By Bill Norton and Mark Herr, guest writers
Often in political conversation, one hears chastisement of the so-called “uninformed voter,” or laments about the ignorance of the people. Some might even be so arrogant as to prefer the “uninformed” not involve themselves in government at all. Of course, the label “uniformed” often means anyone who disagrees with the person casting the label.
But do we really want to limit involvement of the people in public affairs? The Architects of our Republic made it clear that the people are the only keepers of our unalienable rights and the only true protectors of the Constitution. It is through the involvement of the people, whether right or wrong, that government will be kept in its right place; that it will continue to secure rather than violate our rights.
In a letter to Edward Carrington, Thomas Jefferson discusses living in a society in which “nobody but [yourself] is always in the right.” (Benjamin Franklin, Constitutional Convention, 1787)
“The [involvement] of the people…on the side of government has had a great effect… I am persuaded myself that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves. The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution.” (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, Paris, January 16, 1787)
In the same letter, Jefferson explains the harm which can result from punishing errors.
“To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs…
The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right…”
It is more important to keep the right to express our opinions than it is to punish errors of opinion. In Jefferson’s first inaugural address he states:
“But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle…If there be any among us [with a different opinion] let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
If we punish error too severely we can damage or even destroy the very “basis of our governments.”
He continues in the Carrington letter:
“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.”
Thomas Jefferson always returns to the theme of education or enlightenment as the only true correctives of abuse of power by the government. “Enlighten the people and tyranny and oppression will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”
Jefferson reveals his profoundly genuine character as he concludes his observations to Carrington. Keep in mind, in 1787 Jefferson was the minister to France. He had served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, as Governor of Virginia and had become the voice of independence as the author of the Declaration. He held the public trust in positions of government. Carrington was currently serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress.
Jefferson is among the greatest minds and most ardent defenders of liberty and the fundamental rights of man. Yet he recognized that he was not immune to the corrupting effects of power. In his conclusion to Carrington, Jefferson writes:
“If once they [the people] become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves.”
Remember, Jefferson is talking about the involvement of the people in their instituted government, “even in their errors.” Even in their errors they can keep Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy, Reagan, George Bush and Barack Obama from becoming wolves if they are simply attentive to the public affairs.
The question is not whether we are right or wrong in our opinions, but whether we are acting as a check against government overreach and abuse of authority. Are we making certain that government adheres “to the true principles of [its] institution?” Namely, are we defending the Republic through our involvement? It is worth repeating:
“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.”
The authors, Bill Norton and Mark Herr, write for The “Language of Liberty®” series, a collaborative effort of the Center for Self Governance (CSG) Administrative Team. CSG is a non-profit, non-partisan educational organization, dedicated to training citizens in applied civics. The authors include trainers, administrative staff, and selected students. They may be contacted at email@example.com