Jefferson, Education and The Franchise

By Professor Thomas Jewett

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” (as cited in Padover, 1939, p. 89)

“. . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.” (as cited in Padover, 1939, p. 88)


The above quotes were the cornerstones of Jefferson’s interest in education and the franchise. He placed education as the foundation of democracy and a prerequisite to vote.

Ignorance and sound self-government could not exist together: the one destroyed the other. A despotic government could restrain its citizens and deprive the people of their liberties only while they were ignorant.

Jefferson could never completely separate education from government. With the fullest faith in the ability of man to govern himself, Jefferson nonetheless realized the responsibility of self-government could be assumed successfully only by an enlightened people.

The habit of thinking of public education in essentially political terms, as an auxiliary of free government, naturally suggests a common father for both. In associating manhood suffrage with education, Jefferson was in the forefront. It was his belief in universal suffrage that made necessary the accompanying idea of universal education.

Only popular government can safeguard democracy. . . . Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories. And to render them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree. . . .” (as cited in Koch and Peden, 1972, p. 265)

The preparation of the voter so that he might express his opinion by means of the ballot, thus insuring political liberty, was one of the main goals of Jefferson’s plan for education which asserted four basic principles:

  1. “that democracy cannot long exist without enlightenment.
  2. that it cannot function without wise and honest officials.
  3. that talent and virtue, needed in a free society, should be educated regardless of wealth, birth or other accidental condition.
  4. that the children of the poor must be thus educated at common expense.” (as cited in Padover, 1952, p. 43)

Jefferson felt so strongly about education that he, as a strict constitutional constructionist, submitted to congress an amendment to the constitution to legalize federal support for education in his State of the Union Address, December 2, 1806. “Education is here placed among the articles of public care. . . ” (Honeywell, 1964, p. 63).

Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree. . . . An amendment to our constitution must here come in aid of the public education. The influence over government must be shared among all people. (as cited in Padover, 1939, p. 87)

The amendment was never considered, so, Jefferson turned his efforts to his beloved state of Virginia. He developed a comprehensive plan for education which encompassed elementary, secondary, and university levels.

I think by far the most important bill in our whole code, is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness. (as cited in Padover, 1952, p. 87)

Jefferson believed the elementary school was more important than the university in the plan because, as he said, it was “safer to have the whole people respectfully enlightened than a few in a high state of science and many in ignorance as in Europe” (as cited in Peterson, 1960, p. 241). He had six objectives for primary education to bring about this enlightenment and which highlighted what he hoped would make every person into a productive and informed voter:

  1. “To give every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business;
  2. To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts, and accounts, in writing;
  3. To improve, by reading, his morals and faculties;
  4. To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either;
  5. To know his rights; to exercize with order and justice those he retains; to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor, and judgment;
  6. And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.” (as cited in Peterson, 1960, p. 239)

Omitted from the Bill for Virginia’s school system, for political reasons, was the provision requiring literacy for citizenship. Jefferson felt strongly that society could rightfully disfranchise those who failed to avail themselves to free education (Malone, 1981, p. 270).

Jefferson expressed this view in a letter to his friend du Pont in 1816:

. . . in the constitution of Spain as proposed by the late Cortes. . . that any 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. Of all those which have been thought of for securing fidelity in the administration of the government, constant ralliance to the principles of the constitution, and progressive amendments with the progressive advances of the human mind, or changes in human affairs, it is the most effectual. Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. . . . the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected. (as cited in Mapp, 1991, p. 266)

The omission of the provision tying literacy and the rights of citizenship did the bill little good. All that the Virginia Assembly basically passed was Jefferson’s plan for a university, which became the University of Virginia. But, the issue of education and the franchise brought forth a dichotomy in Jefferson’s own thinking. He knew that a democracy could only exist with an educated and informed electorate. Yet, he, who abhorred any restrictions or shackles of the mind or body, was proposing such a stricture by melding education with franchise.


Honeywell, Roy J. (1964). The Educational Work of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Russel & Russel, Inc.

Koch, Adrienne and Peden, William Jefferson. The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Koch, Adrienne and Peden, William Jefferson. New York, The Modern Library, (1972).

Malone, Dumas. (1981). The Sage of Monticello. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Mapp, Alf J., Jr. (1991) Thomas Jefferson: Passionate Pilgrim. Lanham: Madison Books.

Padover, Saul K. (1939). Thomas Jefferson on Democracy. New York: Appleton-Century Company, Inc.

Padover, Saul K. (1952). Jefferson: A Great American’s Life and Ideas. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Peterson, Merrell D. (1960). The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. New York: Oxford University Press.