless members of the
government. Experience, however, soon showed in what way they were to become the
most dangerous; that the insufficiency of the means provided for their removal
gave them a freehold and irresponsibility in office; that their decisions . . .
become law by precedent, sapping by little and little the foundations of the
constitution, and working its change by construction .... In truth, man is not
made to be trusted for life if secured against all liability to account. "5
5. Thomas Jefferson, "The Constitution-Endangered by the
Federal Judiciary," Foundations of Liberty, James R. Patrick, ed., vol. 1 (1988),