In his last years – after a lifetime of learning and experience, Jefferson had one thing preeminently on his mind: the principle of decentralized government.
Rather than saying “centralization,” Jefferson used the word “consolidation,” but they mean the same thing. Here’s his core statement on the subject, from his autobiography, written in 1821:
It is not by the consolidation, or concentration, of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected.
This statement put Jefferson at odds with the political leaders of his time and raised difficulties for him, as he writes in a letter to Judge William Johnson in 1823:
I have been blamed for saying, that a prevalence of the doctrines of consolidation would one day call for reformation or revolution.
For the following passage – a letter to William Johnson, written in 1822 – Jefferson’s words are set in italics and explanation/commentary in plain text:
They [a political party] rally to the point which they think next best, a consolidated government.
Here he points out that political parties tend to favor centralization, which they certainly have since.
Their aim is now, therefore, to break down the rights reserved by the Constitution to the States as a bulwark against that consolidation.
This party is trying to steal the power of the individual States and centralize it in one city, and they are willing to alter or bypass the Constitution to do so. The fear of which produced the whole of the opposition to the Constitution at its birth….
Here Jefferson is saying the Anti-Federalists were right and that the Constitution could not prevent the theft of liberties by the national government.
I trust…that the friends of the real Constitution and Union will prevail against consolidation, as they have done against monarchism.
Notice his phrase, “the real Constitution.” Already in 1822, he needed to make this distinction, because the Constitution was already being twisted, overridden, and bypassed. Alternately, he may have been referring to the original Articles of Confederation.
In a letter to William T. Barry in 1822, Jefferson writes this:
The foundations are already deeply laid by their [the Supreme Court Justices’] decisions for the annihilation of constitutional State rights, and the removal of every check, every counterpoise to the engulfing power of which themselves are to make a sovereign part.
Jefferson is likely referring to the Marbury v. Madison decision of 1803, a decision that American schoolchildren are taught to revere. Jefferson, however, considered it a disaster, as he explained in the following:
The question whether the judges are invested with exclusive authority to decide on the constitutionality of a law has been heretofore a subject of consideration with me in the exercise of official duties. Certainly there is not a word in the Constitution which has given that power to them more than to the Executive or Legislative branches.
—Thomas Jefferson to W. H. Torrance, 1815. ME 14:303
But the Chief Justice says, ‘There must be an ultimate arbiter somewhere.’ True, there must; but does that prove it is either party? The ultimate arbiter is the people of the Union, assembled by their deputies in convention, at the call of Congress or of two-thirds of the States. Let them decide to which they mean to give an authority claimed by two of their organs. And it has been the peculiar wisdom and felicity of our Constitution, to have provided this peaceable appeal, where that of other nations is at once to force.
—Thomas Jefferson to William Johnson, 1823. ME 15:451
But, you may ask, if the two departments [i.e., federal and state] should claim each the same subject of power, where is the common umpire to decide ultimately between them? In cases of little importance or urgency, the prudence of both parties will keep them aloof from the questionable ground; but if it can neither be avoided nor compromised, a convention of the States must be called to ascribe the doubtful power to that department which they may think best.
—Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright, 1824. ME 16:47
This member of the Government (the Supreme Court) was at first considered as the most harmless and helpless of all its organs. But it has proved that the power of declaring what the law is, ad libitum (at one’s pleasure), by sapping and mining slyly and without alarm the foundations of the Constitution, can do what open force would not dare to attempt.
—Thomas Jefferson to Edward Livingston, 1825. ME 16:114
Clearly, this action by the early Supreme Court was extremely alarming and vexatious to Jefferson. Though, what he couldn’t foresee was the plethora of Supreme Court decisions extending and expanding the unitary power contributing to the destruction of state rights.
If ever this vast country is brought under a single government, it will be one of the most extensive corruption, indifferent and incapable of a wholesome care over so wide a spread of surface.
Lincoln’s Civil War (which enslaved the states to the national government) brought the states under a single government. Washington DC is the seat of the American Empire, and the individual states are minor players. It was supposed to be the other way around. Unfortunately, most people have no real appreciation for the treason of this action. This is precisely where the precipitous decline of this federation of independent states began. This action was immediately reinforced by the passage of the 14th Amendment (Passed by Congress June 13, 1866. Ratified July 9, 1868), which, among other things, created the heretofore unheard of “United States Citizenship.” It’s instructive to note that this amendment was issued and ratified over a two year period where only a few of the southern states had been readmitted to congress, these re-admissions occurring between 1866 and 1870.
Here is a fragment from Jefferson’s letter to C.W. Gooch in 1826:
…I have little hope that the torrent of consolidation can be withstood….
Finally, a passage from his letter to William B. Giles, in 1825:
I see…with the deepest affliction, the rapid strides with which the federal branch of our government is advancing towards the usurpation of all the rights reserved to the States, and the consolidation in itself of all powers, foreign and domestic; and that too, by constructions which, if legitimate, leave no limits to their power.
(Adapted and expanded from Jefferson’s Final Warnings http://www.freemansperspective.com/author/freemansperspective/)