July 12, 2011
To the Members of the 112th Congress:
We saw in the last letter that the revolutionary principles Americans declared to the world on July 4, 1776—the principles that gave rise to a New Order of the Ages when, in support of them, the American people pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor—were not “new principles . . . never before thought of.” They were principles already well understood by the American people, who were in the midst of a historic conversation about the principles of political freedom, a conversation that gave birth to what Jefferson called “the American mind.” The Declaration of Independence expressed in bold American terms the logic of political freedom that had become the common sense of the American people.
One essential ingredient of this logic of freedom, which is still very much part of American common sense, was the idea that, because human beings are equal and free by nature, legitimate government can only arise from the consent of the governed. A nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal will—if circumstances permit—be under a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” In other words, the principle of equality gives rise most naturally to a democratic or republican form of government. James Madison expressed this idea in Federalist 39, where he considered whether the government proposed under the new constitution would be “strictly republican.” “It is evident,” he wrote, “that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America . . . [or] with the fundamental principles of the Revolution.”
Because of our conviction that consent is the foundation of legitimate government, we are concerned in every election that the election be fairly conducted, truly expressing the choice or consent of the people. But although consent is the only foundation of legitimate government, it does not follow that all governments founded on consent deserve the respect of freedom’s partisans. The Founders did not suppose that a tyranny must be submitted to by a minority just because a majority elected it. That would mean asking those who are to be oppressed by a majority to accept their oppression with equanimity—as the rightful expression of the noble principles of democracy. It would be to tell oppressed peoples everywhere to cease their struggles for their natural rights as soon as they learn they are outnumbered. What could be more slavish?
These days this point has particular relevance to the various uprisings—some apparently supported by majorities—across the Arab world. These uprisings and rebellions are typically against various forms of tyranny, but they often seem to possess the potential to replace one tyranny with another. How would Jefferson’s “American mind” think about such human events? It would begin, I think, by acknowledging that majority rule is the natural authoritative expression of the consent of the governed; in the same breath, it would observe that free government is instituted to secure the rights of all the people, not just the majority. The very purpose of free government thus sets limits to what even a majority may rightly do.
Jefferson, in his first inaugural address, expressed this idea with characteristic felicity when he urged his countrymen to “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 possesses their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” The will of the majority must be exercised within the bounds of that moral order which legitimates majority rule itself. A thousand tyrants are no more palatable than one. Majority rule and minority rights are therefore inseparable principles of free government. Being bound to respect minority rights does not detract from the majority’s right to rule; it dignifies it. Americans are partisans of free government, but this does not make them partisans of elective despotism, at home or abroad. Oppressive majorities deserve no more respect from us than any other oppressors.
This leads to another ingredient of the logic of political freedom or of American common sense—the idea of “equal law,” which Jefferson mentioned in his first inaugural. As we have noted, the idea of human equality and freedom carries with it the recognition of human rationality; it also contains within it recognition of the limits of human rationality. Because human beings are by nature rational beings, one man may not rightly rule over another as he may rightly rule over a non-rational being (a dog or a horse, for example). But also, because no man is all-knowing or all-good—that is, because human reason is limited and fallible and subject to human passions—one human being may never rightly subject himself to the unrestrained will or unlimited power of another. This is what Madison meant when he wrote that “government… [is] the greatest of all reflections on human nature.”
If men were angels [he wrote], no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.
Human nature or human equality—the fact that human beings are neither angels nor mindless brutes—gives rise to the idea of constitutional or limited government. This is a political constitution that conforms to the natural constitution of man. Because human beings possess reason, their consent can give rise to legitimate government; because human reason is fallible and subject sometimes to unreasonable passions, human government must be subject to law.
It required much experience, reflection, and study for the American revolutionaries and founders to equip the American mind so that its common sense might establish free government that would be good government. Their exertions have left a rich legacy to us, making it easier—though never easy!—for us to ensure that America will continue to be what the revolutionaries and founders rightly thought it was at its inception—”the world’s best hope.”