Jefferson feared that it would only be a matter of time before the American system of government degenerated into a form of “elective despotism” (1785)
Found in The Works, vol. 4 (Notes on Virginia II, Correspondence 1782-1786)
Because Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) thought it would be only a matter of time before the American system of government degenerated into an “elective despotism,” he warned that citizens should act now in order to make sure that “the wolf [was kept] out of the fold”:
Mankind soon learn to make interested uses of every right and power which they possess, or may assume. The public money and public liberty, intended to have been deposited with three branches of magistracy, but found inadvertently to be in the hands of one only, will soon be discovered to be sources of wealth and dominion to those who hold them… They [the assembly] should look forward to a time, and that not a distant one, when a corruption in this, as in the country from which we derive our origin, will have seized the heads of government, and be spread by them through the body of the people; when they will purchase the voices of the people, and make them pay the price. Human nature is the same on every side of the Atlantic, and will be alike influenced by the same causes. The time to guard against corruption and tyranny, is before they shall have gotten hold of us. It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold, than to trust to drawing his teeth and talons after he shall have entered.
1785 seems rather early for Jefferson to be making such dire predictions about the unhappy fate of the new American government, yet his worry that democracy might turn into a form of despotism has proven to be correct if some 200 years later and “not a distant” time as he originally thought. What is interesting about this quote is also the use of animal imagery, this time seeing government as a “wolf” whose teeth and claws would need to be pulled if liberty were to survive.