Education, Jefferson’s Essential Protection Against Tyranny

In 1778, Thomas Jefferson wrote that education was essential to fight the slow fall of government into tyranny.  A powerful notion for those who see the quality of public education as inextricably linked to democracy.   He writes:

…experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes … whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance…

Many readers will notice the shift in tone with the phrase “persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue.”  A powerful clause to read.  It stopped me.  While Jefferson sees the essential importance of education to sustained independence, he appears to reserve it for some and not all.  Nine years later, the Constitution would be written.  And education appears nowhere in it.

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