Thomas Jefferson embodies a contradiction that is easy to see in many people today, regardless of political leaning but especially prominent on the right. That is, the contradiction between extolling a love for self-rule and democratic norms while also longing for a more ‘educated’ electorate. I’ve encountered it in both college students and grandmothers. Allow me to elaborate.

Thomas Jefferson is rather unique in this contradiction. Most of his contemporaries were explicitly hostile to democracy, while Jefferson was at least sympathetic to it in principle. He believed that, generally speaking, the dangers of letting society run itself were outweighed by the dangers of the ‘false’ (as opposed to natural) aristocrats seizing power. Indeed, he claimed in his letter to John Adams that allowing the masses suffrage is the best method for elevating those “natural” aristoi to positions of power.

“It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”

His leanings towards democracy are also evident elsewhere. In his letter to Samuel Kercheval, he states that “This corporeal globe, and everything upon it, belongs to its present corporeal inhabitants, during their generation. They alone have a right to direct what is the concern of themselves, alone, and to declare the law of that direction; and this declaration can only be made by the majority.” Of course, later in the letter he clarifies that this “majority” consists strictly of adult freemen. Still, his musings on the ideal society remain decidedly more democratic than any of his far less egalitarian colleagues.

However, in his letter to Pierre Samuel he shows great enthusiasm for a different sort of principle, originally proposed in Spain, “that no person born after that day should ever acquire the rights of citizenship until he could read and write. It is impossible sufficiently to estimate the wisdom of this provision.” His longing for an educated electorate can also be seen in his “ward” scheme, laid out in his letter to the Abbe Arnoux. In addition to being radically democratic and autonomous “little republics,” the wards would also include extensive public education.

Jefferson only wanted democracy for an electorate well suited and prepared for it. That is, an agrarian, educated, propertied, adult, male electorate organized in a highly decentralized fashion. And there are certainly some people in politics today who agree with suppressing the franchise only to those they deem appropriately equipped for it.

Of course, the problem with believing in the principle of self-rule while stipulating the conditions for who gets to participate is self-defeating. ALL members of society get to participate by being members of that society. That is the entire point. Anything less is injustice.