Thomas Jefferson's Presidency

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According to Jefferson, what should people do if the government does not serve the people?

According to Jefferson, the people should establish a new government if the present one doesn't serve them. This is because governments exist to secure certain unalienable rights, and if they cannot do so, then the people have the right to alter or abolish them.

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When answering this question, it's important to understand the concept of government as held by Jefferson and set out in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson believed that governments exist to secure what the Declaration calls “certain unalienable Rights,” such as “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

If, for whatever reason, any form of government is unable to secure these rights, in other words, to do what it is expressly established to do, then the people have the right to alter or abolish it and institute a new form of government.

Jefferson's notion of government is quite radical for its time. The prevailing opinion in Europe at that time held that existing institutions of government could only be subject to gradual, piecemeal change over time. Anything more radical than this would invariably lead to chaos, disorder, and instability. The idea that governments existed to secure certain abstract rights, and that if they didn't secure them they could be abolished, was a dangerous notion to most Europeans at that time.

To be sure, Jefferson states quite clearly that the decision to abolish an existing form of government should not be taken lightly. It's only after the people have suffered “a long train of abuses and usurpations,” such as those inflicted on the American people by King George III, that it becomes the right and duty of the people to get rid of the government and start over.

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As a follower of Enlightenment philosophies put forth by such thinkers as John Locke and Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson had a strong belief that the proper role of government was to protect the natural rights of its citizens. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson states quite clearly what people should do if a government fails to do this: they should abolish or sever ties with that government and institute a new one.

Jefferson is quick to point out that people should not rebel against their government for trivial reasons. He knew the dangers that come from rebellion and that it is better to try to reform a government than to rebel against it. However, if that fails, then the people have no choice but to institute a new government that operates under the consent of the governed with the goal of protecting their rights.

Jefferson was not alone in this thinking. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there was a growing school of thought concerning the role of government. Previously, many rulers claimed that their right to rule was granted by God. This theory is often referred to as the Divine Right of Kings. However, as the Enlightenment era took shape, moral and political philosophers began to rethink this notion. They often came to the conclusion that ruler's power should be granted by the people themselves through a so-called "social contract." In order to win over the consent of the governed, a government must protect people's rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Any government that refuses to do so should be abolished.

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Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that people are born with "inalienable rights," which refers to the Enlightenment idea of natural rights—rights that the government cannot take away. Jefferson defined these rights as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," similar to Locke's idea that people have a right to life, liberty, and property. Though people give up some of their freedoms to be ruled by a government, the government must protect these rights in return. Jefferson also wrote the following:

"That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

In other words, when a government does not protect the inalienable rights that are due to its constituents, the people have the right to change or get rid of it and to start a new government that will bring about their safety and happiness. Though Jefferson thought that people should not abolish or change their government without serious consideration, he felt that a despotic government with a long history of abuses, namely, the government of Great Britain ruling over the colonies, should be overthrown. 

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In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that all people have certain unalienable rights that can’t be taken away. These rights include the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. One of the main jobs of the government is to protect the rights of the citizens.

Thomas Jefferson stated that when the government fails to protect the rights of the people, the people have no option but to replace that government with one that will protect their rights. In the Declaration of Independence, there is a long list of grievances that the colonists had against the King of England. This list included examples of how the King of England abused the rights of the colonists. For example, the British taxed the colonists without allowing the colonists to have representatives in Parliament that could vote for the proposed taxes. As a result, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that the colonists had to rebel against the British government in order to establish a new government that would protect the rights of the people.

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