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The Jeffersonian cyclopedia;

a comprehensive collection of the views of Thomas Jefferson classified and arranged in alphabetical order under nine thousand titles relating to government, politics, law, education, political economy, finance, science, art, literature, religious freedom, morals, etc.;

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2814. EXECUTIVE, Single and plural.—
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2814. EXECUTIVE, Single and plural.—

When our present government was first established,
we had many doubts on this question,
and many leanings towards a supreme executive council. It happened that at that
time the experiment of such an one was commenced
in France, while a single Executive
was under trial here. We watched the
motions and effects of these two rival plans,
with an interest and anxiety proportioned to
the importance of a choice between them.
The experiment in France failed after a short
course, and not from any circumstances peculiar
to the times or nation, but from those
internal jealousies and dissensions in the
Directory, which will ever arise among men
equal in power, without a principal to decide
and control their differences. We had tried
a similar experiment in 1784, by establishing
a Committee of the States, composed of a
member from every State, then thirteen, to
exercise the executive functions during the
recess of Congress. They fell immediately
into schisms and dissensions, which became at
length so inveterate as to render all cooperation
among them impracticable; they dissolved
themselves, abandoning the helm of
government, and it continued without a head,
until Congress met the ensuing winter. This
was then imputed to the temper of two or
three individuals; but the wise ascribed it to
the nature of man. The failure of the French
Directory, and from the same cause, seems to
have authorized a belief that the form of a
plurality, however promising in theory, is impracticable
with men constituted with the ordinary
passions. While the tranquil and
steady tenor of our single Executive, during
a course of twenty-two years of the most
tempestuous times the history of the world
has ever presented, gives a rational hope that
this important problem is at length solved.
Aided by the counsels of a cabinet of heads of
departments. originally four, but now five, with
whom the President consults, either singly or
altogether, he has the benefit of their wisdom
and information, brings their views to one
centre, and produces an unity of action and
direction in all the branches of the government.
The excellence of this construction of
the executive power has already manifested
itself here under very opposite circumstances.
During the administration of our first President,
his cabinet of four members was equally
divided by as marked an opposition of principle
as monarchism and republicanism could
bring into conflict. Had that cabinet been a
Directory, like positive and negative quantities
in algebra, the opposing wills would have
balanced each other and produced a state of
absolute inaction. But the President heard
with calmness the opinions and reasons of
each, decided the course to be pursued, and
kept the government steadily in it, unaffected
by the agitation. The public knew well the
dissensions of the cabinet, but never had an
uneasy thought on their account, because they


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knew also they had provided a regulating
power which would keep the machine in
steady movement. I speak with an intimate
knowledge of these scenes, quorum pars fui; as I may of others of a character entirely
opposite. The third administration, which
was of eight years, presented an example of
harmony in a cabinet of six persons, to which
perhaps history has furnished no parallel.
There never arose, during the whole time, an
instance of an unpleasant thought or word
between the members. We sometimes met
under differences of opinion, but scarcely ever
failed, by conversing and reasoning, so to
modify each other's ideas, as to produce an
unanimous result. Yet, able and amicable as
these members were, I am not certain this
would have been the case, had each possessed
equal and independent powers. Ill-defined
limits of their respective departments, jealousies,
triffling at first, but nourished and
strengthened by repetition of occasions, intrigues
without doors of designing persons to
build an importance to themselves on the
divisions of others, might from small beginnings,
have produced persevering oppositions,
But the power of decision in the President
left no object for internal dissension, and external
intrigue was stifled in embryo by the
knowledge which incendiaries possessed, that
no division they could foment would change
the course of the executive power. I am not
conscious that my participations in executive
authority have produced any bias in favor of
the single Executive; because the parts I
have acted have been in the subordinate, as
well as superior stations, and because, if I
know myself, what I have felt, and what I
have wished, I know that I have never been
so well pleased, as when I could shift power
from my own, on the shoulders of others; nor
have I ever been able to conceive how any
rational being could propose happiness to
himself from the exercise of power over
others. I am still, however, sensible of the
solidity of your principle, that, to insure the
safety of the public liberty, its depository
should be subject to be changed with the
greatest ease possible, and without suspending
or disturbing for a moment the movements
of the machine of government. You
apprehend that a single Executive, with eminence
of talent, and destitution of principle,
equal to the object, might, by usurpation, render
his powers hereditary. Yet I think history
furnishes as many examples of a single
usurper arising out of a government by a
plurality, as of temporary trusts of power
in a single hand rendered permanent by usurpation.
I do not believe, therefore, that this
danger is lessened in the hands of a plural
Executive. Perhaps it is greatly increased,
by the state of inefficiency to which they are
liable from feuds and divisions among themselves.
The conservative body you propose
might be so constituted, as, while it would be
an admirable sedative in a variety of smaller
cases, might also be a valuable sentinel and
check on the liberticide views of an ambitious
individual. I am friendly to this idea. But
the true barriers of our liberty in this country
are our State governments; and the wisest
conservative power ever contrived by man, is
that of which our Revolution and present
government found us possessed. Seventeen
distinct States, amalgamated into one as to
their foreign concerns, but single and independent
as to their internal administration,
regularly organized with a legislature and
governor resting on the choice of the people,
and enlightened by a free press, can never be
so fascinated by the arts of one man, as to
submit voluntarily to his usurpation. Nor
can they be constrained to it by any force he
can possess. While that may paralyze the
single State in which it happens to be encamped,
sixteen others, spread over a country
of two thousand miles diameter, rise up on
every side, ready organized for deliberation by
a constitutional legislature, and for action by
their governor, constitutionally the commander
of the militia of the State, that is to
say, of every man in it able to bear arms; and
that militia. too, regularly formed into regiments
and battalions, into infantry, cavalry
and artillery, trained under officers general
and subordinate, legally appointed, always in
readiness, and to whom they are already in
habits of obedience. The republican government
of France was lost without a struggle
because the party of “un et indivisible” had
prevailed; no provisional organization existed
to which the people might rally under
authority of the laws, the seats of the Directory
were virtually vacant, and a small
force sufficed to turn the legislature out of
their chamber, and to salute its leader chief
of the nation. But with us, sixteen out of
seventeen States rising in mass, under regular
organization, and legal commanders,
united in object and action by their Congress,
or, if that be in duresse, by a Special Convention,
present such obstacles to an usurper as
forever to stifle ambition in the first conception
of that object. Dangers of another
kind might more reasonably be apprehended
from this perfect and distinct organization,
civil and military, of the States; to wit, that
certain States from local and occasional discontents,
might attempt to secede from the
Union. This is certainly possible; and would
be befriended by this regular organization.
But it, is not probable that local discontents
can spread to such an extent, as to be
able to face the sound parts of so extensive
an Union; and if ever they should reach the
majority, they would then become the regular
government, acquire, the ascendency in
Congress, and be able to redress their own
grievances by laws peaceably and constitutionally
passed. And even the States in
which local discontents might engender a
commencement of fermentation, would be
paralyzed and self-checked by that very division
into parties into which we have fallen,
into which all States must fall wherein men
are at liberty to think, speak, and act freely,
according to the diversities of their individual
conformations, and which are, perhaps,
essential to preserve the purity of the gov


Page 318
ernment, by the censorship which these
parties habitually exercise over each other.—
To M. Destutt Tracy. Washington ed. v, 567. Ford ed., ix, 306.
(M. Jan. 1811)