Don’t get too big for your britches.
Great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities.
Thomas Jefferson to General Kosciusko, 1808, 3967
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
John Foley, the editor whose work I use for most posts, renders this as a sentence in its own right, but Jefferson did not compose it that way. Rather, it explained his reasoning for not pushing a much larger issue.
In 1808, facing increasing naval pressure from England, America needed a much stronger army. For some years, President Jefferson had wanted to “classify” the militia, dividing it into age groups, with 21-25 year-olds bearing the greatest obligation to serve. That earlier measure had not passed, and by 1808, a simpler plan was proposed to Congress. Neither was the simpler plan adopted. Jefferson wrote that if Congress were pressed, the plan might have “carried by small majority.”
Changing how militia was conscripted was a major undertaking. Jefferson advocated, in a time of national peril, the federal government be involved in what had been a strictly local issue. It was, indeed, a “great innovation,” and it needed great public support. He saw that public support increasing but not yet sufficient to sway Congress. Lacking that support, and not willing to push a bold initiative through on a slender majority, he let the matter lay. Though Jefferson was hopeful the measure would pass in a future Congress, that didn’t happen.
As a single sentence, this statement could be taken as Jefferson’s general philosophy on working with Congress (or with any group of voting people). He favored consensus, hated confrontation and didn’t want a legitimate minority to feel threatened or ignored. Great innovations should only go forth with strong support.
(This link is to Jefferson’s original letter. I had to read it slowly and with a magnifying glass. I can’t say for sure, but I think you can tell each time he dipped his pen in the inkwell. The next few words are much darker.)