December 7, 2004
Fake Jefferson quote update
Thanks to commentor Steve H. for the link to the University of Virginia's Jefferson quotations site, which entirely bears out my initial suspicions about the following passage, which has been very widely quoted with a spurious attribution to Thomas Jefferson:
"A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49%".
The genuine and properly referenced quotes appearing on the University of Virginia site are but a selection, to be sure, but they are also quite a broad selection (some 2,700 in number) chosen as representative of Jefferson's political philosophy. Needless to say, the denigration of democracy as mob rule would not be a sentiment to be expected from the likes of Jefferson. And sure enough, the passage is nowhere to be found on the site, striking though it is -- striking enough to demand inclusion (if genuine) if only to be placed in context. I don't have the time to nail down every last detail, but I've read enough to declare myself convinced that the passage is spurious. Others may now gain their share of glory by tracking down where the passage might have come from, and when.
Here are some of the genuine quotes for purposes of comparison; under the heading of Majority Rule, we find:
"The first principle of republicanism is that the lex majoris partis is the fundamental law of every society of individuals of equal rights; to consider the will of the society enounced by the majority of a single vote as sacred as if unanimous is the first of all lessons in importance, yet the last which is thoroughly learnt. This law once disregarded, no other remains but that of force, which ends necessarily in military despotism." --Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, 1817. ME 15:127Keep scrolling down, and you'll find a plethora of mentions of majority rule as natural law, with constant invocations of the lex majoris partis. And though Jefferson had the following to say about close votes, he was nonetheless a committed believer in majority rule -- unlike those who falsely invoke his name to denounce the essential principle of democracy:
"The will of the people... is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waring, 1801. ME 10:236
"The measures of the fair majority... ought always to be respected." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792. ME 8:397
"I subscribe to the principle, that the will of the majority honestly expressed should give law." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1793. ME 1:332
"All... being equally free, no one has a right to say what shall be law for the others. Our way is to put these questions to the vote, and to consider that as law for which the majority votes." --Thomas Jefferson: Address to the Cherokee Nation, 1809. ME 16:456
"[We acknowledge] the principle that the majority must give the law." --Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael, 1788. ME 7:28
"This... [is] a country where the will of the majority is the law, and ought to be the law." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:85
"Civil government being the sole object of forming societies, its administration must be conducted by common consent." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.VIII, 1782. ME 2:120
"The fundamental principle of [a common government of associated States] is that the will of the majority is to prevail." --Thomas Jefferson to William Eustis, 1809.
"The voice of the majority decides. For the lex majoris partis is the law of all councils, elections, etc., where not otherwise expressly provided." --Thomas Jefferson: Parliamentary Manual, 1800. ME 2:420
"It is the multitude which possess force, and wisdom must yield to that." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:492
"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." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801. ME 3:318Indeed, could the mob rule "quote" ever have come from the same pen as the following?
"Great innovations should not be forced on a slender majority."
--Thomas Jefferson to John Armstrong, 1808. ME 12:42
"[Sometimes] the minorities are too respectable, not to be entitled to some sacrifice of opinion, in the majority."
--Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1788. ME 7:184
"If the measures which have been pursued are approved by the majority, it is the duty of the minority to acquiesce and conform." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1811. ME 13:51ADDENDUM: Why the great popularity of such an openly antidemocratic "quote" in online signatures? Do so many people really feel that some should be more equal than others?
"Every man's reason [is] his own rightful umpire. This principle, with that of acquiescence in the will of the majority, will preserve us free and prosperous as long as they are sacredly observed." --Thomas Jefferson to John F. Watson, 1814. ME 14:136
"It is a rule in all countries that what is done by the body of a nation must be submitted to by all its members." --Thomas Jefferson: Address to Miami and Delaware Nations, 1803. ME 16:398
"[With a majority] having declared against [our proposal], we must suppose we are wrong, according to the fundamental law of every society, the lex majoris partis, to which we are bound to submit." --Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, 1789. ME 7:324
ADDENDUM: There is now an entry at the Monticello website specifically devoted to this spurious quotation.
Posted by David on December 7, 2004 11:27 AM