Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Thomas Jefferson on Government Innovations and "Slender Majorities"

In the debate over health care reform, many commentators, including my colleague Gerard Magliocca (here), have trotted out a quote from a private letter Thomas Jefferson wrote as President in 1808: "Great innovations should not be forced upon slender majorities." This quote is used to argue that any policy change as significant as health care reform should not occur without the approval of a large majority.

I wondered about the context of Jefferson's quote, and managed to find the entire letter. Here's a larger segment from it:
we must depend on a classified militia, which will give us the service of the class from 20 to 26, in the nature of conscripts, composing a body of about 250,000, to be specially trained. This measure, attempted at a former session, was pressed at the last, and might, I think, have been carried by a small majority. But considering that great innovations should not be forced on a slender majority, and seeing that the general opinion is sensibly rallying to it, it was thought better to let it lie over to the next session, when, I trust, it will be passed.
 The context was military conscription, something that had never been done before, and the larger quotation suggests that Jefferson was being strategic, figuring that a larger majority would support the measure in the next session. I don't know whether or how this context affects the use of the quote with respect to health care reform, but at least two differences are apparent: Congress has enacted similar entitlement programs in the past and there was no likelihood of a larger majority in favor of health care reform in the next session of Congress.

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