Executive Prerogative and the “Good Officer” in Thomas Jefferson's Letter to John B. Colvin


  • AUTHOR's NOTE: In addition to the three anonymous reviewers, I thank the following for their criticism: Laura Wyndham Ivey Bailey, Robert Faulkner, Dennis Hale, Daniel Klinghard, Marc Landy, Peter Onuf, and Robert Scigliano.

Jeremy David Bailey is assistant professor of government at Eastern Washington University and has been a Junior Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and a Visiting Fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. This research was taken from his dissertation, which won the American Political Science Association's 2004 E.E. Schattschneider Prize for best dissertation in American politics.


Thomas Jefferson's clearest statement on executive prerogative can be found in his letter to John B. Colvin. Although this letter has been cited often, few scholars have considered its argument in its entirety, and no scholar has yet considered its context. By reexamining the letter, this article presents Jefferson's understanding of the prerogative power, which argues that the president must act outside the law when self-preservation or the public good requires but must then declare his action to Congress or the people. Because Jefferson's understanding both expands and demarcates prerogative, it can contribute to the scholarly debate on prerogative.