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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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8834. VIRGINIA CONSTITUTION, Amendments to.—
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8834. VIRGINIA CONSTITUTION, Amendments to.—

That it is really important to provide a constitution for our State cannot
be doubted; as little can it be doubted
that the ordinance called by that name has important
defects. But before we attempt it,
we should endeavor to be as certain as is
practicable that in the attempt we should not
make bad worse. I have understood that Mr.
Henry has always been opposed to this undertaking;
and I confess that I consider his
talents and influence such as that, were it
decided that we should call a convention for
the purpose of amending, I should fear he
might induce that convention either to fix
the thing as at present, or change it for the
worse. Would it not, therefore, be well that
means should be adopted for coming at his
ideas of the changes he would agree to, and
for communicating to him those which we
should propose? Perhaps he might find ours
not so distant from his, but that some mutual
sacrifices might bring them together. I shall
hazard my own ideas to you as hastily as my
business obliges me. I wish to preserve the
line drawn by the Federal Constitution between
the General and particular governments
as it stands at present, and to take every prudent
means of preventing either from stepping
over it. Though the experiment has not yet
had a long enough course to show us from
which quarter encroachments are most to be
feared, yet it is easy to foresee, from the nature
of things, that the encroachments of the
State governments will tend to an excess of
liberty which will correct itself (as in the late
instance), while those of the General Government
will tend to monarchy, which will
fortify itself from day to day, instead of
working its own cure, as all experience shows.
I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences
attending too much liberty than those
attending too small a degree of it. Then it is
important to strengthen the State governments;
and as this cannot be done by any
change in the Federal Constitution (for the
preservation of that is all we need contend
for), it must be done by the States themselves,
erecting such barriers at the constitutional
line as cannot be surmounted either
by themselves or by the General Government.
The only barrier in their power is a wise government.
A weak one will lose ground in
every contest. To obtain a wise and an able
government, I consider the following changes
as important. Render the Legislature a desirable
station by lessening the number of representatives
(say to 100) and lengthening
somewhat their term, and proportion them
equally among the electors; adopt, also, a
better mode of appointing senators. Render
the Executive a more desirable post to men
of abilities by making it more independent
of the Legislature; to wit, let him be chosen
by other electors, for a longer time, and ineligible
forever after. Responsibility is a
tremendous engine in a free government.
Let him feel the whole weight of it then, by
taking away the shelter of his executive
council. Experience both ways has already
established the superiority of this measure.
Render the Judiciary respectable by every
possible means, to wit, firm tenure in office,
competent salaries, and reduction of their
numbers. Men of high learning and abilities
are few in every country; and by taking in
those who are not so, the able part of the
body have their hands tied by the unable.
This branch of the government will have the
weight of the conflict on their hands, because
they will be the last appeal of reason. These
are my general ideas of amendments; but,
preserving the ends, I should be flexible and
conciliatory as to the means.—
To Archibald Stuart. Washington ed. iii, 314. Ford ed., v, 408.
(Pa., Dec. 1791)