Back in 1787, in the midst of debate over the proposed Constitution, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison. His letter contained a sentence for all ages: "I am not a friend to a very energetic government," said Jefferson. "It is always oppressive."

Through some sort of political intuition, passed down through the generations, Americans have adopted the Jeffersonian view. Election Day saw ticket-splitting on a colossal scale, as 100 million voters did their instinctive best to assure that nothing dramatic will happen in government over the next few years.The truth is that our people do not want "very energetic government." When flashy new vehicles roll forth from legislative halls, we tend to let the air out of the tires.

We operate politically under what is known as the two-party "system," but that word "system" implies a kind of regular order that over the past 40 years has become a stranger to American politics. Our European friends have trouble understanding our ways. Some of us who cover politics for a living have trouble as well.

Consider this remarkable circumstance: In the 100th Congress, no fewer than 22 of the 50 sovereign states sent divided delegations to the U.S. Senate. This week's election in Virginia added one more, as Democrat Charles Robb joins Republican John Warner in the upper house.

One has to look at some of these electorates in wonder. Tell me, if you will, how the same voters in Colorado could send to the Senate Tim Wirth and Bill Armstrong? This is amazing. In 1987, Democrat Wirth rated 85 with Americans for Democratic Action; Republican Armstrong rated zero. Contrariwise, Wirth rated zero with the American Conservative Union; Armstrong rated 100. The editors of Congressional Quarterly chose 16 key Senate votes in 1988 - votes on civil rights, defense, welfare, the death penalty. Wirth and Armstrong voted oppositely on 13 of the 16.

Consider California. Alan Cranston ranks among the most liberal Democrats in the Senate. He scored a goose egg in the books of the American Conservative Union. His fellow senator, Pete Wilson, scored a respectable 75. On the 16 key votes, they canceled each other 11 times.

North Carolina provides another example. Jesse Helms and Terry Sanford have the same statewide constituency. In 1987 Americans for Democratic Action gave Sanford a nice approving score of 85; the ADA gave Helms a pitiful 10. But the American Conservative Union awarded Helms a perfect 100, and gave Sanford a measly 8.

So it goes, in Arizona, Delaware, Iowa, New Mexico, New York and other states.

Writing recently in The Washington Post, Lloyd N. Cutler took a sober look at this irrational situation. Cutler served as counsel to the president in the Carter administration; at 71 he ranks among the most respected elder statesmen of the Democratic Party. He does not share the Jeffersonian view.

In four of the past five presidential elections, the voters have put one party in charge of the White House and the other in control of the Congress. The result, in Cutler's view, has been "divided and deadlocked government."

The politically opposing branches have been unable to control the federal budget; they have clashed on war powers; they have failed to find a common policy in such areas as Nicaragua and Angola. By contrast, during the Carter years, when Democrats held both the executive and the legislative power, things went smoothly. Congress did not balk the president, and the president did not stonewall the Hill.

Cutler makes a persuasive case, but at least for this observer it is not a convincing case. In Cutler's view, the more we unite power, the more likely we are to see power efficiently employed. My own view is a little different: The more we unite power, the more likely we are to see power abused.