The Writings of
Thomas Jefferson

editor H.A. Washington
New York :  H.W. Derby
To Joseph C. Cabell
Monticello, February 2, 1816

Dear Sir, — Your favors of the 23d and 24th ult., were a week coming to us.  I instantly enclosed to you the deeds of Capt. Miller, but I understand that the Post Master, having locked his mail before they got to the office, would not unlock it to give them a passage.

Having been prevented from retaining my collection of the acts and journals of our legislature by the lumping manner in which the Committee of Congress chose to take my library, it may be useful to our public bodies to know what acts and journals I had, and where they can now have access to them.  I therefore enclose you a copy of my catalogue, which I pray you to deposit in the council office for public use.  It is in the eighteenth and twenty-fourth chapters they will find what is interesting to them.  The form of the catalogue has been much injured in the publication; for although they have preserved my division into chapters, they have reduced the books in each chapter to alphabetical order, instead of the chronological or analytical arrangements I had given them.  You will see sketches of what were my arrangements at the heads of some of the chapters.

The bill on the obstructions in our navigable waters appears to me proper; as do also the amendments proposed.  I think the State should reserve a right to the use of the waters for navigation, and that where an individual landholder impedes that use, he shall remove that impediment, and leave the subject in as good a state as nature formed it.  This I hold to be the true principle; and to this Colonel Green’s amendments go.  All I ask in my own case is, that the legislature will not take from me my own works.  I am ready to cut my dam in any place, and at any moment requisite, so as to remove that impediment, if it be thought one, and to leave those interested to make the most of the natural circumstances of the place.  But I hope they will never take from me my canal, made through the body of my own lands, at an expense of twenty thousand dollars, and which is no impediment to the navigation of the river.  I have permitted the riparian proprietors above (and they not more than a dozen or twenty) to use it gratis, and shall not withdraw the permission unless they so use it as to obstruct too much the operations of my mills, of which there is some likelihood.

Doctor Smith, you say, asks what is the best elementary book on the principles of government ?  None in the world equal to the Review of Montesquieu, printed at Philadelphia a few years ago.  It has the advantage, too, of being equally sound and corrective of the principles of political economy; and all within the compass of a thin 8vo.  Chipman’s and Priestley’s Principles of Government, and the Federalists, are excellent in many respects, but for fundamental principles not comparable to the Review.  I have no objections to the printing my letter to Mr. Carr, if it will promote the interests of science; although it was not written with a view to its publication.

My letter of the 24th ult. conveyed to you the grounds of the two articles objected to the College bill.  Your last presents one of them in a new point of view, that of the commencement of the ward schools as likely to render the law unpopular to the country.  It must be a very inconsiderate and rough process of execution that would do this.  My idea of the mode of carrying it into execution would be this:  Declare the county ipso facto divided into wards for the present, by the boundaries of the militia captaincies;  somebody attend the ordinary muster of each company, having first desired the captain to call together a full one.  There explain the object of the law to the people of the company, put to their vote whether they will have a school established, and the most central and convenient place for it;  get them to meet and build a log school-house;  have a roll taken of the children who would attend it, and of those of them able to pay.  These would probably be sufficient to support a common teacher, instructing gratis the few unable to pay.  If there should be a deficiency, it would require too trifling a contribution from the county to be complained of;  and especially as the whole county would participate, where necessary, in the same resource.  Should the company, by its vote, decide that it would have no school, let them remain without one.  The advantages of this proceeding would be that it would become the duty of the alderman elected by the county, to take an active part in pressing the introduction of schools, and to look out for tutors.  If, however, it is intended that the State government shall take this business into its own hands, and provide schools for every county, then by all means strike out this provision of our bill.  I would never wish that it should be placed on a worse footing than the rest of the State.  But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the governor and council, the commissioners of the literary fund, or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience.  Try the principle one step further, and amend the bill so as to commit to the governor and council the management of all our farms, our mills, and merchants’ stores.  No, my friend, the way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to. Let the national government be entrusted with the defence of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations;  the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police, and administration of what concerns the State generally;  the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself.  It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself;  by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best.  What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun ?  The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or of the aristocrats of a Venetian senate.  And I do believe that if the Almighty has not decreed that man shall never be free, (and it is a blasphemy to believe it,) that the secret will be found to be in the making himself the depository of the powers respecting himself, so far as he is competent to them, and delegating only what is beyond his competence by a synthetical process, to higher and higher orders of functionaries, so as to trust fewer and fewer powers in proportion as the trustees become more and more oligarchical.  The elementary republics of the wards, the county republics, the States republics, and the republic of the Union, would form a gradation of authorities, standing each on the basis of law, holding every one its delegated share of powers, and constituting truly a system of fundamental balances and checks for the government.  Where every man is a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic, or of some of the higher ones, and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day;  when there shall not be a man in the State who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great or small, he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte.  How powerfully did we feel the energy of this organization in the case of embargo ?  I felt the foundations of the government shaken under my feet by the New England townships.  There was not an individual in their States whose body was not thrown with all its momentum into action;  and although the whole of the other States were known to be in favor of the measure, yet the organization of this little selfish minority enabled it to overrule the Union. What would the unwieldy counties of the middle, the south, and the west do ?  Call a county meeting, and the drunken loungers at and about the court houses would have collected, the distances being too great for the good people and the industrious generally to attend. The character of those who really met would have been the measure of the weight they would have had in the scale of public opinion.  As Cato, then, concluded every speech with the words, “Carthago delenda est,” so do I every opinion, with the injunction, “divide the counties into wards.”  Begin them only for a single purpose; they will soon show for what others they are the best instruments.  God bless you, and all our rulers, and give them the wisdom, as I am sure they have the will, to fortify us against the degeneracy of one government, and the concentration of all its powers in the hands of the one, the few, the well-born or the many.


Embargo Act of 1807, passed Dec. 22, 1807, by the U.S. Congress in answer to the British orders in council restricting neutral shipping and to Napoleon's restrictive Continental System.  The U.S. merchant marine suffered from both the British and French, and Thomas Jefferson undertook to answer both nations with measures that by restricting neutral trade would show the importance of that trade.  The first attempt was the Nonimportation Act, passed Apr. 18, 1806, forbidding the importation of specified British goods in order to force Great Britain to relax its rigorous rulings on cargoes and sailors (see impressment).  The act was suspended, but the Embargo Act of 1807 was a bolder statement of the same idea.  It forbade all international trade to and from American ports, and Jefferson hoped that Britain and France would be persuaded of the value and the rights of a neutral commerce.  In Jan., 1808, the prohibition was extended to inland waters and land commerce to halt the skyrocketing trade with Canada.  Merchants, sea captains, and sailors were naturally dismayed to find themselves without income and to see the ships rotting at the wharves.  All sorts of dodges were used to circumvent the law.  The daring attempt to use economic pressure in a world at war was not successful.  Britain and France stood firm, and not enough pressure could be brought to bear.  Enforcement was difficult, especially in New England, where merchants looked on the scheme as an attempt to defraud them of a livelihood.  When in Jan., 1809, Congress, against much opposition, passed an act to make enforcement more rigid, resistance approached the point of rebellion—again especially in New England—and the scheme had to be abandoned.  On Mar. 1, 1809, the embargo was superseded by the Nonintercourse Act.  This allowed resumption of all commercial intercourse except with Britain and France.  Jefferson reluctantly accepted it.  Not unexpectedly, it failed to bring pressure on Britain and France.  In 1810 it was replaced by Macon's Bill No. 2 (named after Nathaniel Macon), which virtually ended the experiment.  It provided for trade with both Britain and France unless one of those powers revoked its restrictions;  in that case, the President was authorized to forbid commerce with the country that had not also revoked its offensive measures.