Thomas Jefferson believed that local community self-government was essential for freedom.
Jefferson’s archenemy, Alexander Hamilton, and others wanted to concentrate all American power at the national level. And this greatly troubled Jefferson because it made states and local communities as well as individual citizens servants of a tyrannical national government:
Were not this great country already divided into states, that division must be made, that each might do for itself what concerns itself directly, and what it can so much better do than a distant authority. Every state again is divided into counties …; each county again into townships or wards…. (Jefferson 1821, 183)
These wards called townships … are the vital principle of their governments, and have proved themselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and for its preservation. (Jefferson 1816b)
[M]aking every citizen an acting member of the government, and in the offices nearest and most interesting to him, will attach him by his strongest feelings to the independence of his country, and its republican constitution. (Jefferson 1816b)
[W]here every man … feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs not merely at an election … but every day; … he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a [Napoleon] Bonaparte. (Jefferson 1816a)
Were local communities more independent in the nineteenth century than today?
Alexis De Tocqueville, a French statesman, thought they were totally independent. He traveled through America, studying America’s representative democracy. After that, he wrote:
[P]olitical life took root at the very heart of the townships; one could almost say that they were, from the very beginning, independent nations. (Tocqueville 1840, V-I)
Those words seem strange, because today local towns have no independence (sovereignty or authority) other than what the nation and state bestow on them. Moreover, they depend completely on grant money from those “higher” levels of government. And of course, that money always comes with strings attached
The U.S. Constitution did not give those towns the independence they enjoyed in those simpler days. Rather, they were independent by default. That is, the technology that our national and state governments use today to control them did not exist. In fact, the first telegraph line wasn’t even built until the next decade after Tocqueville wrote those words.
So back then, if a national or state official wanted to exert control over a particular town, his only choice was to send an agent on horseback or a bumpy carriage ride to the town with orders. And the agent had to ride back or send a message by pony express to communicate back to the official.
Because of those difficulties, it didn’t work that way. Instead, national and state officials relied on local government officers, like sheriffs, to carry out their policies. And those local officers had the power to comply or to refuse. That is, they generally followed the wishes of their local voters. And that often meant that they simply ignored orders from “above”.
But the independence of local communities in that simpler time is totally gone, thanks to modern technology.
Today, the national government controls the states, which in turn control the towns, cities, and counties. So even though the U.S. Constitution originally recognized state sovereignty, the courts have re-interpreted it away through the years.
What if local communities had more power to make their own decisions? Do you think citizens would be better off or not? And how would minorities be affected by that change? Would it be possible to protect minorities?
This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.
Jefferson, Thomas. 1816a. “Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 2 February 1816,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-09-02-0286. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 9, September 1815 to April 1816, ed. J. Jefferson Looney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 435–439.]
Jefferson, Thomas. 1816b. “Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 28 May 1816,” Founders Online, National Archives, version of January 18, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-10-02-0053. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 10, May 1816 to 18 January 1817, ed. J. Jefferson Looney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013, pp. 86–90.]
Jefferson, Thomas. 1821. Autobiography. The Avalon Project. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/jeffauto.asp (Accessed Jul. 9, 2017).
Tocqueville, Alexis De. 1840. Democracy in America. Project Gutenberg EBook version. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/815/815-h/815-h.htm (Accessed Sep. 27, 2020).