Jefferson on ignorance and freedom


This morning I happened across this quotation from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to Charles Yancey, a Virginia state legislator, in January 1816, seven years after leaving office as president to return to private life back home in Virginia:

if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.
— Thomas Jefferson, January 6, 1816

The whole letter is quite remarkable, a blend of commentary on mundane Albemarle County infrastructure projects (a dam project that could wreck property values and the navigability of a river); his fervent hopes that an acquaintance named Captain Miller will be able to open a brewery nearby (both for his own enjoyment and for humanitarian purposes: “I wish to see this beverage become common instead of the whiskey which kills one third of our citizens and ruins their families”); and some quite pointed—and still relevant—observations about the early 19th century mania for banking:

Like a dropsical man calling out for water, water, our deluded citizens are clamoring for more banks, more banks. the American mind is now in that state of fever which the world has so often seen in the history of other nations. . . . we are now taught to believe that legerdemain tricks upon paper can produce as solid wealth as hard labor in the earth. it is vain for common sense to urge that nothing can produce but nothing: that it is an idle dream to believe in a philosopher’s stone which is to turn every thing into gold, and to redeem man from the original sentence of his maker that ‘in the sweat of his brow shall he eat his bread.’

But the most striking portions of the letter come near the end, when Jefferson reflects on the prospects of funding improvements not just in roads and canals (the big infrastructure craze before railroads), but in education. He theorizes about a minor tax that could help fund education at every level, including a projected college which would later become the University of Virginia, and criticizes the fanaticism bred in students after they leave to study in New England universities. (The more things change…) Jefferson:

if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be. the functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty & property of their constituents. there is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.

I am less sanguine than Jefferson—a hopeless Enlightenment rationalist who did not believe in original sin or any of the doctrines that traditionally imparted a salutary dose of reality to ambitious moral improvers—about the power of the press and of education, and have a hard time knowing which it would be more foolish to place much hope in. But Jefferson is exactly right that in a system such as ours, it’s up to the citizenry to defend themselves against abuse of the powers they have granted to their government. Republics run on such tensions.

I don’t think I have to argue that we’ve failed. By Jefferson’s lights, we are now and have for a long time been asking the impossible.

And education does have a role to play, especially if we hope to recover some of the republican virtues and liberties the Founders assumed were necessary to maintaining freedom. (See Jefferson’s friend John Adams on this point here.) After all, the purpose of liberal education is to train free people—citizens. It’s precisely that vision informing Jefferson’s comments above.

You can read this quotation with a bit more context here or the letter in its entirety here. You can even peruse Jefferson’s original, with a helpful transcription, here. The portion I’ve quoted has sometimes been shared with a spurious additional line or two about citizens being informed. I think this probably began as a gloss on Jefferson’s original and got lumped in with his actual words, as is the wont of internet quotation. You can read about that at Monticello’s page on spurious, corrupted, or misattributed Jefferson quotations here.