Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you & I, & Congress & Assemblies, judges & governors shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions; and experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor.
To Edward Carrington, Jan. 16, 1787
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Unrestrained leaders will turn into wolves.
Carrington was a contemporary of Jefferson’s, a fellow Virginian, serving in the Continental Congress in 1787. Jefferson referred earlier in this letter to the “tumults in America,” probably Shays’ Rebellion and the unease that uprising of Massachusetts farmers caused. (That rebellion spurred interest in a more effective national government and influenced the outcome of the Constitutional Convention later that year.)
From 3,500 miles away in France, Jefferson was not troubled by dissent in America. On the contrary, he reaffirmed his faith in the people, provided they were properly educated and given all the necessary information through the newspapers. (This letter also contains his famous phrase, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”)
Jefferson calmed Carrington and encouraged his faith in a spirited and attentive public. He warned that “once they become inattentive,” all in authority, including himself, would become wolves, devouring the ignorant and uninformed. He saw that pattern in the nations of Europe, where the rich, controlling all the levers of government, preyed on the poor.
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