The Wisdom of Thomas Jefferson

I’ve made no secret of my admiration of Thomas Jefferson, and today I’d like to show you at least part of why. And so I’ll give you a collection of my favorite Jefferson passages. There was considerably more to the man than just his writings, but this will give you enough to appreciate. And please remember that he came up with these thoughts between 200 and 250 years ago.

State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules. (Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787)

I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it. (Letter to Archibald Stuart, December 23, 1791)

There is no act, however virtuous, for which ingenuity may not find some bad motive. (Letter to Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803)

Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add “within the limits of the law” because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual. (Letter to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1819)

I think myself that we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious. (Letter to William Ludlow, September 6, 1824)

How soon the labor of men would make a paradise of the whole earth, were it not for misgovernment and selfish interests. (1825)

The unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion would soon convince all men that they were born not to be ruled – but to rule themselves in freedom. (Letter to Roger C. Weightman, June 24, 1826)

It is strangely absurd to suppose that a million people, collected together, are not under the same moral laws that bind them separately. (1816)

I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.

We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed. (Letter to Lafayette, April 2, 1790)

Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of Liberty.

I have the consolation to reflect that during the period of my administration not a drop of the blood of a single fellow citizen was shed by the sword of war or of the law. (Letter to papal nuncio Count Dugnani, February 14, 1818)

I never consider a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend. (The Life and Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 1900)

I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. (Letter to Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800)

Lay down true principles and adhere to them inflexibly. Do not be frightened into their surrender by the alarms of the timid. (Letter to Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803)

Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? (Innaugural Address)

All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs. (Letter to Roger C. Weightman, June 24, 1826)

To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical. (Bill to Establish Religious Freedom 1779)

I sincerely believe … that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies, and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity under the name of funding is but swindling futurity on a large scale.

Truth… seldom has received much aid from the power of great men to whom she is rarely known and seldom welcome. (Notes on Religion, October 1776)

I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give. (Letter to Alexander Donald, February 7, 1788)

I repeat, you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision. (Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787)

The principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling future generations on a large scale. (Letter to John Taylor, May 28, 1816)

The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead. (Letter to John Wayles Eppes, 24 June 1813)

Say nothing of my religion. It is known to my God and myself alone. (Letter to John Adams, January 11, 1817)

A development of this reasoning will reveal the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others… The precepts of philosophy, & of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only. He pushed his examinations into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head. (Letter to Benjamin Rush, April 12, 1803)

The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but it cannot separate them. (Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774)


Paul Rosenberg