A strict observance of the written law is … one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property, and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.
Thomas Jefferson to J. B. Colvin, 1810, 5797
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Jefferson was a strong supporter of written laws, equally applied to all. Obeying those laws was a compelling obligation of its citizens and necessary for the preservation of a civil and republican society.
Even so, self-preservation or national preservation (laws of necessity) were more important. Taking another’s life in self-defense might be an example of the first, defying the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 an example of the second.
Jefferson is often criticized for going beyond the Constitution in his purchase of Louisiana. He admitted doing so but claimed the future good of the country and its citizens demanded it (NOT having France strangle trade at New Orleans, interfere with traffic on the Mississippi, or be our western neighbor forever). He might have called that action a law of necessity.
Speaking of New Orleans, on this date, February 27, 1827, just months after Jefferson’s death, the first celebration of Mardi Gras was held in that city.