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Involved in their own governing

Guest commentary

When Jefferson penned these words he was thinking of the kind of participatory "ward" democracy that took place in New England town meetings, the kind of democracy that still only takes place in small towns where people personally discuss and vote on issues relating to their communities. There is no doubt that this sort of democracy gives people an acute sense that they are participating on a regular basis in real self-government. Unfortunately, however, this kind of participatory democracy cannot work in a large community, especially in a nation of more than 300 million people. Jefferson and his fellow founders had to be satisfied with what they called "representative democracy." Although Jefferson accepted the idea of representation, he quite rightly worried that such a representative process might distance the government from the people and was apt to leave them passive and estranged from those who were supposed to represent them. The Progressives sought to alleviate these evils through the introduction of referenda and ballot initiatives, but these have had their own unanticipated consequences. Perhaps the best way in which people feel part of their government is through jury duty and helping out in political campaigns. Certainly during the recent primaries and the presidential campaign many young people experienced for the first time a sense that they were involved in their own governing. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out long ago, Americans hold more elections for more offices than any other people in the world. Participating in all that electioneering and campaigning has become the most meaningful expression of self-government in modern America. GORDON WOOD is Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University.


Kristen Spoor's picture
All I can say is that I am happy Obama inspired so much involvement of my generation. The people have to be an active part of the political process or it will stagnate and start to rot. Washington, D.C. feels refreshed and people are recognizing the power of the voice they each have. Voting does matter. I think Jefferson would be proud that for the first time in a long time, the American people have stepped closer to their governing power with this election. I just hope that the fog of apathy stays gone and we continue to make our voices heard in the governing of our nation. Good to read your post Professor Wood. I only left Brown last May, but it seems like forever. Still thinking about a PhD, but trying to get a job at Williamsburg. Cross your fingers for me!
Kristen Spoor (not verified)
J. Karl's picture
One thing is for certain: party and ideology trumped bipartisanship and even personal friendships in Jefferson’s world. Following his election loss in 1796, Jefferson “knew that for his Republican agenda to win, the Federal agenda needed to fail,” writes historian Joseph Ellis in his book “Founding Brothers.” So, yes, the election of Obama has energized many -- including those of us who disagree strongly with the principles of the President and the majority party. Put simply, Jefferson’s agenda was to ensure individual and economic freedom through limited government and a policy of laissez faire. He fought the Federalists’ Sedition Act, which made it a crime to publish “scandalous or malicious writings” against government officials. He believed government must allow citizens to “regulate their own pursuits of industry” and “not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” Sadly, leaders of today’s ruling party want to end secret-ballot elections in the workplace; increase taxes and regulations on employers; and control the ideological content for certain forms of media, particularly talk radio. Truth be told -- without any of the emotional hyperbole employed by the radical left -- Jefferson’s ideals stand in stark contrast to those of current congressional leaders and the Obama administration. That is a fact that doesn’t bode well for the nation Jefferson called “the world’s best hope.”
J. Karl (not verified)
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