“You may ask what then will become of the fundamental principles of equity and fair play which our constitutions enshrine; and whether I seriously believe that unsupported they will serve merely as counsels of moderation. I do not think that anyone can say what will be left of those principles; I do not know whether they will serve only as counsels; but this much I think I do know — that a society so riven that the spirit of moderation is gone, no court can save; that a society where that spirit flourishes, no court need save; that in a society which evades its responsibility by thrusting upon the courts the nurture of that spirit, that spirit in the end will perish.”
“The Contribution of an Independent Judiciary to Civilization” (1942).
“But I am not trying, at this late hour, to rehabilitate the Federalists and the Whigs. They deserve all of the criticism they have received, but not for the reason they have received it. Their crime was not villainy but stupidity, and perhaps in politics a man ought to know that if he is guilty of the second, he is going to be charged with the first.”
From The Liberal Tradition in America:
“The fact that the document of 1787 is the oldest written constitution in existence, save that of Massachusetts, is pointed out no less frequently than the fact that the men who made it were ‘realists’ in dealing with the stark facts of social conflict. But why has it survived so long? Why did it not go the way, for example, of the Restoration Charter in France? Has this not been precisely because fundamental value struggles have not been characteristic of the United States? Surely the Constitution did not fare very well in the only time any such struggles did appear in the United States, the time of the slavery controversy in the middle of the nineteenth century. Civil war broke out.
“Indeed one is bound to ask an even more telling question. Would the American Constitution have been able to survive in any nation save one characterized by so much of the ‘mutual dependence’ that Pinckney found here? For the solution the constitutionalists offered to the frightful conflicts they imagined was a complicated scheme of checks and balances which it is reasonable to argue only a highly united nation could make work at all. Delay and deliberate confusion in government become intolerable in communities where men have decisive social programs that they want to execute.”
Incredibly apt as applied to the prospect of the confirmation battle over President Obama’s imminent nominee to replace Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court.
“Some years ago, the State met me in behalf of the Church, and commanded me to pay a certain sum toward the support of a clergyman whose preaching my father attended, but never I myself. ‘Pay,’ it said, ‘or be locked up in the jail.’ I declined to pay. But, unfortunately, another man saw fit to pay it. I did not see why the schoolmaster should be taxed to support the priest, and not the priest the schoolmaster, for I was not the State’s schoolmaster, but I supported myself by voluntary subscription. I did not see why the lyceum should not present its tax-bill, and have the State to back its demand, as well as the Church.
“However, at the request of the selectmen, I condescended to make some such statement as this in writing:–‘Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined.’ This I gave to the town clerk; and he has it. The State, having thus learned that I did not wish to be regarded as a member of that Church, has never made a like demand on me since, though it said that it must adhere to its original presumption that time. If I had known how to name them, I should then have signed off in detail from all the societies which I never signed on to; but I did not know where to find a complete list.”
This dude is kinda funny.
From “Civil Disobedience,” 1848
“It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of ay, even the most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.”
Discussing their disagreements about how best to structure government to prevent the undue influence of the “artificial” (as opposed to natural) aristocracy, Jefferson notes that some of their difference of opinion “may…be produced by a difference of character in those among whom we live,” since Adams is a New Englander and Jefferson from Virginia. But this is the best line:
“Although this hereditary succession to office with you [New Englanders] may, in some degree, be founded in real family merit, yet in a much higher degree, it has proceeded from your strict alliance of Church and State. These families are canonised in the eyes of the people on common principles, ‘you tickle me, and I will tickle you.'”
What. I have never heard “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” expressed this way. It’s amazing. I’m going to start using it all the time.
From his Notes on Virginia (1785):
“The error seems not sufficiently eradicated that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. . . Constraint may make him worse by making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man. . . Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”