Scene in Passing: Jeffersonian democracy reliant on public
March 26, 2014
“How’s the First Amendment today?”
With that question, Carson City Mayor Robert Crowell usually brandishes his droll sense of humor for news media members. He didn’t when we saw each other Tuesday.
But it’s fine, Mr. Mayor, though the nightly news provides stark reminders it doesn’t exist everywhere. Governments, generally speaking, don’t cotton to free speech.
So let’s contemplate why we have free speech and open dialogue by using a quote from founding father George Mason, mentor and elder associate of Thomas Jefferson, and then have Jefferson ghostwrite the rest of this column via quotes from his mellifluous pen.
“In all our associations,” said Mason, “in all our agreements, let us never lose sight of this fundamental maxim — that all power was originally lodged in, and consequently is derived from, the people.”
“I predict future happiness for Americans,” said Jefferson, our third president, “if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”
Now we’re rolling on stringing together Jeffersonian quotes regarding open government.
“We in America do not have government by the majority,” he said. “We have government by the majority who participate. All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”
Jefferson was a small-government advocate. Hence: “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.” Jefferson also lauded an informed citizenry.
“Information is the currency of democracy,” he said. “There is not a truth existing which I fear or would wish unknown to the whole world. The whole art of government is the art of being honest. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people … they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”
Echoing Mason was a continual Jeffersonian technique.
“The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object. The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and governments to gain ground.”
He also wrote about newspapers, purveyors of information, public dialogue and free expression, sometimes decrying and sometimes supporting them.
“The most truthful part of a newspaper is the advertisements,” he once said. Some readers may agree. But he also wrote this:
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Since you ask about the most important amendment to the Constitution, Mr. Mayor, my counsel would be for you to urge your city staff to bear Jefferson’s views always and uppermost in mind.
John Barrette covers Carson City government and business. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.