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The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson (Constitutionalism and Democracy) Paperback – September 8, 1995

4.9 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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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.

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
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press (September 8, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 081391485X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813914855
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #477,124 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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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David N. Mayer edited a collection of Thomas Jefferson's written work re limits of political power and individual rights. Jefferson was a violinist, mathematician, legal scholar, and an inventor. As Mayer wrote, Jefferson was well read re history, and Jefferson was a capable diplomat. Jefferson was so well read, that he was an expert at whatever endeavor he attempted.

Jefferson was familiar with Medieval English History and the implied "contract" between rulers and those who were ruled. Jefferson. Jefferson was aware of the abuses of the English Parliament during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547). Jefferson knew of the political conflicts between the English monarchs and the parliamentarians which led to the English Revolution and the execution of Charles I in 1649. As Mayer noted, Thomas Jefferson & co. sought to develop a political philosophy that would balance civil liberties and political authority which was difficult.

Jefferson's concern about civil liberties should be required reading at a time now when fear mongering is threatening peoples' right to conscience and the freedom to express uncomfortable/inconvenient truth. Mayer cited numerous Jefferson's work about the rights of conscience and freedom expression. Jefferson was concerned about the pomposity of Washington and Adams' administrations. Jefferson feared that such pomposity would divert attention from rights toward unnecessary ritual. Mayer quoted from one of Jefferson's letters complaining of such political ritual which, to the embarrassment of Jefferson, became public knowledge.

As noted above, Jefferson feared the unrestrained use of power. He commented that the US Government should be restrained by "the chains of the Constitution.
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