Jefferson and States’ Rights

Thomas Jefferson is famous for advocating an armed rebellion every twenty years:

God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. … And what country can preserve its liberties, if it’s rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

He also stated that the constitution should be remade every 19 years, 19 years being about a generation. The idea was that each generation should renew the social contract that the constition represented.

I am sympathetic to that view, but I’m not sure I can jump on board with such frequent bloody revolutions. The most obvious alternative in the face of social discontentment is to move to a country with a social contract (constitution, laws, and culture) more in line with your beliefs.

But it puts me in mind of states’ rights. With a weaker federal government and stronger state governments, each state represents a different social contract. It is relatively easy to move between states, so a liquid populace can flow to wherever they are most comfortable.

In this way, islands of people of like mind can develop. Which is not far from what we have today, viewed through the narrow lens of our two-party system with red states and blue states. The red/blue tension wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the federal stage and the desire of each camp to remake the federal government in its image.

Barring that tendency, I think the fragmentation of the American political landscape is not such a terrible thing. I’d rather have a much weaker, less invasive federal government so that states can diverge futher to support more yet forms of social contracts.

One thought on “Jefferson and States’ Rights”

  1. I like the term “laboratories of democracy”, referring to state governments (coined by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1932, according to wikipedia). You let 50 peaceful entities mess around and see what kinds of laws and policies do well, with other states as control groups. This sounds a lot more reasonable and scientific than the all-or-nothing federal laws whose full effects are typically never known.

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