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Thomas Jefferson’s July 4 Thoughts on the Tea Party

What might the author of the Declaration of Independence had to say about where we are today?

Editor’s Note: A few years ago, in preparing for a July 4 event for the Jefferson Area Tea Party in Charlottesville, Virginia, I wondered what our hometown hero, Thomas Jefferson, would have had to say about today’s Tea Party movement. After all, who better to ask than one of the leaders of the original Tea Party movement? Here, drawn from Jefferson’s own writing and statements, is what the author of the Declaration of Independence might have thought about the present state of the country and the proper reaction to it.—RWT

A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.1 What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?2

Our grievances we have [set forth] with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people, claiming their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate. Let those flatter, who fear: it is not an American art.3

Lay down true principles and adhere to them inflexibly. Do not be frightened into their surrender by the alarms of the timid.4

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. 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. The idea is quite unfounded, that on entering into society we give up any natural right.5

If we are made in some degree for others, yet in a greater [degree] are we made for ourselves. It were contrary to feeling and indeed ridiculous to suppose a man has less right in himself than one of his neighbors or 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 changed.6

I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground: That “all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people.” To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition. Certainly no such universal power was meant to be given them. It was intended to lace them up straitly within the enumerated powers.7

It would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice, [our representatives], to silence our fears for the safety of our rights: that confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism—free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence. In questions of powers, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.8

I think, myself, that we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious.9

When we consider that this government is charged with the external and mutual relations only of these states, we may well doubt whether our organization is not too complicated, too expensive; whether offices or officers have not been multiplied unnecessarily. Considering the general tendency to multiply offices and dependencies, and to increase expense to the ultimate term of burden which the citizen can bear, it behooves us to avail ourselves of every occasion which presents itself for taking off the surcharge; that it may never be seen here that, after leaving to labor the smallest portion of its earnings on which it can subsist, government shall itself consume the residue of what it was instituted to guard.10

[In short,] we [must] prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretense of taking care of them.11

The earth belongs to each generation during its course, fully and in its own right. The second generation receives it clear of the debts and encumbrances of the first, the third of the second, and so on. For if the first could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation. [Thus], no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.12

We are overdone with banking institutions which have banished the precious metals and substituted a more fluctuating and unsafe medium.13 Paper is poverty. It is only the ghost of money, and not money itself.14

I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government to the genuine principles of its Constitution; I mean an additional article, taking from the federal government the power of borrowing.15

A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which 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.16

A little patience, and we shall see the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles.17 Here will be preserved a model of government, securing to man his rights and the fruits of his labor, by an organization constantly subject to his own will.18

The kind invitation to be present at [your] celebration of the anniversary of American Independence is most flattering. In the bold and doubtful election we [made] between submission or the sword, [it is] a consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be—to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all—the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that that mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.19

The flames kindled on the fourth of July, 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume these engines and all who work them.20

For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.21
1. Letter to James Madison, 1787, 2. Letter to William Stephens Smith, 1787, 3. A Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774, 4. Letter to Samuel Kercheval, 1816, 5. Letter to Francis W. Gilmer, 1816, 6. Letter to James Monroe, 1782, 7. Opinion on Creating a National Bank, 1791, 8. Kentucky Resolution, 1798, 9. Letter to William Ludlow, 1824, 10. First Annual Message to Congress, 1801, 11. Letter to Thomas Cooper, 1802, 12. Letter to James Madison, 1789, 13. Letter to Abbe Salimankis, 1810, 14. Letter to Edward Carrington, 1788, 15. Letter to John Taylor, 1798, 16. First Inaugural Address, 1801, 17. Letter to John Taylor, 1798, 18. Letter to William Plumer, 1815, 19. Letter to Roger C. Weightman, 1826, 20. Letter to John Adams, 1821, 21. Letter to Roger C. Weightman, 1826.

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