Thomas Jefferson Quotes

February 17, 2007 at 12:28 am | Posted in freedom, War | 3 Comments

While reading David McCullogh’s most excellent biography of John Adams, I became unimpressed with Thomas Jefferson, because a more realistic picture was portrayed of the man. However, Thomas Jefferson said some of the most profound things, things of import today. Here are his words on habeas corpus and the power of the executive.

“The Habeas Corpus secures every man here, alien or citizen, against everything which is not law, whatever shape it may assume.” –Thomas Jefferson to A. H. Rowan, 1798. ME 10:61

“Freedom of the person under the protection of the habeas corpus I deem [one of the] essential principles of our government.” –Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural Address, 1801. ME 3:322

“Why suspend the habeas corpus in insurrections and rebellions? The parties who may be arrested may be charged instantly with a well defined crime; of course, the judge will remand them. If the public safety requires that the government should have a man imprisoned on less probable testimony in those than in other emergencies, let him be taken and tried, retaken and retried, while the necessity continues, only giving him redress against the government for damages. Examine the history of England. See how few of the cases of the suspension of the habeas corpus law have been worthy of that suspension. They have been either real treasons, wherein the parties might as well have been charged at once, or sham plots, where it was shameful they should ever have been suspected. Yet for the few cases wherein the suspension of the habeas corpus has done real good, that operation is now become habitual and the minds of the nation almost prepared to live under its constant suspension.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1788. ME 7:97

“[The] bill of rights [should provide] clearly and without the aid of sophisms for… the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787.

“The following [addition to the Bill of Rights] would have pleased me:…No person shall be held in confinement more than __ days after he shall have demanded and been refused a writ of habeas corpus by the judge appointed by law, nor more than __ days after such a writ shall have been served on the person holding him in confinement, and no order given on due examination for his remandment or discharge, nor more than __ hours in any place of a greater distance than __ miles from the usual residence of some judge authorized to issue the writ of habeas corpus; nor shall that writ be suspended for any term exceeding one year, nor in any place more than __ miles distant from the station or encampment of enemies or of insurgents.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:450, Papers 15:367

On the power of the executive and loss of freedom:

Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless. A single zealot may commence persecutor, and better men be his victims. It can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united. From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.

Compare those inspired words to those of our current Attorney General Gonzales:

“The Constitution doesn’t say every individual in the United States or every citizen is hereby granted or assured the right of habeas,” Gonzales told Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Jan. 17.

Gonzales acknowledged that the Constitution declares “habeas corpus shall not be suspended unless … in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” But he insisted that “there is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution.”

As John Dean concludes in his remarks about the history of habeas corpus:

Of course, following ratification of the Constitution, a Bill of Rights was added – protecting freedom of the press and religion and other rights. Under Gonzales’s reading of the Constitution, however, the fact that several of these amendments are stated in the negative means the Constitution failed to expressly grant these rights as well.

Consider, for example, the First Amendment’s prohibitions that “Congress shall make no law respecting…” the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, or freedom of the press. Following Gonzales’s view, these provisions only say what Congress cannot do – they are silent on whether any rights to free exercise, free speech, or a free press ever existed in the first place.

So, presumably, if Gonzales is correct, the President could do away with any or all of these rights; since they were not expressly granted by the Constitution, he is free to do so. After all, if Gonzales’ view were correct, the right of habeas corpus has not been expressly granted, suggesting it does not really exist. Why would not the same result occur for other rights referred to, but not established in so many words, in the Constitution? Fortunately, the Attorney General’s approach is wrong.

With all due respect, Attorney General Gonzales needs to read an American history book – to avoid relying on arguments rejected in the 18th Century when offered by those who opposed the adoption of our nation’s founding charter. Every time Gonzales testifies, he leaves the Constitution a bit more battered by his right-wing gobbledygook and revisionist dogma. We are fortunate he seldom appears before Congress.


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  1. Awesome quotes, I just put a few of ’em into Quoty. Sometimes I honestly wonder what our Founding Fathers would say today if they were able to dictate a speech on their views of our current affairs. I’m sure they’re looking down on us, shaking their heads in sad realization that they foresaw this usurpation of power and dismissal of the very documents upon which they formed this nation.

  2. And they indeed saw this usurpation of power. How quickly we’ve moved away from the intent of these documents!

  3. And they indeed saw this usurpation of power.

    I agree. They saw it in the repetition of history, as we also do in the Book of Mormon. Too bad there aren’t many that recognize the pattern.

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