Thomas Jefferson Quotes

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A lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity, that ever were written.

3 August, 1771. Letter to Robert Skipwith.

The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.

1774. Summary View of the Rights of British America.

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

4 July, 1776. Declaration of Independence.

We must therefore … hold them [the British] as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.

4 July, 1776. Declaration of Independence.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

4 July, 1776. Declaration of Independence.

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

4 July, 1776. Declaration of Independence.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

4 July, 1776. Declaration of Independence.

We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them [the British], as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies inWar, in Peace Friends.

4 July, 1776. Declaration of Independence.

That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.

4 July, 1776. Declaration of Independence.

And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

4 July, 1776. Declaration of Independence.

Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them. Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from truth who believes nothing, that he who believes what is wrong.

1779 “A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom”

Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-85, Query 6.

The Newtonian principle of gravitation is now more firmly established, on the basis of reason, that it would be were the government to step in, and to make it an article of necessary faith. Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them.

Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-85, Query 17.

 Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons.

Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-85, Query 17.

It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.

Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-85, Query 17.

It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-85, Query 17.

Is uniformity [of opinion] attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have no advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, the other half hypocrites.

Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-85, Query 17.

Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in theminds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of god? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that god is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.

Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-85, Query 18. On slavery.

Those who labor in the earth are chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.

Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-85, Query 19.

He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.

19th August, 1785. Letter to Peter Carr.

What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man! Who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment, & death itself in vindication of his own liberty, and the next moment . . . inflict on his fellow men a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose.

24th January, 1786. Letter to Jean Nicholas Demeunier.

The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

16th January, 1787. Letter to Colonel Edward Carrington.

Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind; for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor.

16th January, 1787. Letter to Colonel Edward Carrington.

I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.

30th January, 1787. Letter to James Madison.

What country before ever existed a century and a half without rebellion? … The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

13th November, 1787. Letter to William Stevens Smith.

God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. . . . What country can preserve its liberties, if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. . . . What signify a few lives lost in a century or two?

13th November, 1787. Letter to William Stevens Smith.

A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.

20th December, 1787. Letter to James Madison.

If we cannot secure all our rights, let us secure what we can.

15th March, 1789. Letter to James Madison.

The earth belongs to the living and not to the dead.

6th September, 1789. Letter to James Madison.

The republican is the only form of government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind.

11th March, 1790. Letter to William Hunter.

We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed.

2nd April, 1790. Letter to Lafayette.

I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.

23rd December, 1791. Letter to Archibald Stewart.

Let what will be said or done, preserve your sangfroid immovably, and to every obstacle, oppose patience, perseverance, and soothing language.

18th March, 1792. Letter to William Short.

Delay is preferable to error.

16th May, 1792. Letter to George Washington.

We confide in our strength, without boasting of it; we respect that of others, without fearing it.

30th June, 1793. Letter to William Carmichael and William Short.

The second office of the government is honorable and easy, the first but a splendid misery.

13th May, 1797. Letter to Elbridge Gerry.

Offices are as acceptable here as elsewhere, and whenever a man has cast a longing eye on them, a rottenness begins in his conduct.

21st May, 1797. Letter to Tench Coxe.

In questions of power, then, let no more be said of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.

1798 Kentucky Resolutions. Resolution 9.

The war hawks talk of septembrizing, deportation, and the examples for quelling sedition set by the French Executive.

26th April, 1798. Letter to James Madison.

If the principle were to prevail of a common law [i.e a single government] being in force in the United States…it would become the most corrupt government on the earth.

13th August, 1800. Letter to Gideon Granger.

I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hospitality against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

23rd September, 1800. Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush.

All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

4th March, 1801. First Inaugural Address.

We are all Republicans – we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.

4th March, 1801. First Inaugural Address.

But would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government whcih has so far kept us free and firm, on the theoretic and visionary fear that this government, the world’s best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself?

4th March, 1801. First Inaugural Address.

Sometimes it is said that man cannot 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? Let history answer this question.

4th March, 1801. First Inaugural Address.

Still one thing more, fellow citizens – a wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

4th March, 1801. First Inaugural Address.

Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people — a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism; a well-disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war till regulars may relieve them; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid; the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected. These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.

4th March, 1801. First Inaugural Address.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.

1st January, 1802. Reply to Nehemiah Dodge, Stephen S. Nelson and Ephraim Robbins.

It behoves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of  it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own.

21st April, 1803. Letter to Benjamin Rush.

Whensoever hostile aggressions … require a resort to war, we must meet out duty and convince the world that we are just friends and brave enemies.

3rd December, 1806. Letter to Andrew Jackson.

When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.

1807. Remark to Baron von Humbodlt. Quoted in ‘Life of Jefferson’, Rayner.

The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the frist and only legitimate object of good government.

31st March, 1809. To the Republican Citizens of Washington County, Maryland.

Politics, like religion, hold up the torches of martyrdom to the reformers of error.

4th August, 1811. Letter to James Ogilvie.

But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.

20th August, 1811. Letter to Charles Wilson Peale.

He who knows most, knows how little he knows.

1812. Batture at New Orleans.

The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead.

24th June, 1813. Letter to John W. Eppes.

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

13th August, 1813. Letter to Isaac McPherson.

The new circumstances under which we are placed call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects. An American dialect will therefore be formed.

16th August, 1813. Letter to John Waldo.

 I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents.

28th October, 1813. Letter to John Adams.

Merchants have no country. The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains.

17th March, 1814. Letter to Horatio G. Spafford.

I am . . . mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. . . . Are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? . . . Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut and stretched?

19th April, 1814. Letter to N.G. Dufief.

I cannot live without books.

10th June, 1815. Letter to John Adams.

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty & property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information.Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.

6th January, 1816. Letter to Colonel Charles Yancey.

There are indeed (who might say Nay) gloomy & hypochondriac minds, inhabitants of diseased bodies, disgusted with the present, & despairing of the future; always counting that the worst will happen, because it may happen.  To these I say How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened!

8th April, 1816. Letter to John Adams.

Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.

24th April, 1816. Letter to Du Pont de Nemours.

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. . . . Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. . . . We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

12th July, 1816. Letter to Samuel Kercheval.

When angry count 10. before you speak. If very angry 100.

12th July, 1817. Letter to Charles Clay, quoting advice given to Paul Clay.

I have the consolation to relect 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.

14th February, 1818. Letter to papal nuncio Count Dugnani.

But this momentous questions [the Missouri Compromise], like a firebell in the night awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it the knell of the Union.

22nd April, 1820. Letter to John Holmes.

Dictionaries are but the depositories of words already legitimated by usage. Society is the work-shop in which new ones are elaborated. When an individual uses a new word, if illformed it is rejected in society, if wellformed, adopted, and, after due time, laid up in the depository of dictionaries.

15th August, 1820. Letter to John Adams.

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.

28th September, 1820. Letter to William Charles Jarvis.

The boisterous sea of liberty indeed is never without a wave.

26th December, 1820. Letter to Lafayette.

We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.

27th December, 1820. Letter to William Roscoe.

If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise in a body to which the people send 150. lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour? That 150. lawyers should do business together ought not to be expected.

6th January, 1821. Autobiography. Description is of the U.S. Congress.

And even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them. In short, the flames kindled on the fourth of July, 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary they will consume these engines and all who work them.

12th September, 1821. Letter to John Adams.

To attain all this [universal republicanism], however, rivers of blood must yet flow, and years of desolation pass over; yet the object is worth rivers of blood, and years of desolation.

4th September, 1823. Letter to John Adams.

If a due participation of office is a matter of right, how are vacancies to be obtained? Those bydeath are few; by resignation none.

4th September, 1823. Letter to John Adams.

The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary to keep the waters pure.

4th November, 1823. Letter to Lafayette.

Speeches measured by the hour, die with the hour.

20th April, 1824. Letter to David Harding.

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: (1) Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. (2) Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist; and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves.

10th August, 1824. Letter to Henry Lee.

Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.

21st February, 1825. A Decalogue of Canons for Observation in Practical Life.

When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, an hundred.

21st February, 1825. A Decalogue of Canons for Observation in Practical Life.

The good old Dominion, the blessed mother of us all.

1826. Thoughts on Lotteries.

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, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.

24th June, 1826. Letter to Roger C. Weighman. Jefferson’s final letter.

No duty the Executive had to perform was so trying as to put the right man in the right place.

Quoted in J.B. MacMaster, ‘History of the People of the U.S.’.

We have the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.

On slavery. Quoted in J.C. Miller, ‘The Wolf by the Ears’.

This is the fourth?

4th July, 1826. Last words.

Here was buried Thomas Jefferson author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and father of the University of Virginia.

Epitaph on Jefferson’s Gravestone.