Thomas Jefferson, third president and one of most influential founders of United States of America, author of Declaration of Independence, political philosopher

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Thomas Jefferson (13 April 1743 – 4 July 1826) was the third president of the United States (1801–1809), author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), a political philosopher, and one of the most influential founders of the United States.

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The most fortunate of us, in our journey through life, frequently meet with calamities and misfortunes which may greatly afflict us; and, to fortify our minds against the attacks of these calamities and misfortunes, should be one of the principal studies and endeavours of our lives.

1760s

If I am to succeed, the sooner I know it, the less uneasiness I shall have to go through. If I am to meet with a disappointment, the sooner I know it, the more of life I shall have to wear it off: and if I do meet with one, I hope in God, and verily believe; it will be the last. Letter to John Page (15 July 1763); published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson (1905)

The most fortunate of us, in our journey through life, frequently meet with calamities and misfortunes which may greatly afflict us; and, to fortify our minds against the attacks of these calamities and misfortunes, should be one of the principal studies and endeavours of our lives. The only method of doing this is to assume a perfect resignation to the Divine will, to consider that whatever does happen, must happen; and that by our uneasiness, we cannot prevent the blow before it does fall, but we may add to its force after it has fallen. These considerations, and others such as these, may enable us in some measure to surmount the difficulties thrown in our way; to bear up with a tolerable degree of patience under this burthen of life; and to proceed with a pious and unshaken resignation, till we arrive at our journey’s end, when we may deliver up our trust into the hands of him who gave it, and receive such reward as to him shall seem proportioned to our merit. Such, dear Page, will be the language of the man who considers his situation in this life, and such should be the language of every man who would wish to render that situation as easy as the nature of it will admit. Few things will disturb him at all: nothing will disturb him much. Letter to John Page (15 July 1763); published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson (1905)

Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law. Vol. 1 Whether Christianity is Part of the Common Law (1764). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904,, p. 459.

1770s

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.

The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.

Truth will do well enough if left to shift for herself…

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable Rights; that among these, are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness… 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. Letter to Robert Skipwith (3 August 1771) ; also in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (19 Vols., 1905) edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, Vol. 4, p. 239.

The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them. Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774); The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (19 Vols., 1905) edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, Vol. 1, p. 211.

Let those flatter, who fear: it is not an American art. Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774)

Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable. — We gratefully acknowledge, as signal instances of the Divine favour towards us, that his Providence would not permit us to be called into this severe controversy, until we were grown up to our present strength, had been previously exercised in warlike operation, and possessed of the means of defending ourselves. With hearts fortified with these animating reflections, we most solemnly, before God and the world, declare, that, exerting the utmost energy of those powers, which our beneficent Creator hath graciously bestowed upon us, the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverence, employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves. Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms (1775); Jefferson composed the first draft of this document, but the final work was done by John Dickinson, working with his original draft. Full text online

All persons shall have full and free liberty of religious opinion; nor shall any be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious institution. Draft Constitution for Virginia (June 1776).

No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms [within his own lands]. Draft Constitution for Virginia (June 1776) This quote often appears with the parenthetical omitted and with the spurious extension, “The strongest reason for the people to retain their right to keep and bear arms is as a last resort to protect themselves against tyranny in government”.

Truth will do well enough if left to shift for herself. She seldom has received much aid from the power of great men to whom she is rarely known & seldom welcome. She has no need of force to procure entrance into the minds of men. Error indeed has often prevailed by the assistance of power or force. Truth is the proper & sufficient antagonist to error. Notes on Religion (October 1776), published in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson : 1816-1826 (1899) edited by Paul Leicester Ford, v. 2, p. 102

In the middle ages of Christianity opposition to the State opinions was hushed. The consequence was, Christianity became loaded with all the Romish follies. Nothing but free argument, raillery & even ridicule will preserve the purity of religion. Notes on Religion (October 1776), published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 2, p. 256.

Compulsion in religion is distinguished peculiarly from compulsion in every other thing. I may grow rich by art I am compelled to follow, I may recover health by medicines I am compelled to take against my own judgment, but I cannot be saved by a worship I disbelieve & abhor. Notes on Religion (October 1776), published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 2, p. 266.

Locke denies toleration to those who entertain opinions contrary to those moral rules necessary for the preservation of society; as for instance, that faith is not to be kept with those of another persuasion, … that dominion is founded in grace, or who will not own & teach the duty of tolerating all men in matters of religion, or who deny the existence of a god (it was a great thing to go so far—as he himself says of the parliament who framed the act of toleration … He says ‘neither Pagan nor Mahomedan nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.’ Shall we suffer a Pagan to deal with us and not suffer him to pray to his god? Why have Christians been distinguished above all people who have ever lived, for persecutions? Is it because it is the genius of their religion? No, its genius is the reverse. It is the refusing toleration to those of a different opinion which has produced all the bustles and wars on account of religion. It was the misfortune of mankind that during the darker centuries the Christian priests following their ambition and avarice combining with the magistrate to divide the spoils of the people, could establish the notion that schismatics might be ousted of their possessions & destroyed. This notion we have not yet cleared ourselves from. Notes on Religion (October, 1776). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 2, pp. 267.

Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet choose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to exalt it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislature and ruler, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time: That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; … that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; and therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust or emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religions opinion, is depriving him injudiciously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow-citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emolumerits, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminals who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, … and finally, that 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. A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Chapter 82 (1779). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 1, pp. 438–441. Comparison of Jefferson’s proposed draft and the bill enacted

Declaration of Independence (1776)

For more quotes from and about this document, see United States Declaration of Independence

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. 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 the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable 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 these ends, it is the Right of the people to alter or 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.
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.

1780s

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

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

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.

I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII

Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves? Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII

In a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds 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 for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII (1782); for more quotes from this document see: Notes on the State of Virginia (1781-1785)

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. Letter to Peter Carr (19 August 1785)

What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man! Who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment and 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. Letter to Jean Nicholas Demeunier (24 January 1786) Bergh 17:103

Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost. Letter to Dr. James Currie (28 January 1786) Lipscomb & Bergh 18:ii

We took the liberty to make some enquiries concerning the ground of their pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury, and observed that we considered all mankind as our friends who had done us no wrong, nor had given us any provocation. The Ambassador [of Tripoli] answered us that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise. Letter from the commissioners (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson) to John Jay, 28 March 1786, in Thomas Jefferson Travels: Selected Writings, 1784-1789, by Anthony Brandt, pp. 104-105.

The two principles on which our conduct towards the Indians should be founded, are justice and fear. After the injuries we have done them, they cannot love us . . . . Letter to Benjamin Hawkins (13 August 1786) Lipscomb & Bergh ed. 5:390

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. Letter to Colonel Edward Carrington (16 January 1787) Lipscomb & Bergh ed. 6:57

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. Letter to Colonel Edward Carrington (16 January 1787)

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. Letter to James Madison (30 January 1787); referring to Shays’ Rebellion Lipscomb & Bergh ed. 6:65

The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere. Letter to Abigail Smith Adams from Paris while a Minister to France (22 February 1787), referring to Shay’s Rebellion. “Jefferson’s Service to the New Nation,” Library of Congress [image]

God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. … What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And 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. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. Letter to William Stephens Smith (13 November 1787), quoted in Padover’s Jefferson On Democracy

When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become corrupt as in Europe. Letter to James Madison (20 December 1787), The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (19 Vols., 1905) edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, Vol. VI, p. 392.

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 (7 February 1788)

Paper is poverty,… it is only the ghost of money, and not money itself. Letter to Colonel Edward Carrington (27 May 1788) ME 7:36

Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights. Letter to Richard Price (8 January 1789)

You say that I have been dished up to you as an antifederalist, and ask me if it be just. My opinion was never worthy enough of notice to merit citing; but since you ask it I will tell it you. I am not a Federalist, because I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all. Therefore I protest to you I am not of the party of federalists. But I am much farther from that than of the Antifederalists. Letter to Francis Hopkinson (13 March 1789)

I say, the earth belongs to each of these generations during its course, fully and in its own right. The second generation receives it clear of the debts and incumbrances of the first, the third of the second, and so on. For if the first could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation. Then, no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence. Letter to James Madison (6 September 1789) ME 7:455, Papers 15:393

Letter to Peter Carr (1787)

Letter to his nephew Peter Carr from Paris, France, (10 August 1787). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 5, pp. 324–327.

The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body.

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. He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this.
The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted, indeed, in some degree, to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call common sense. 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.
Above all things, lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, courageous, &c. Consider every act of this kind, as an exercise which will strengthen your moral faculties and increase your worth.
Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object [religion]. In the first place divest yourself of all bias in favour of novelty & singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, & the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand shake off all the fears & servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear. Scan of the original page at The Library of Congress.

You will naturally examine first, the religion of your own country. Read the Bible, then as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature, you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy and Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor, in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature, does not weigh against them. But those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature, in the case he relates. For example in the book of Joshua we are told the sun stood still several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, etc. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine therefore candidly what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis as the earth does, should have stopped, should not by that sudden stoppage have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time have resumed its revolution, & that without a second general prostration. Is this arrest of the earth’s motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities?
You will next read the new testament. It is the history of a personage called Jesus. Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions 1. of those who say he was begotten by God, born of a virgin, suspended & reversed the laws of nature at will, & ascended bodily into heaven: and 2. of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, & was Punished capitally for sedition by being gibbeted according to the Roman law which punished the first commission of that offence by whipping, & the second by exile or death in furcâ.
Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a god, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love.
In fine, 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.
When speaking of the new testament that you should read all the histories of Christ, as well of those whom a council of ecclesiastics have decided for us to be Pseudo-evangelists, as those they named Evangelists. Because these Pseudo-evangelists pretended to inspiration as much as the others, and you are to judge their pretensions by your own reason, & not by the reason of those ecclesiastics. Most of these are lost. There are some however still extant, collected by Fabricius which I will endeavor to get & send you.

1790s

I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty, than those attending too small a degree of it. The republican is the only form of government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind. Letter to William Hunter (11 March 1790)

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

I learn with great satisfaction that you are about committing to the press the valuable historical and State papers you have been so long collecting. Time and accident are committing daily havoc on the originals deposited in our public offices. The late war has done the work of centuries in this business. The last cannot be recovered, but let us save what remains; not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident. Letter to a Mr. Hazard (18 February 1791) published in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1853), Vol. 2, edited by Henry Augustine Washington, p. 211

I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground: That “all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people.” To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.
The incorporation of a bank, and the powers assumed by this bill, have not, in my opinion, been delegated to the United States, by the Constitution… They are not among the powers specially enumerated… Opinion against the constitutionality of a National Bank (1791), also quoted in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson “Memorial Edition” (20 Vols., 1903-04) edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, Vol. 3, p. 146

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 [1] [2], Philadelphia (23 December 1791)

Let what will be said or done, preserve your sang-froid immovably, and to every obstacle, oppose patience, perseverance, and soothing language. Letter to William Short (18 March 1792)

Delay is preferable to error. Letter to George Washington (16 May 1792)

We confide in our strength, without boasting of it; we respect that of others, without fearing it. Letter to William Carmichael and William Short (1793)

The second office of the government is honorable and easy, the first is but a splendid misery. Letter to Elbridge Gerry (13 May 1797)

It was by the sober sense of our citizens that we were safely and steadily conducted from monarchy to republicanism, and it is by the same agency alone we can be kept from falling back. Letter to Arthur Campbell (1797)

A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt. If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake. From a letter to John Taylor (June 1798), after the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Resolved […] that it would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights; that confidence is every where the parent of despotism; free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy, and not confidence, which prescribes limited constitutions to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power; that our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which, and no farther, our confidence may go; […].

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.
The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 (16 November 1798)

War is an instrument entirely inefficient toward redressing wrong; and multiplies, instead of indemnifying losses. Letter to John Sinclair (1798)

As pure a son of liberty as I have ever known. About Tadeusz Kościuszko, in a letter to Horatio Gates (1798)

I am for freedom of religion, & against all maneuvres to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another. Letter to Elbridge Gerry (1799)

Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto. Letter to Thomas Lomax (12 March 1799)

To preserve the freedom of the human mind then and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will, and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement. Letter to William Green Mumford (18 June 1799)

1800s

I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. When the clergy addressed General Washington on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However [Dr. Rush] observed the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice. Rush observes he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers except in his valedictory letter to the Governors of the states when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of the benign influence of the Christian religion. I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did. The Anas (February 1, 1800). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 1, pp. 352–353.

What an effort, my dear sir, of bigotry in politics and religion have we gone through! The barbarians really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times of Vandalism… They believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion. On members of the clergy who sought to establish some form of “official” Christianity in the U.S. government. Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush (23 September 1800)
This has commonly been quoted as “I have sworn upon the altar of God Eternal, hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”, and “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Neither capitalization of “god” and “eternal”, nor a comma before or after “eternal” are apparent in the original. Photograph of the original manuscript at the Library of Congress – LOC transcription
The first portion of this statement has also been widely paraphrased as “The clergy believe that any power confided in me will be exerted in opposition to their schemes, and they believe rightly.”

Yours is one of the few lives precious to mankind, and for the continuance of which every thinking man is solicitous. Bigots may be an exception. What an effort, my dear sir, of bigotry in politics and religion have we gone through! The barbarians really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times of Vandalism, when ignorance put everything into the hands of power and priestcraft. All advances in science were proscribed as innovations. They pretended to praise and encourage education, but it was to be the education of our ancestors. We were to look backwards, not forwards, for improvement … This was the real ground of all the attacks on you. Those who live by mystery & charlatanerie, fearing you would render them useless by simplifying the Christian philosophy — the most sublime and benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man — endeavored to crush your well-earned & well-deserved fame. Letter to Dr. Joseph Priestley (21 March 1801); published in The Life of Thomas Jefferson (1871) by Henry Stephens Randall, Vol. 2, p. 644; this seems to be the source of a misleading abbreviation: “[Christianity is] the most … perverted system that ever shone on man”.

Of the various executive abilities, no one excited more anxious concern than that of placing the interests of our fellow-citizens in the hands of honest men, with understanding sufficient for their stations. No duty is at the same time more difficult to fulfil. The knowledge of character possessed by a single individual is of necessity limited. To seek out the best through the whole Union, we must resort to the information which from the best of men, acting disinterestedly and with the purest motives, is sometimes incorrect. Letter to Elias Shipman and others of New Haven (12 July 1801). Paraphrased in John B. McMaster, History of the People of the United States (ii. 586): “One sentence will undoubtedly be remembered till our republic ceases to exist. ‘No duty the Executive had to perform was so trying,’ [Jefferson] observed, ‘as to put the right man in the right place.'”

If a due participation of office is a matter of right, how are vacancies to be obtained? Those by death are few; by resignation, none. Letter to Elias Shipman and others of New Haven (12 July 1801). Often misquoted as, “few die and none resign”.

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 legislative 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. Letter to Danbury Baptist Association, CT. (1 January 1802) This statement is the origin of the often used phrase “separation of Church and State”.

If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy. Letter to Thomas Cooper (29 November 1802)

To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other. Letter to Benjamin Rush (12 April 1803)

His parentage was obscure; his condition poor; his education null; his natural endowments great; his life correct and innocent: he was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, & of the sublimest eloquence.
The disadvantages under which his doctrines appear are remarkable.
1. Like Socrates & Epictetus, he wrote nothing himself.
2. But he had not, like them, a Xenophon or an Arrian to write for him. On the contrary, all the learned of his country, entrenched in its power and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing his life & doctrines fell on the most unlettered & ignorant men; who wrote, too, from memory, & not till long after the transactions had passed.
3. According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform mankind, he fell an early victim to the jealousy & combination of the altar and the throne, at about 33. years of age, his reason having not yet attained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his preaching, which was but of 3. years at most, presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals.
4. Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, & often unintelligible.
5. They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatising followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating & perverting the simple doctrines he taught by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian sophist, frittering them into subtleties, & obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, & to view Jesus himself as an impostor.
Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us, which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.
The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merit of his doctrines.
1. He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government.
2. His moral doctrines, relating to kindred & friends, were more pure & perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.
3. The precepts of philosophy, & of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.
4. He taught, emphatically, the doctrines of a future state, which was either doubted, or disbelieved by the Jews; and wielded it with efficacy, as an important incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct. “Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others” in a letter to Benjamin Rush (12 April 1803). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 9 Works Vol. 9 (PDF), pp. 462.

I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others. Letter to Edward Dowse (19 April 1803)

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

I observe an idea of establishing a branch bank of the United States in New Orleans. This institution is one of the most deadly hostility existing against the principles and form of our Constitution. The nation is at this time so strong and united in its sentiments that it cannot be shaken at this moment. But suppose a series of untoward events should occur sufficient to bring into doubt the competency of a republican government to meet a crisis of great danger, or to unhinge the confidence of the people in the public functionaries; an institution like this, penetrating by its branches every part of the union, acting by command and in phalanx may, in a critical moment, upset the government. I deem no government safe which is under the vassalage of any self-constituted authorities, or any other authority than that of the nation or its regular functionaries. What an obstruction could not this Bank of the United States, with al its branch banks, be in time of war! It might dictate to us the peace we should accept, or withdraw its aids. Ought we then to give further growth to an institution so powerful, so hostile? Letter to Albert Gallatin (13 December 1803) ME 10:437 : The Writings of Thomas Jefferson “Memorial Edition” (20 Vols., 1903-04) edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, Vol. 10, p. 437

The Constitution . . . meant that its coordinate branches should be checks on each other. But the opinion which gives to the judges the right to decide what laws are constitutional and what not, not only for themselves in their own sphere of action but for the Legislature and Executive also in their spheres, would make the Judiciary a despotic branch. Letter to Abigail Adams (1804)

Whensoever hostile aggressions…require a resort to war, we must meet our duty and convince the world that we are just friends and brave enemies. Letter to Andrew Jackson (3 December 1806)

To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, “by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits, than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. . . . I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false. Letter to John Norvell (11 June 1807)

Blest is that nation whose silent course of happiness furnishes nothing for history to say. Letter to Count Diodati (29 March 1807)

My religious reading has long been confined to the moral branch of religion, which is the same in all religions; while in that branch which consists of dogmas, all differ[.] Letter to Thomas Leiper (11 January 1809). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 11, pp. 89.

The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government. “To the Republican Citizens of Washington County, Maryland” (March 31, 1809).

I have often thought that nothing would do more extensive good at small expense than the establishment of a small circulating library in every county, to consist of a few well-chosen books, to be lent to the people of the country under regulations as would secure their safe return in due time. Letter to John Wyche (19 May 1809).

Nothing was or is farther from my intentions, than to enlist myself as the champion of a fixed opinion, where I have only expressed doubt. Letter to Joel Barlow (8 October 1809); Jefferson here expresses an aversion to supporting the “fixed opinion” that blacks were not equal to whites in general mental capacities, which he asserts in his Notes on the State of Virginia he had advanced as “a suspicion only”.

It has always been denied by the republican party in this country, that the Constitution had given the power of incorporation to Congress. On the establishment of the Bank of the United States, this was the great ground on which that establishment was combated; and the party prevailing supported it only on the argument of its being an incident to the power given them for raising money. Letter to Dr. Maese (1809) ME 12:231 : The Writings of Thomas Jefferson “Memorial Edition” (20 Vols., 1903-04) edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, Vol. 12, p. 231; also quoted at “Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government : Money & Banking” at University of Virginia.

The selfish spirit of commerce knows no country, and feels no passion or principle but that of gain. Letter to Larkin Smith (1809).

First Inaugural Address (1801)

Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address (4 March 1801) 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.
Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. 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.
Would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which 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? I trust not.
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? Let history answer this question.
A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, 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.
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.
I have learnt to expect that it will rarely fall to the lot of imperfect man to retire from this station with the reputation and the favor which bring him into it.
I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment. When right, I shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground. I ask your indulgence for my own errors, which will never be intentional, and your support against the errors of others, who may condemn what they would not if seen in all its parts.
I advance with obedience to the work, ready to retire from it whenever you become sensible how much better choice it is in your power to make.

1810s

He who steadily observes the moral precepts in which all religions concur, will never be questioned at the gates of heaven as to the dogmas in which they all differ.

I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. That we are overdone with banking institutions which have banished the precious metals and substituted a more fluctuating and unsafe medium, that these have withdrawn capital from useful improvements and employments to nourish idleness, that the wars of the world have swollen our commerce beyond the wholesome limits of exchanging our own productions for our own wants, and that, for the emolument of a small proportion of our society who prefer these demoralizing pursuits to labors useful to the whole, the peace of the whole is endangered and all our present difficulties produced, are evils more easily to be deplored than remedied. Letter to Abbe Salimankis (1810) ME 12:379 The Writings of Thomas Jefferson “Memorial Edition” (20 Vols., 1903-04) edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, Vol. 12, p. 379; also quoted at “Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government : Money & Banking” at University of Virginia.

Knowing that religion does not furnish grosser bigots than law, I expect little from old judges. Letter to Thomas Cooper (1810)

Politics, like religion, hold up the torches of martyrdom to the reformers of error. Letter to James Ogilvie (4 August 1811)

But though an old man, I am but a young gardener. Letter to Charles Willson Peale (20 August 1811)

The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next, and the final expulsion of England from the American continent. Statement during an early stage of the War of 1812, in a letter to William Duane (4 August 1812)

It is agreed by those who have seriously considered the subject, that no individual has, of natural right, a separate property in an acre of land, for instance. By an universal law, indeed, whatever, whether fixed or movable, belongs to all men equally and in common, is the property for the moment of him who occupies it, but when he relinquishes the occupation, the property goes with it. Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society. It would be curious then, if an idea, the fugitive fermentation of an individual brain, could, of natural right, be claimed in exclusive and stable property. If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. 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. Letter to Isaac McPherson (13 August 1813) ME 13:333

England was, until we copied her, the only country on earth which ever, by a general law, gave a legal right to the exclusive use of an idea. In some other countries it is sometimes done, in a great case, and by a special and personal act, but, generally speaking, other nations have thought that these monopolies produce more embarrassment than advantage to society; and it may be observed that the nations which refuse monopolies of invention, are as fruitful as England in new and useful devices. Letter to Isaac McPherson (13 August 1813).

He who steadily observes the moral precepts in which all religions concur, will never be questioned at the gates of heaven as to the dogmas in which they all differ. Letter to William Canby (18 September 1813).

Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, none appear to me so pure as that of Jesus. He who follows this steadily need not, I think, be uneasy, although he cannot comprehend the subtleties and mysteries erected on his doctrines by those who, calling themselves his special followers and favorites, would make him come into the world to lay snares for all understandings but theirs. These metaphysical heads, usurping the judgment seat of God, denounce as his enemies all who cannot perceive the Geometrical logic of Euclid in the demonstrations of St. Athanasius., that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three nor the three one. Letter to William Canby (18 September 1813).

I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. Letter to John Adams (28 October 1813).

[I]f ever there was a holy war, it was that which saved our liberties and gave us independence. Letter to John W. Eppes (6 November 1813). Reported in Albert Ellery Bergh, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1907), p. 430.

History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes. Letter to Alexander von Humboldt (6 December 1813)
Scanned letter at The Library of Congress
Transcript at The Library of Congress.

Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his Maker in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle. Letter to Richard Rush (1813).

The whole history of these books is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills. Letter to John Adams, on Christian scriptures (24 January 1814)

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. In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is easier to acquire them, and to effect this, they have perverted the best religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer engine for their purposes. With the lawyers it is a new thing. They have, in the mother country, been generally the primest supporters of the free principles of their constitution. But there, too, they have changed. Letter to Horatio G. Spafford (17 March 1814)

If we did a good act merely from love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? …Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God. Letter to Thomas Law (13 June 1814).

The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw in the mysticism of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system, which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power and pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child ; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them; and for this obvious reason, that nonsense can never be explained. Letter to John Adams (5 July 1814). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 11, pp. 397–398.

I like well your idea of issuing treasury notes bearing interest, because I am persuaded they would soon be withdrawn from circulation and locked up in vaults & private hoards. It would put it in the power of every man to lend his 100. or 1000 d. tho’ not able to go forward on the great scale, and be the most advantageous way of obtaining a loan. The other idea of creating a National bank, I do not concur in, because it seems now decided that Congress has not that power, (altho’ I sincerely wish they had it exclusively) and because I think there is already a vast redundancy, rather than a scarcity of paper medium. Letter to Thomas Law (6 November 1813) FE 9:433 : The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (10 Vols., 1892-99) edited by Paul Leicester Ford.

A man has a right to use a saw, an axe, a plane, separately; may he not combine their uses on the same piece of wood? He has a right to use his knife to cut his meat, a fork to hold it; may a patentee take from him the right to combine their use on the same subject? Such a law, instead of enlarging our conveniences, as was intended, would most fearfully abridge them, and crowd us by monopolies out of the use of the things we have. Letter to Oliver Evans, (16 January 1814); published in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1905) Vol. 13, p. 66.

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. Letter to Horatio G. Spafford (17 March 1814)

The hour of emancipation is advancing. . . this enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers, and these are the only weapons of an old man. Letter to Edward Coles (25 August 1814)

Our particular principles of religion are a subject of accountability to our god alone. I enquire after no man’s and trouble none with mine; nor is it given to us in this life to know whether yours or mine, our friend’s or our foe’s, are exactly the right. Letter to Miles King (26 September 1814).

I agree … that a professorship of Theology should have no place in our institution. But we cannot always do what is absolutely best. Those with whom we act, entertaining different views, have the power and the right of carrying them into practice. Truth advances, and error recedes step by step only; and to do to our fellow men the most good in our power, we must lead where we can, follow where we cannot, and still go with them, watching always the favorable moment for helping them to another step. Comment on establishing the University of Virginia, in a letter to Thomas Cooper (7 October 1814); published in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1905) edited by Andrew Adgate Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, Vol VII, p. 200.

I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offence against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? and are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? Is a priest to be our inquisitor, or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule for what we are to read, and what we must believe? It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not, and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason. Letter to Nicolas Gouin Dufief, Philadelphia bookseller (1814) who had been prosecuted for selling the book Sur la Création du Monde, un Systême d’Organisation Primitive by M. de Becourt, which Jefferson himself had purchased.

Self-interest, or rather self-love, or egoism, has been more plausibly substituted as the basis of morality. But I consider our relations with others as constituting the boundaries of morality. With ourselves, we stand on the ground of identity, not of relation, which last, requiring two subjects, excludes self-love confined to a single one. To ourselves, in strict language, we can owe no duties, obligation requiring also two parties. Self-love, therefore, is no part of morality. Indeed, it is exactly its counterpart. Letter to Thomas Law (1814)

I cannot live without books. Letter to John Adams (10 June 1815)

The priests have so disfigured the simple religion of Jesus that no one who reads the sophistications they have engrafted on it, from the jargon of Plato, of Aristotle & other mystics, would conceive these could have been fathered on the sublime preacher of the sermon on the mount. Letter to Benjamin Waterhouse (13 October 1815). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 11, p. 492.

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. Letter to Colonel Charles Yancey (6 January 1816) ME 14:384

Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe. Letter to Charles Yancey, (6 January 1816)

I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus; it is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book, and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said nor saw. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were he to return on earth, would not recognize one feature. Letter to Charles Thomson (9 January 1816), on his The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (the “Jefferson Bible”), which omits all Biblical passages asserting Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, divinity, and resurrection. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 11, pp. 498–499.

Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. Letter to Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours (24 April 1816)

The system of banking we have both equally and ever reprobated. I contemplate it as a blot left in all our Constitutions, which, if not covered, will end in their destruction, which is already hit by the gamblers in corruption, and is sweeping away in its progress the fortunes and morals of our citizens. Funding I consider as limited, rightfully, to a redemption of the debt within the lives of a majority of the generation contracting it; every generation coming equally, by the laws of the Creator of the world, to the free possession of the earth he made for their subsistence, unincumbered by their predecessors, who, like them, were but tenants for life. Letter to John Taylor (28 May 1816) ME 15:18 : The Writings of Thomas Jefferson “Memorial Edition” (20 Vols., 1903-04) edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, Vol. 15, p. 18.

We may say with truth and meaning that governments are more or less republican, as they have more or less of the element of popular election and control in their composition; and believing, as I do, that the mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights, and especially, that the evils flowing from the duperies of the people are less injurious than those from the egoism of their agents, I am a friend to that composition of government which has in it the most of this ingredient. And I sincerely believe, with you, 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. Letter to John Taylor (28 May 1816) ME 15:23.

Our legislators are not sufficiently apprized of the rightful limits of their power; that their true office is to declare and enforce only our natural rights and duties, and to take none of them from us. No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another; and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him; every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society; and this is all the laws should enforce on him; and, no man having a natural right to be the judge between himself and another, it is his natural duty to submit to the umpirage of an impartial third. When the laws have declared and enforced all this, they have fulfilled their functions, and the idea is quite unfounded, that on entering into society we give up any natural right. Letter to Francis W. Gilmer (27 June 1816); The Writings of Thomas Jefferson edited by Ford, vol. 10, p. 32

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves were they to rise from the dead. Letter to H. Tompkinson (AKA Samuel Kercheval), 12 July 1816 (image at Library of Congress)

I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. 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. Letter to H. Tompkinson (AKA Samuel Kercheval), 12 July 1816 (image at Library of Congress)
An abridged version is inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.,[3] as follows: I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. 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.

I, however, place economy among the first and most important republican virtues, and public debt as the greatest of the dangers to be feared. Letter to William Plumer (21 July 1816)

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus. Letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp (30 July 1816), denouncing the doctrine of the Trinity

Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education & free discussion are the antidotes of both. Letter to John Adams (1 August 1816)

I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past, — so good night! Letter to John Adams (1 August 1816)

It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read. By the same test the world must judge me. But this does not satisfy the priesthood. They must have a positive, a declared assent to all their interested absurdities. My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest. Letter to Mrs. Harrison Smith (6 August 1816).

You ask if I mean to publish anything on the subject of a letter of mine to my friend Charles Thompson? Certainly not. I write nothing for publication, and last of all things should it be on the subject of religion. On the dogmas of religion as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarrelling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind. Were I to enter on that arena, I should only add an unit to the number of Bedlamites. Letter to Mathew Carey (11 November 1816). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 12, p. 42.

I may say Christianity itself divided into its thousands also, who are disputing, anathematizing and where the laws permit burning and torturing one another for abstractions which no one of them understand, and which are indeed beyond the comprehension of the human mind[.] Letter to George Logan (12 November 1816). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 12, pp. 43.

I hope we shall take warning from the example [of England] and crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws our country. Letter to George Logan (12 November 1816)

There is an error into which most of the speculators on government have fallen, and which the well-known state of society of our Indians ought, before now, to have corrected. In their hypothesis of the origin of government, they suppose it to have commenced in the patriarchal or monarchical form. Our Indians are evidently in that state of nature which has passed the association of a single family… The Cherokees, the only tribe I know to be contemplating the establishment of regular laws, magistrates, and government, propose a government of representatives, elected from every town. But of all things, they least think of subjecting themselves to the will of one man. Letter to Francis W. Gilmer (1816)

Lay down true principles and adhere to them inflexibly. Do not be frightened into their surrender by the alarms of the timid, or the croakings of wealth against the ascendency of the people. Letter to Samuel Kercheval (1816)

I believe… that every human mind feels pleasure in doing good to another. Letter to John Adams (1816)

The result of your fifty or sixty years of religious reading in the four words: ‘Be just and good,’ is that in which all our enquiries must end. Letter to John Adams (11 January 1817)

What all agree upon is probably right; what no two agree in most probably is wrong. Letter to John Adams (11 January 1817) This statement has been referred to as “Jefferson’s Axiom”

One of our fan-coloring biographers, who paints small men as very great, inquired of me lately with real affection too, whether he might consider as authentic, the change of my religion much spoken of in some circles. Now this supposed that they knew what had been my religion before, taking for it the word of their priests, whom I certainly never made the confidants of my creed. My answer was “say nothing of my religion. It is known to my God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life; if that has been honest and dutiful to society, the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one.” Letter to John Adams (11 January 1817), published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 12, pp. 48–49.

The Pennsylvania legislature, who, on a proposition to make the belief in God a necessary qualification for office, rejected it by a great majority, although assuredly there was not a single atheist in their body. And you remember to have heard, that when the act for religious freedom was before the Virginia Assembly, a motion to insert the name of Jesus Christ before the phrase, “the author of our holy religion,” which stood in the bill, was rejected, although that was the creed of a great majority of them. Letter to Albert Gallatin (16 June 1817). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 12, p. 73.

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 (14 February 1818)

Tried myself in the school of affliction, by the loss of every form of connection which can rive the human heart, I know well, and feel what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure. The same trials have taught me that for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medicines. I will not, therefore, by useless condolences, open afresh the sluices of your grief, nor, although mingling sincerely my tears with yours, will I say a word more where words are vain. Letter to John Adams (13 November 1818) regarding the death of Abigail Adams

You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know. Letter to Ezra Stiles Ely (25 June 1819), published in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (1983) by Dickinson W. Adams; Attributions of this letter as one to Ezra Stiles, President of Yale College (who died in 1795) are incorrect. See also Positive Atheism’s “Questionable Thomas Jefferson Quotations”

It should be remembered, as an axiom of eternal truth in politics, that whatever power in any government is independent, is absolute also; in theory only, at first, while the spirit of the people is up, but in practice, as fast as that relaxes. Independence can be trusted nowhere but with the people in mass. They are inherently independent of all but moral law. Letter to Judge Spencer Roane (6 September 1819)

The greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill. … The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems, [footnote: e.g. The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc. —T.J.] invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning. It would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally and deeply afflicted mankind; but this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of his life. Letter to William Short (31 October 1819), published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 12, pp. 141–142.

As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. Letter to William Short (31 October 1819)

We were laboring under a dropsical fulness of circulating medium. Nearly all of it is now called in by the banks, who have the regulation of the safety-valves of our fortunes, and who condense and explode them at their will. Lands in this State cannot now be sold for a year’s rent; and unless our Legislature have wisdom enough to effect a remedy by a gradual diminution only of the medium, there will be a general revolution of property in this state. Letter to John Adams (7 November 1819) ME 15:224 : The Writings of Thomas Jefferson “Memorial Edition” (20 Vols., 1903-04) edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, Vol. 15, p. 224.

Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. But 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)

Letters to John Wayles Eppes (1813)
John Wayles Eppes was a United States Representative and a Senator from Virginia, and Jefferson’s son-in-law. The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead. 24 June 1813

It is a palpable falsehood to say we can have specie for our paper whenever demanded. Instead, then, of yielding to the cries of scarcity of medium set up by speculators, projectors and commercial gamblers, no endeavors should be spared to begin the work of reducing it by such gradual means as may give time to private fortunes to preserve their poise, and settle down with the subsiding medium; and that, for this purpose, the States should be urged to concede to the General Government, with a saving of chartered rights, the exclusive power of establishing banks of discount for paper. 6 November 1813, ME 13:431 : The Writings of Thomas Jefferson “Memorial Edition” (20 Vols., 1903-04) edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, Vol. 13, p. 431

The States should be urged to concede to the General Government, with a saving of chartered rights, the exclusive power of establishing banks of discount for paper. ME 13:431

If treasury bills are emitted on a tax appropriated for their redemption in fifteen years, and (to insure preference in the first moments of competition) bearing an interest of six per cent, there is no one who would not take them in preference to the bank paper now afloat, on a principle of patriotism as well as interest; and they would be withdrawn from circulation into private hoards to a considerable amount. Their credit once established, others might be emitted, bottomed also on a tax, but not bearing interest; and if ever their credit faltered, open public loans, on which these bills alone should be received as specie. These, operating as a sinking fund, would reduce the quantity in circulation, so as to maintain that in an equilibrium with specie. It is not easy to estimate the obstacles which, in the beginning, we should encounter in ousting the banks from their possession of the circulation; but a steady and judicious alternation of emissions and loans would reduce them in time. ME 13:275

The question will be asked and ought to be looked at, what is to be the resource if loans cannot be obtained? There is but one, “Carthago delenda est.” Bank paper must be suppressed, and the circulating medium must be restored to the nation to whom it belongs. It is the only fund on which they can rely for loans; it is the only resource which can never fail them, and it is an abundant one for every necessary purpose. Treasury bills, bottomed on taxes, bearing or not bearing interest, as may be found necessary, thrown into circulation will take the place of so much gold and silver, which last, when crowded, will find an efflux into other countries, and thus keep the quantum of medium at its salutary level. Let banks continue if they please, but let them discount for cash alone or for treasury notes. 11 September 1813, ME 13:361

It is literally true that the toleration of banks of paper discount costs the United States one-half their war taxes; or, in other words, doubles the expenses of every war. Now think but for a moment, what a change of condition that would be, which should save half our war expenses, require but half the taxes, and enthral us in debt but half the time. ME 13:364

The art and mystery of banks… is established on the principle that ‘private debts are a public blessing.’ That the evidences of those private debts, called bank notes, become active capital, and aliment the whole commerce, manufactures, and agriculture of the United States. Here are a set of people, for instance, who have bestowed on us the great blessing of running in our debt about two hundred millions of dollars, without our knowing who they are, where they are, or what property they have to pay this debt when called on; nay, who have made us so sensible of the blessings of letting them run in our debt, that we have exempted them by law from the repayment of these debts beyond a give proportion (generally estimated at one-third). And to fill up the measure of blessing, instead of paying, they receive an interest on what they owe from those to whom they owe; for all the notes, or evidences of what they owe, which we see in circulation, have been lent to somebody on an interest which is levied again on us through the medium of commerce. And they are so ready still to deal out their liberalities to us, that they are now willing to let themselves run in our debt ninety millions more, on our paying them the same premium of six or eight per cent interest, and on the same legal exemption from the repayment of more than thirty millions of the debt, when it shall be called for. ME 13:420

But it will be asked, are we to have no banks? Are merchants and others to be deprived of the resource of short accommodations, found so convenient? I answer, let us have banks; but let them be such as are alone to be found in any country on earth, except Great Britain. There is not a bank of discount on the continent of Europe (at least there was not one when I was there) which offers anything but cash in exchange for discounted bills. ME 13:277.

No one has a natural right to the trade of a money lender, but he who has the money to lend. Let those then among us who have a moneyed capital and who prefer employing it in loans rather than otherwise, set up banks and give cash or national bills for the notes they discount. Perhaps, to encourage them, a larger interest than is legal in the other cases might be allowed them, on the condition of their lending for short periods only. ME 13:277

If the debt which the banking companies owe be a blessing to anybody, it is to themselves alone, who are realizing a solid interest of eight or ten per cent on it. As to the public, these companies have banished all our gold and silver medium, which, before their institution, we had without interest, which never could have perished in our hands, and would have been our salvation now in the hour of war; instead of which they have given us two hundred million of froth and bubble, on which we are to pay them heavy interest, until it shall vanish into air… We are warranted, then, in affirming that this parody on the principle of ‘a public debt being a public blessing,’ and its mutation into the blessing of private instead of public debts, is as ridiculous as the original principle itself. In both cases, the truth is, that capital may be produced by industry, and accumulated by economy; but jugglers only will propose to create it by legerdemain tricks with paper. ME 13:423

It is said that our paper is as good as silver, because we may have silver for it at the bank where it issues. This is not true. One, two, or three persons might have it; but a general application would soon exhaust their vaults, and leave a ruinous proportion of their paper in its intrinsic worthless form. ME 13:426

To the existence of banks of discount for cash… there can be no objection, because there can be no danger of abuse, and they are a convenience both to merchants and individuals. I think they should even be encouraged, by allowing them a larger than legal interest on short discounts, and tapering thence, in proportion as the term of discount is lengthened, down to legal interest on those of a year or more. Even banks of deposit, where cash should be lodged, and a paper acknowledgment taken out as its representative, entitled to a return of the cash on demand, would be convenient for remittances, travelling persons, etc. But, liable as its cash would be to be pilfered and robbed, and its paper to be fraudulently re-issued, or issued without deposit, it would require skilful and strict regulation. ME 13:431

1820s

The priests of the different religious sects, who dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of day-light; and scowl on it the fatal harbinger announcing the subversion of the duperies on which they live. In this the Presbyterian clergy take the lead. the tocsin is sounded in all their pulpits, and the first alarm denounced is against the particular creed of Doctr. Cooper; and as impudently denounced as if they really knew what it is. Letter to José Correia da Serra (11 April 1820).

Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him [Jesus] by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being. I separate, therefore, the gold from the dross; restore to Him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some, and roguery of others of His disciples. Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus. These palpable interpolations and falsifications of His doctrines, led me to try to sift them apart. Letter to William Short (13 April 1820)

I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers, or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore from which I am not distant. But this momentous question, like a firebell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. On the Missouri Compromise, in a letter to John Holmes (22 April 1820), published in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson : 1816-1826 (1899) edited by Paul Leicester Ford, v. 10, p. 157

We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, self-preservation in the other. On slavery, in a letter to John Holmes (22 April 1820)

I regret that I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self- government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away, against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world. To yourself, as the faithful advocate of the Union, I tender the offering of my high esteem and respect. Letter to John Holmes (22 April 1820)

My aim in that was, to justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers, which have exposed him to the inference of being an impostor. For if we could believe that he really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods and the charlatanisms which his biographers father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations and theorizations of the fathers of the early, and fanatics of the latter ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind, that he was an impostor. I give no credit to their falsifications of his actions and doctrines, and to rescue his character, the postulate in my letter asked only what is granted in reading every other historian. … I say, that this free exercise of reason is all I ask for the vindication of the character of Jesus. We find in the writings of his biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. First, a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications. Intermixed with these, again, are sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition and honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed. These could not be inventions of the groveling authors who relate them. They are far beyond the powers of their feeble minds. They shew that there was a character, the subject of their history, whose splendid conceptions were above all suspicion of being interpolations from their hands. Can we be at a loss in separating such materials, and ascribing each to its genuine author? The difference is obvious to the eye and to the understanding, and we may read as we run to each his part; and I will venture to affirm, that he who, as I have done, will undertake to winnow this grain from its chaff, will find it not to require a moment’s consideration. The parts fall asunder of themselves, as would those of an image of metal and clay. … There are, I acknowledge, passages not free from objection, which we may, with probability, ascribe to Jesus himself; but claiming indulgence from the circumstances under which he acted. His object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust. Jesus, taking for his type the best qualities of the human head and heart, wisdom, justice, goodness, and adding to them power, ascribed all of these, but in infinite perfection, to the Supreme Being, and formed him really worthy of their adoration. Moses had either not believed in a future state of existence, or had not thought it essential to be explicitly taught to his people. Jesus inculcated that doctrine with emphasis and precision. Moses had bound the Jews to many idle ceremonies, mummeries and observances, of no effect towards producing the social utilities which constitute the essence of virtue; Jesus exposed their futility and insignificance. The one instilled into his people the most anti-social spirit towards other nations; the other preached philanthropy and universal charity and benevolence. The office of reformer of the superstitions of a nation, is ever dangerous. Jesus had to walk on the perilous confines of reason and religion: and a step to right or left might place him within the gripe of the priests of the superstition, a blood thirsty race, as cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel. They were constantly laying snares, too, to entangle him in the web of the law. He was justifiable, therefore, in avoiding these by evasions, by sophisms, by misconstructions and misapplications of scraps of the prophets, and in defending himself with these their own weapons, as sufficient, ad homines, at least. That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore. But that he might conscientiously believe himself inspired from above, is very possible. Letter to William Short (4 August 1820) on his reason for composing a Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus and referring to Jesus’ biographers, the Gospel writers. Published in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, Merrill D. Peterson, ed., New York: Library of America, 1994, pp. 1435–1440.

To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart. At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But heresy it certainly is. Letter to John Adams (15 August 1820)

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 wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power. Letter to William Charles Jarvis, (28 September 1820).

The judiciary of the United States is the subtle corps of sappers and miners constantly working under ground to undermine the foundations of our confederated fabric. They are construing our constitution from a co-ordination of a general and special government to a general and supreme one alone. This will lay all things at their feet, and they are too well versed in English law to forget the maxim, boni judicis est ampliare juris-dictionem. We shall see if they are bold enough to take the daring stride their five lawyers have lately taken. If they do, then, with the editor of our book, in his address to the public, I will say, that “against this every man should raise his voice,” and more, should uplift his arm. Who wrote this admirable address? Sound, luminous, strong, not a word too much, nor one which can be changed but for the worse. That pen should go on, lay bare these wounds of our constitution, expose the decisions seriatim, and arouse, as it is able, the attention of the nation to these bold speculators on its patience. Having found, from experience, that impeachment is an impracticable thing, a mere scare-crow, they consider themselves secure for life; they sculk from responsibility to public opinion, the only remaining hold on them, under a practice first introduced into England by Lord Mansfield. An opinion is huddled up in conclave, perhaps by a majority of one, delivered as if unanimous, and with the silent acquiescence of lazy or timid associates, by a crafty chief judge, who sophisticates the law to his mind, by the turn of his own reasoning Letter to Thomas Ritchie (25 December 1820)

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. Letter to William Roscoe (December 27, 1820).

You seem to consider the federal judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions, a very dangerous doctrine, indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy. Our judges are as honest as other men, and not more so. They have with others the same passions for the party, for power and the privilege of the corps. Their power is the more dangerous, as they are in office for life and not responsible, as the other functionaries are, to the elective control. The Constitution has erected no such single tribunal, knowing that to whatever hands confided, with the corruptions of time and party, its members would become despots. It has more wisely made all departments co-equal and co-sovereign within themselves. Letter to William Charles Jarvis (1820).

That one hundred and fifty lawyers should do business together ought not to be expected. On the U.S. Congress, in his Autobiography (6 January 1821)

And even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and libraries 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. Letter to John Adams (12 September 1821)

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination. Autobiography (1821), in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom.

Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate, than that these people are to be free; nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion have drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. Autobiography (1821) in notes describing some of the debates of 1779 on slavery.

The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man.
1. That there is one only God, and he all perfect. 2, That there is a future state of rewards and punishments. 3. That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion. These are the great points on which he endeavored to reform the religion of the Jews. But compare with these the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin. 1. That there are three Gods. 2. That good works, or the love of our neighbor, are nothing. 3. That faith is every thing, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith. 4. That reason in religion is of unlawful use. 5. That God, from the beginning, elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned; and that no crimes of the former can damn them; no virtues of the latter save. Now, which of these is the true and charitable Christian? He who believes and acts on the simple doctrines of Jesus? Or the impious dogmatists, as Athanasius and Calvin? Verily I say these are the false shepherds foretold as to enter not by the door into the sheepfold, but to climb up some other way. They are mere usurpers of the Christian name, teaching a counter-religion made up of the deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign from Christianity as is that of Mahomet. Their blasphemies have driven thinking men into infidelity, who have too hastily rejected the supposed author himself, with the horrors so falsely imputed to him. Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian. I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian. Thomas Jefferson, letter to Benjamin Waterhouse, (26 June 1822), published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 12, pp. 241–243.
They might need a preparatory discourse on the text of ‘prove all things, hold fast that which is good,’ in order to unlearn the lesson that reason is an unlawful guide in religion. They might startle on being first awaked from the dreams of the night, but they would rub their eyes at once, and look the spectres boldly in the face. Letter to Benjamin Waterhouse (19 July 1822), published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 12, p. 244.

In our university [of Virginia] you know there is no Professorship of Divinity. A handle has been made of this, to disseminate an idea that this is an institution, not merely of no religion, but against all religion. Occasion was taken at the last meeting of the Visitors, to bring forward an idea that might silence this calumny, which weighed on the minds of some honest friends to the institution. Letter to Thomas Cooper (3 November 1822), published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 12, p. 272.

No historical fact is better established, than that the doctrine of one God, pure and uncompounded, was that of the early ages of Christianity … Nor was the unity of the Supreme Being ousted from the Christian creed by the force of reason, but by the sword of civil government, wielded at the will of the fanatic Athanasius. The hocus-pocus phantasm of a God like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands of martyrs … The Athanasian paradox that one is three, and three but one, is so incomprehensible to the human mind, that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea? He who thinks he does, only deceives himself. He proves, also, that man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such person, gullibility which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck. Letter to James Smith (1822)

I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5 points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin. Indeed I think that every Christian sect gives a great handle to Atheism by their general dogma that, without a revelation, there would not be sufficient proof of the being of a god. Letter to John Adams (11 April 1823) (Scan at The Library of Congress)

The truth is, that the greatest enemies of the doctrine of Jesus are those, calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them to the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter … But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors. Letter to John Adams (11 April 1823) (Scan at The Library of Congress).

I agree with you that it is the duty of every good citizen to use all the opportunities, which occur to him, for preserving documents relating to the history of our country. Letter to Hugh P. Taylor (4 October 1823)

I thank you, Sir, for the copy you were so kind as to send me of the revd. Mr. Bancroft’s Unitarian sermons. I have read them with great satisfaction, and always rejoice in efforts to restore us to primitive Christianity, in all the simplicity in which it came from the lips of Jesus. Had it never been sophisticated by the subtleties of Commentators, nor paraphrased into meanings totally foreign to its character, it would at this day have been the religion of the whole civilized world. But the metaphysical abstractions of Athanasius, and the maniac ravings of Calvin, tinctured plentifully with the foggy dreams of Plato, have so loaded it with absurdities and incomprehensibilities, as to drive into infidelity men who had not time, patience, or opportunity to strip it of its meretricious trappings[.] Letter to John Davis (18 January 1824). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 12, pp. 331–332.

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 depositary 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. Call them, therefore, liberals and serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, whigs and tories, republicans and federalists, aristocrats and democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last appellation of aristocrats and democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all. Letter to Henry Lee (10 August 1824)

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 (6 September 1824)

It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it, and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams. … what has no meaning admits no explanation. Letter to General Alexander Smyth, on the book of Revelation (or The Apocalypse of St. John the Divine) (17 January 1825) [4]

“A Decalogue of Canons for Observation in Practical Life”
1.Never put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day.
2.Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
3.Never spend your money before you have it.
4.Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.
5.Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
6.We never repent of having eaten too little.
7.Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
8.How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.
9.Take things always by their smooth handle.
10.When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, an hundred.

Letter to the infant Thomas Jefferson Smith (21 February 1825)] (Image at Library of Congress)

An opinion prevails that there is no longer any distinction, that the republicans & Federalists are completely amalgamated but it is not so. The amalgamation is of name only, not of principle. All indeed call themselves by the name of Republicans, because that of Federalists was extinguished in the battle of New Orleans. But the truth is that finding that monarchy is a desperate wish in this country, they rally to the point which they think next best, a consolidated government. Their aim is now therefore to break down the rights reserved by the constitution to the states as a bulwark against that consolidation, the fear of which produced the whole of the opposition to the constitution at its birth. Hence new Republicans in Congress, preaching the doctrines of the old Federalists, and the new nick-names of Ultras and Radicals. But I trust they will fail under the new, as the old name, and that the friends of the real constitution and union will prevail against consolidation, as they have done against monarchism. I scarcely know myself which is most to be deprecated, a consolidation, or dissolution of the states. The horrors of both are beyond the reach of human foresight. Thomas Jefferson to William B. Giles, December 26, 1825

The good old Dominion, the blessed mother of us all. “Thoughts on Lotteries” (1826)

There is not a truth existing which I fear or would wish unknown to the whole world. Letter to Henry Lee (15 May 1826)

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. Letter to Roger C. Weightman, on the decision for Independence made in 1776, often quoted as if in reference solely to the document the Declaration of Independence (24 June 1826)

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, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them. Letter to Roger C. Weightman, declining to attend July 4th ceremonies in Washington D.C. celebrating the 50th anniversary of Independence, because of his health. This was Jefferson’s last letter. (24 June 1826)

This is the Fourth? Last words (Jefferson died on 4 July 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence)
A few accounts declare that he asked on the night of the third: “Is it the fourth?” Most accounts declare the cited words were his last, and that he died a few hours before John Adams, whose last words are reported to have been: “Thomas — Jefferson — still surv — ” or “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”

Posthumous publications

I have ever deemed it more honorable and profitable, too, to set a good example than to follow a bad one.

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. It is not by the consolidation or concentration, of powers, but by their distribution that good government is effected. Memoirs, Correspondence and Private Papers of Thomas Jefferson (1829) edited by Thomas Jefferson Randolph, p. 70

The religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable, as to shock reasonable thinkers. … Happy in the prospect of a restoration of primitive Christianity, I must leave to younger athletes to encounter and lop off the false branches which have been engrafted into it by the mythologists of the middle and modern ages. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1853-1854), edited by H. A. Washington, Vol. 7, pp. 210, 257

I have ever deemed it more honorable and profitable, too, to set a good example than to follow a bad one. As quoted in The Life and Writings of Thomas Jefferson : Including All of His Important Utterances on Public Questions (1900) by Samuel E. Forman, p. 429

I never consider a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend. As quoted in The Life and Writings of Thomas Jefferson : Including All of His Important Utterances on Public Questions (1900) by Samuel E. Forman, p. 429

Good wine is a necessity of life for me. As quoted in The Man from Monticello : An Intimate Life of Thomas Jefferson (1969) by Thomas J. Fleming, p. 250

Whatever be their degree of talents, it is no measure of their rights. Quoted in The Science and Politics of Racial Research by William H. Tucker (1994), p. 11.

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, upon his instructions to erect a “a plain die or cube … surmounted by an Obelisk” with “the following inscription, and not a word more…because by these, as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.” It omits that he had been President of the United States, a position of political power and prestige, and celebrates his involvement in the creation of the means of inspiration and instruction by which many human lives have been liberated from oppression and ignorance.

On financial matters

This section was added by an editor primarily citing The Writings of Thomas Jefferson Memorial Edition (Lipscomb and Bergh, editors) (ME) 20 Vols., Washington, D.C., (1903-04) as the source.

The idea of creating a national bank I do not concur in, because it seems now decided that Congress has not that power…

I am an enemy to all banks discounting bills or notes for anything but coin.

Necessity, as well as patriotism and confidence, will make us all eager to receive treasury notes, if founded on specific taxes.

There can be no safer deposit on earth than the Treasury of the United States. The incorporation of a bank and the powers assumed [by legislation doing so] have not, in my opinion, been delegated to the United States by the Constitution. They are not among the powers specially enumerated. Opinion on the Constitutionality of the Bill for Establishing a National Bank., 1791. ME 3:146

The government of the United States have no idea of paying their debt in a depreciated medium, and… in the final liquidation of the payments which shall have been made, due regard will be had to an equitable allowance for the circumstance of depreciation. Letter to Jean Baptiste de Ternant, 1791. ME 8:247

I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government to the genuine principles of its Constitution; I mean an additional article, taking from the federal government the power of borrowing. Letter to John Taylor (26 November 1798), shortened in The Money Masters to “I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution … taking from the federal government their power of borrowing.”

The monopoly of a single bank is certainly an evil. The multiplication of them was intended to cure it; but it multiplied an influence of the same character with the first, and completed the supplanting the precious metals by a paper circulation. Between such parties the less we meddle the better. Letter to Albert Gallatin, 1802. ME 10:323

In order to be able to meet a general combination of the banks against us in a critical emergency, could we not make a beginning towards an independent use of our own money, towards holding our own bank in all the deposits where it is received, and letting the treasurer give his draft or note for payment at any particular place, which, in a well-conducted government, ought to have as much credit as any private draft or bank note or bill, and would give us the same facilities which we derive from the banks? Letter to Albert Gallatin, 1803. ME 10:439

[The] Bank of the United States… is one of the most deadly hostility existing, against the principles and form of our Constitution… An institution like this, penetrating by its branches every part of the Union, acting by command and in phalanx, may, in a critical moment, upset the government. I deem no government safe which is under the vassalage of any self-constituted authorities, or any other authority than that of the nation, or its regular functionaries. What an obstruction could not this bank of the United States, with all its branch banks, be in time of war! It might dictate to us the peace we should accept, or withdraw its aids. Ought we then to give further growth to an institution so powerful, so hostile? Letter to Albert Gallatin, 1803. ME 10:437

The principle of rotation… in the body of [bank] directors… breaks in upon the esprit de corps so apt to prevail in permanent bodies; it gives a chance for the public eye penetrating into the sanctuary of those proceedings and practices, which the avarice of the directors may introduce for their personal emolument, and which the resentments of excluded directors, or the honesty of those duly admitted, might betray to the public; and it gives an opportunity at the end of the year, or at other periods, of correcting a choice, which on trial, proves to have been unfortunate. Letter to Albert Gallatin, 1803. ME 10:437

It has always been denied by the republican party in this country, that the Constitution had given the power of incorporation to Congress. On the establishment of the Bank of the United States, this was the great ground on which that establishment was combated; and the party prevailing supported it only on the argument of its being an incident to the power given them for raising money. Letter to Dr. Maese, 1809. ME 12:231

That we are overdone with banking institutions which have banished the precious metals and substituted a more fluctuating and unsafe medium, that these have withdrawn capital from useful improvements and employments to nourish idleness, that the wars of the world have swollen our commerce beyond the wholesome limits of exchanging our own productions for our own wants, and that, for the emolument of a small proportion of our society who prefer these demoralizing pursuits to labors useful to the whole, the peace of the whole is endangered and all our present difficulties produced, are evils more easily to be deplored than remedied. Letter to Abbe Salimankis, 1810. ME 12:379

The idea of creating a national bank I do not concur in, because it seems now decided that Congress has not that power (although I sincerely wish they had it exclusively), and because I think there is already a vast redundancy rather than a scarcity of paper medium. Letter to Thomas Law, 1813. FE 9:433

Everything predicted by the enemies of banks, in the beginning, is now coming to pass. We are to be ruined now by the deluge of bank paper. It is cruel that such revolutions in private fortunes should be at the mercy of avaricious adventurers, who, instead of employing their capital, if any they have, in manufactures, commerce, and other useful pursuits, make it an instrument to burden all the interchanges of property with their swindling profits, profits which are the price of no useful industry of theirs. Letter to Thomas Cooper, 1814. ME 14:61

I am an enemy to all banks discounting bills or notes for anything but coin. Letter to Thomas Cooper, 1814. ME 14:61

Necessity, as well as patriotism and confidence, will make us all eager to receive treasury notes, if founded on specific taxes. Congress may borrow of the public, and without interest, all the money they may want, to the amount of a competent circulation, by merely issuing their own promissory notes, of proper denominations for the larger purposes of circulation, but not for the small. Leave that door open for the entrance of metallic money. Letter to Thomas Cooper, 1814. ME 14:189

The State legislatures should be immediately urged to relinquish the right of establishing banks of discount. Most of them will comply, on patriotic principles, under the convictions of the moment; and the non-complying may be crowded into concurrence by legitimate devices. Letter to Thomas Cooper, 1814. ME 14:190

Instead of funding issues of paper on the hypothecation of specific redeeming taxes (the only method of anticipating, in a time of war, the resources of times of peace, tested by the experience of nations), we are trusting to tricks of jugglers on the cards, to the illusions of banking schemes for the resources of the war, and for the cure of colic to inflations of more wind. Letter to José Correia da Serra (1814) ME 14:224

Treasury notes of small as well as high denomination, bottomed on a tax which would redeem them in ten years, would place at our disposal the whole circulating medium of the United States… The public… ought never more to permit its being filched from them by private speculators and disorganizers of the circulation. Letter to William H. Crawford, 1815. ME 14:242

Put down the banks, and if this country could not be carried through the longest war against her most powerful enemy without ever knowing the want of a dollar, without dependence on the traitorous classes of her citizens, without bearing hard on the resources of the people, or loading the public with an indefinite burden of debt, I know nothing of my countrymen. Not by any novel project, not by any charlatanerie, but by ordinary and well-experienced means; by the total prohibition of all private paper at all times, by reasonable taxes in war aided by the necessary emissions of public paper of circulating size, this bottomed on special taxes, redeemable annually as this special tax comes in, and finally within a moderate period. Letter to Albert Gallatin, 1815. ME 14:356

Our people… will give you all the necessaries of war they produce, if, instead of the bankrupt trash they now are obliged to receive for want of any other, you will give them a paper promise funded on a specific pledge, and of a size for common circulation. Letter to James Monroe, 1815. ME 14:228

The system of banking we have both equally and ever reprobated. I contemplate it as a blot left in all our constitutions, which, if not covered, will end in their destruction, which is already hit by the gamblers in corruption, and is sweeping away in its progress the fortunes and morals of our citizens. Letter to John Taylor (28 May 1816): The Writings of Thomas Jefferson “Memorial Edition” (20 Vols., 1903-04) edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, Vol. 15, p. 18)

The bank mania… is raising up a moneyed aristocracy in our country which has already set the government at defiance, and although forced at length to yield a little on this first essay of their strength, their principles are unyielded and unyielding. These have taken deep root in the hearts of that class from which our legislators are drawn, and the sop to Cerberus from fable has become history. Their principles lay hold of the good, their pelf of the bad, and thus those whom the Constitution had placed as guards to its portals, are sophisticated or suborned from their duties. Letter to Josephus B. Stuart (1817) ME 15:112.

Nearly all of it is now called in by the banks, who have the regulation of the safety-valves of our fortunes, and who condense and explode them at their will. Letter to John Adams (1819) ME 15:224

Certainly no nation ever before abandoned to the avarice and jugglings of private individuals to regulate according to their own interests, the quantum of circulating medium for the nation — to inflate, by deluges of paper, the nominal prices of property, and then to buy up that property at 1s. in the pound, having first withdrawn the floating medium which might endanger a competition in purchase. Yet this is what has been done, and will be done, unless stayed by the protecting hand of the legislature. The evil has been produced by the error of their sanction of this ruinous machinery of banks; and justice, wisdom, duty, all require that they should interpose and arrest it before the schemes of plunder and spoliation desolate the country. Letter to William C. Rives (1819) ME 15:232

Put down all banks, admit none but a metallic circulation that will take its proper level with the like circulation in other countries, and then our manufacturers may work in fair competition with those of other countries, and the import duties which the government may lay for the purposes of revenue will so far place them above equal competition. Letter to Charles Pinckney, (1820) ME 15:280.

There can be no safer deposit on earth than the Treasury of the United States. Letter to Lafayette (1825) ME 19:281

Attributed

I have always said, and always will say, that the studious perusal of the sacred volume will make better citizens, better fathers, and better husbands. Attributed to Jefferson by Daniel Webster in a letter of 15 June 1852 addressed to Professor Pease, recalling a Sunday spent with Jefferson more than a quarter of a century before.

Disputed

In matters of style, swim with the current: in matters of principle, stand like a rock. As quoted in Careertracking: 26 success Shortcuts to the Top (1988) by James Calano and Jeff Salzman; though used in an address by Bill Clinton (31 March 1997), and sometimes cited to Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) no earlier occurence of this has yet been located.

Misattributed

When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny First attributed to Jefferson in 1945, this does not appear in any known Jefferson document[5]. It first appears in 1914, by John Basil Barnhill, in Indictment of Socialism #3[6].

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Often attributed to Jefferson, no original source for this has been found in his writings, and the earliest established source for similar remarks are those of John Philpot Curran in a speech upon the Right of Election (1790), published in Speeches on the late very interesting State trials (1808):

It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt. A society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will lose both, and deserve neither. This has actually become a common paraphrase of a statement that is believed to have originated with Benjamin Franklin: Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.
Variation: Disobedience to tyranny is obedience to God. This statement has often been attributed to Jefferson, as well as to Benjamin Franklin, who has been said to have proposed it as the motto of the United States, and sometimes to English theologian William Tyndale, or Susan B. Anthony, who used it, but cited it as an “old revolutionary maxim” — it was widely used as an abolitionist and feminist slogan in the 19th century. The earliest definite citations of a source yet found in research for Wikiquote indicates that the primary formulation was declared by Massachusetts Governor Simon Bradstreet after the overthrow of Dominion of New England Governor Edmund Andros in relation to the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, as quoted in Official Report of the Debates and Proceedings in the State Convention: assembled May 4th, 1853 (1853) by the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention, p. 502. It is also quoted as a maxim that arose after the overthrow of Andros in A Book of New England Legends and Folk Lore (1883) by Samuel Adams Drake. p.426

Dissent is the highest form of patriotism. Various; earliest source The Use of Force in International Affairs, (Philadelphia: Friends Peace Committee, 1961), 6, and popularized by various users in the 1960s: If what your country is doing seems to you practically and morally wrong, is dissent the highest form of patriotism? Dissent is the highest form of patriotism, Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

Other form by historian Howard Zinn Dissent In Pursuit Of Equality, Life, Liberty And Happiness: An Interview With Historian Howard Zinn by Sharon Basco, TomPaine.com, July 03 2002 (The quote can be found in the first sentence of Mr. Zinn’s first answer; nowhere in that article does Howard Zinn attribute that quote to Jefferson.): While some people think that dissent is unpatriotic, I would argue that dissent is the highest form of patriotism.

Law professor Jim Lindgren of The Volokh Conspiracy has traced the possible origin of this saying back as far as the 11 November 1984 obituary of pacifist activist Dorothy Hewitt Hutchinson in the Philadelphia Inquirer, quoting a 1965 interview. The direct quote there is: “Dissent from public policy can be the highest form of patriotism,” she said in an interview in 1965. “I don’t think democracy can survive without it, even though you may be crucified by it at times.” According to the professor’s research, the misattribution was popularized in the 1990’s by ACLU president Nadine Strossen. Bill Mullins of the American Dialect Society did further research.

Government big enough to supply everything you need is big enough to take everything you have … The course of history shows that as a government grows, liberty decreases. Commonly quoted on many websites, this quotation is actually from an address by President Gerald Ford to the US Congress (12 August 1974)

The best government is that which governs least. Motto of United States Magazine and Democratic Review. First used in introductory essay by editor John L. O’Sullivan in the premier issue (October, 1837, p. 6). Attributed to Jefferson by Henry David Thoreau, this statement is cited in his essay on civil disobedience, but the quote has not been found in Jefferson’s own writings. It is also commonly attributed to Thomas Paine, perhaps because of its similarity in theme to many of his well-documented expressions such as “Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”
Variant: That government is best which governs least.

The Christian god can easily be pictured as virtually the same god as the many ancient gods of past civilizations. The Christian god is a three headed monster; cruel, vengeful and capricious. If one wishes to know more of this raging, three headed beast-like god, one only needs to look at the caliber of people who say they serve him. They are always of two classes: fools and hypocrites. See the Positive Atheism site on the extreme unlikelihood of this quote being authentic. It actually contains some known phrases of Jefferson’s, but they are compounded with almost certainly false statements into a highly misrepresentative whole. Jefferson’s own opinions on Jesus, God, Christianity and general opinions about them were far more complex than is indicated in this statement.

Where the people fear the government you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people you have liberty. Barnhill, John Basil (1914). “Indictment of Socialism No. 3” (PDF). Barnhill-Tichenor Debate on Socialism. Saint Louis, Missouri: National Rip-Saw Publishing. pp. p. 34. Retrieved on 2008-10-16.
Variant: When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.

The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government. According to the Jefferson Library, this is among the many statements misattributed to Jefferson.

Those who hammer their guns into plows will plow for those who do not. According to the Jefferson Library, this is misattributed to Jefferson.

If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and the corporations which grow up around them will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. Respectfully Quoted says this is “obviously spurious”, noting that the OED’s earliest citation for the word “deflation” is from 1920. The earliest known appearance of this quote is from 1935 (Testimony of Charles C. Mayer, Hearings Before the Committee on Banking and Currency, House of Representatives, Seventy-fourth Congress, First Session, on H.R. 5357, p. 799)

I sincerely believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. Already they have raised up a money aristocracy that has set the government at defiance. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people to whom it properly belongs. The earliest known appearance of this quote is from 1895 (Joshua Douglass, “Bimetallism and Currency”, American Magazine of Civics, 7:256). It is apparently a combination of paraphrases or approximate quotations from three separate letters of Jefferson (longer excerpts in sourced section):
I sincerely believe, with you, that banking institutions are more dangerous than standing armies… Letter to John Taylor, 1816

The bank mania…is raising up a moneyed aristocracy in our country which has already set the government at defiance… Letter to Josephus B. Stuart, 1817

Bank paper must be suppressed, and the circulating medium must be restored to the nation to whom it belongs. Letter to John W. Eppes, 1813

I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it. Has been attributed to Stephen Leacock’s “Literary Lapses” (1910), but the quote does not appear in the Project Gutenberg edition of this work.
Variant: I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.

A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51 percent of the people may take away the rights of the other 49. There are no indications that Jefferson ever stated anything like this; slight variants of this statement seem to have become widely attributed to Jefferson only since its appearance in three books of 2004: The Adventures of Jonathan Gullible : A Free Market Odyssey (2004) by Ken Schoolland, p. 235; Damn-ocracy — Government From Hell! : The Political, Economic And Money System (2004) by Wendall Dennis and Reason And Reality : A Novel (2004) by Mishrilal Jain, p. 232; see also info at Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia.

The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not. This quotation first appeared in Dreams Come Due: Government and Economics as if Freedom Mattered (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), p. 312, written under the pseudonym of John Galt. It is there attributed to Jefferson, but is not found anywhere in his works. See the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia.

Quotes about Jefferson

Virtue is not long darkened by the clouds of calumny.

When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property, and justly liable to the inspection and vigilance of public opinion…

Example, you know, far outweighs precept… Your character in history may easily be foreseen. Your administration will be quoted by philosophers as a model of profound wisdom; by politicians, as weak, superficial, and shortsighted. Mine, like Pope’s woman, will have no character at all. John Adams, in a letter to Jefferson (July 1813), published in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1903) Vol. 13, edited by Andrew Adgate Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, p. 301

I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. John F. Kennedy, in an address at a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners (29 April 1962), quoted in The White House Diary, at the JFK Library

When Mr. Jefferson wrote that one of his associates in Washington’s cabinet was “a fool and a blabber,” his words, taken in their context, make exactly the same impression of calm, disinterested and objective appraisal as if he had remarked that the man had black hair and brown eyes. Albert Jay Nock, in “Free Speech and Plain Language” in The Atlantic Monthly (January 1936)

“True,” replied M. de —, “he considers a free press as the paladium of liberty. I went today an hour before his time of dining, and was received in his cabinet while he was finishing a letter; I took up one of your public journals which lay upon his table, and was astonished and shocked to find its columns filled with the lowest abuse, and vilest of calumnies of the President. I threw it down with indignation, exclaiming, why do you not have the fellow hung who dares to write these abominable lies! He smiled at my warmth, and replied, ‘hang the guardian of public morals? no, sir; rather would I protect the spirit of freedom which dictates even that abuse. Put that paper into your pocket, my good friend, and when you hear any one doubt the reality of American liberty, show them that paper, and tell them where you found it; you cannot have a better proof of its existence. Sir, the country where public men are amenable to public opinion; where not only their official measures, but their private morals, are open to the scrutiny and animadversion of every citizen, is more secure from despotism and corruption, than it could be rendered by the wisest code of laws, or best formed constitution. Party spirit may sometimes blacken, and its erroneous opinions may sometimes injure; but, in general, it will prove the best guardian of a pure and wise administration; it will detect and expose vice and corruption, check the encroachments of power, and resist oppression; sir, it is an abler protector of the people’s rights, than arms or laws.’
‘But is it not shocking that virtuous characters should be defamed?’
‘Let their actions refute such libels. Believe me, virtue is not long darkened by the clouds of calumny. In its course, it will shine forth like the sun at noon-day, and with its brightness disperse the fogs and vapours which obscured its rising light. When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property, and justly liable to the inspection and vigilance of public opinion; and the more sensibly he is made to feel his dependence, the less danger will there be of his abuse of power — The abuse of power, that rock on which good governments, and the people’s rights, have been so often wrecked.’
‘Such doctrines would never be recognised in the old world,’ I observed.
‘Our example,’ he replied, ‘may enforce these doctrines, which your philosophers have so long preached in vain; example, you know, far outweighs precept.'” An unnamed European visitor, in dialogue with Jefferson, as quoted in A Winter in Washington : or, Memoirs of the Seymour Family (1824) by Margaret Bayard Smith, Vol. 2, p. 37; a few years later Sketches of the Life, Writings, and Opinions of Thomas Jefferson (1832) by B. L. Rayner presents a slightly different rendition of this dialogue, and identifies the visitor as Baron Alexander von Humboldt, who visited Washington in June 1804:

The celebrated traveller, Baron Humboldt, calling on the President one day, was received into his cabinet. On taking up one of the public journals which lay upon the table, he was shocked to find its columns teeming with the most wanton abuse and licentious calumnies of the President. He threw it down with indignation, exclaiming, “Why do you not have the fellow hung who dares to write these abominable lies?” The President smiled at the warmth of the Baron, and replied — “What! hang the guardians of the public morals? No sir, — rather would I protect the spirit of freedom which dictates even that degree of abuse. Put that paper into your pocket, my good friend, carry it with you to Europe, and when you hear any one doubt the reality of American freedom, show them that paper, and tell them where you found it’ “But is it not shocking that virtuous characters should be defamed?” replied the Baron. “Let their actions refute such libels. Believe me,” continued the President, “virtue is not long darkened by the clouds of calumny; and the temporary pain which it causes is infinitely overweighed by the safety it insures against degeneracy in the principles and conduct of public functionaries. When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.”
[edit] Primary sources
Thomas Jefferson: Writings: Autobiography / Notes on the State of Virginia / Public and Private Papers / Addresses / Letters (1984, ISBN 0-940450-16-X) Library of America edition; see discussion of sources at [7]. There are numerous one-volume collections; this is perhaps the best place to start.
Thomas Jefferson, Political Writings ed by Joyce Appleby and Terence Ball. Cambridge University Press. 1999
Lipscomb, Andrew A. and Albert Ellery Bergh, eds. The Writings Of Thomas Jefferson 19 vol. (1907) not as complete nor as accurate as Boyd edition, but covers TJ from 1801 to his death. It is out of copyright, and so is online free.
Boyd, Julian P. et al, eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. The definitive multivolume edition; available at major academic libraries. 31 volumes covers TJ to 1800, with 1801 due out in 2006. See description at [8]
The Jefferson Cyclopedia (1900) large collection of TJ quotations arranged by 9000 topics; searchable; copyright has expired and it is online free.
The Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606-1827, 27,000 original manuscript documents at the Library of Congress. online collection
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), London: Stockdale. This was Jefferson’s only book. online edition

Adams, Dickinson W., ed. Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels (1983). All three of Jefferson’s versions of the Gospels, with relevant correspondence about his religious opinions. Valuable introduction by Eugene Sheridan.
Bear, Jr., James A., ed. Jefferson’s Memorandum Books, 2 vols. (1997). Jefferson’s account books with records of daily expenses.
Cappon, Lester J., ed. The Adams-Jefferson Letters (1959).
Smith, James Morton, ed. The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, 1776-1826, 3 vols. (1995).

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Author: Gordon S. Bowman III

Writer, Visual Artist, Blogger, Advocate

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