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The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson (Constitutionalism and Democracy) Hardcover – March 1, 1994

4.9 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From the Back Cover

In this comprehensive account of Jefferson's constitutional thought, David N. Mayer offers a fresh perspective on Jefferson's philosophy of government. Eschewing the "liberalism versus civic republicanism" debate that has so dominated early American scholarship in recent years, Mayer examines Jefferson's thought on Jefferson's own terms - as "whig", "federal", and "republican". In the interrelationships and tensions among these three essential aspects of Jefferson's theory, Mayer explains Jefferson's response to the particular constitutional issues and problems of his time. In contrast to other studies that view Jefferson as a champion of democracy, Mayer's book emphasizes Jefferson's commitment to liberty. Jefferson's distinctiveness, Mayer argues, was the degree to which he advocated that government should leave individuals alone, free to govern themselves. Believing that "the natural process of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground", Jefferson stressed the importance of written constitutions, scrupulously adhered to, as well as popular participation and vigilance over government, to keep its power from being abused. Drawing together Jefferson's scattered writings on the subject, Mayer traces the development of his constitutional theory from its beginnings through all the significant periods of Jefferson's life - his early education, the American Revolution, the constitutional debates of the 1780s, the Federalist-Republican political party struggles of the 1790s, his two presidential terms, and his retirement years. The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson provides a comprehensive explanation of Jefferson's constitutional theory and philosophy ofgovernment, including rights theories (particularly First Amendment freedoms), federalism, constitutional interpretation, separation of powers (including presidential powers), and constitutional change. This is an indispensable guide for anyone interested in Jefferson's ideas about law and government. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

David N. Mayer is Professor of Law and History at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. He has published numerous articles in law and history journals.


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Product Details

  • Series: Constitutionalism and Democracy
  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press; First Edition edition (March 1, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813914841
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813914848
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,980,083 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Having consumed most of the recent volumes on the life and times of our third president, I would have to say that Mayer's book is one of the strongest when it comes to the concrete exploration of his political thought processes.
One of the reviewers on the back cover copy says that "Mayer allows Jefferson to speak for himself. This alone would recommend the work." Indeed. This is one of the strengths of the book with its extensive referencing to the words of one of our founding fathers. It also does the same justice to the philosophers and statesmen who influenced Jefferson throughout his life.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the scholarly analysis of what it meant (to Jefferson) to be a Whig. I was also compelled by the discussion of the whig concept of a government is more republican (small r) if it is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence.
Mayer is not reluctant to point to many of Jefferson's overly optimistic or downright naive assumptions on the practical implications of running a government.
One area I wished Mayer spent more time exploring was Jefferson's thoughts on bicameralism and separation of powers; and more specifically on the original contention that the Senate served as a break on run away emotions protecting minority interests (to avoid tyranny of the majority that Madison was so fearful of, but not Jefferson).
All told, this book is of value for those who admire Jefferson, who are critical of his standing, and for those who quote his examples without really knowing what they are doing.
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Format: Paperback
I've always maintained that the best way to understand the founders is to understand them on their on terms. Mayer believes this too and does an excellent job at profiling the constitutional thought of Jefferson and his political philosophy. Too often, shoddy partisan scholarship like that of Richard Matthews gets it quite wrong on the founders. They do so quite purposefully choosing to dwell statically on one quote or episode instead of objectively highlighting the development of their subject. Mayer explains Jefferson on his own terms, as "whig," "federal," and "republican," hence his First Inaugural Address. Jefferson was an adament defender of federalism, state's rights and the Constitution. His alleged "radical egalitarianism" was more than tempered by his mistrust of central government and the huddled urban masses and his rejection of majoritarian tyranny. "Democracy is not practicable beyond the limits of a town," avows Jefferson. Despite his occasional contradictions, his early tenacity of youth and sympathies with the French Revolution, he was a true Whig and a classical republican, and advocate of limited government. He is an enduring founding father who deserves careful study and admiration for his statesmanship.
Also recommended: Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution by Clinton Rossiter.
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Format: Paperback
This is indeed the finest study of Jefferson's political thought to date. Unlike other authors, Mayer penetrates to the core of Jefferson's political philosophy, revealing him to be fundamentally a "real whig," with emphasis on his distrust of government.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This single volume is the most comprehensive study on Thomas Jefferson's view of federalism and the limits of power, ergo simply that the states are everything unto themselves in domestic affairs and united in respect to all foreign concerns. In these pages Jefferson is no enigma, he is well grounded, and a recognizable libertarian even to us today. America is right because Jefferson was! An important addition to any serious admirer of the author of liberty.
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