Tag Archives: Laws
Factions get possession of the public councils [legislatures]. Bribery corrupts them. Personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents; and other impediments arise so as to prove to every practical man that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal.
To James Madison, September 6, 1789
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders recognize that human nature will subvert the public good.
This is from the same letter I excerpted two days ago. Jefferson addressed the issue of one generation binding a future one.
Since any law or constitution could be repealed, wasn’t that adequate protection? No.
Do laws really need to carry an expiration date? Yes.
In a perfect society, the right to repeal would be adequate, but Jefferson recognized human nature as far from perfect. These get in the way:
– Factions, or special interest groups
– Bribery, or theft and greed
– Personal interests, which trump the public good
– “and other impediments” (Could you list a few?)
Far better that laws, constitutions and taxes (!) come with expiration dates. At a later time, voters could extend them if they wanted. Otherwise, if dependent on repeal, future generations might be stuck with them forever.
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… were it made a question, whether no law, as among the savage Americans, or too much law, as among the civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last; and that the sheep are happier of themselves, than under care of the wolves. It will be said, the great societies cannot exist without government. The savages, therefore, break them into small ones.
Notes on Virginia, 1782
Taken from Koch & Peden’s Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, P. 207
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leading by consensus can be better than leading by law.
A Frenchman posed 23 questions to Jefferson about his native state. The combined answers became Notes on Virginia, the only book he completed. This excerpt is taken from his reply to “Query XI – “A description of the Indians established in that State?”
He observed that Indians had long before separated themselves “into so many little societies … [the result of their not being] submitted to any laws, any coercive power, any shadow of government.” These small societies functioned by consensus. “Crimes are very rare among them,” he wrote, and consequences were primarily contempt or exclusion. Serious offenses such as murder were punished by those affected.
Jefferson favored small government, local government, and as little as needed, primarily to restrain people from injuring one another. He believed the natives had accomplished that purpose without laws. “Civilized” Europe was just the opposite, with too many laws. Far better the sheep govern themselves than have wolves do it for them.
Jefferson knew that the United States could not break itself into thousands of small, self-governing societies. His answer to the wolf problem, then, would become a constitution, a “super” law, adopted by a super-majority, jealously protected and strictly interpreted.
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Very early in the course of my researches into the laws of Virginia, I observed that many of them were already lost, and many more on the point of being lost, as existing only in single copies …
This leads us then to the only means of preserving those remains of our laws now under consideration, that is, a multiplication of printed copies. I think therefore that there should be printed at public expense, an edition of all the laws ever passed by our legislatures which can now be found; that a copy should be deposited in every public library in America, in the principal public offices within the State, and some perhaps in the most distinguished public libraries of Europe, and that the rest should be sold to individuals, towards reimbursing the expences of the edition …
To George Wythe, January 16, 1796
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders appreciate a government of laws, not of men.
George Wythe was Jefferson’ mentor and friend, directed his study to become a lawyer, and was a co-signer of the Declaration of Independence. During the Revolutionary War, Jefferson devoted himself to a revision of the laws of Virginia, many which existed only as a single copy. Other laws, he feared, were lost forever. To combat this, he proposed printing at public expense “all the laws every passed by our legislatures,” a work that might be contained in four volumes.
This was practical, not just some academic exercise. He wanted that work placed in every public library in the nation, in Virginia’s public offices, even in the best libraries of Europe. In other words, he wanted the laws to be distributed as widely as possible, accessible by all.
Ever conservative about public expenditures, some of the printing cost might be recaptured by selling copies, too.
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