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Thomas Jefferson

(April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) was the third President of the United States (1801–1809), the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), and arguably the most influential founder of the United States.

Quotes by This Author

“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 everywhere 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, let no more be said of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.(Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson struck out with all the force that tounge and pen could muster against trusting in human nature. Kentucky Resolutions, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, pp. 389-390. November 10, 1798.)

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Colonel Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816.)

“On every question of construction [of the Constitution] let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or intended against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter To Justice William Johnson, Monticello. June 12, 1823.)

“Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to P. S. Dupont de Nemours, Poplar Forest. April 24, 1816.)

“When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” (Thomas Jefferson)

“False is the idea of utility that sacrifices a thousand real advantages for one imaginary or trifling inconvenience; that would take fire from men because it burns, and water because one may drown in it; that has no remedy for evils, except destruction. The laws that forbid the carrying of arms are laws of such a nature. They disarm those only who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. Can it be supposed that those who have the courage to violate the most sacred laws of humanity, the most important of the code, will respect the less important and arbitrary ones, which can be violated with ease and impunity, and which, if so dear to the enlightened legislator — and subject innocent persons to all the vexations that the guilty alone ought to suffer? Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man. They ought to be designated as laws not preventive but fearful of crimes, produced by the tumultuous impression of a few isolated facts, and not by thoughtful consideration of the inconveniences and advantages of a universal decree.” (Thomas Jefferson, Sentiments from On Crimes and Punishments, Commonplace Book, 1764.)

“The beauty of the second Amendment is, that it will never be needed until they try to take it away!” (Thomas Jefferson)

“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.” (Thomas Jefferson)

“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.” (Thomas Jefferson, To Archibald Stuart in Philadelphia 1791.)

“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.” (Thomas Jefferson)

“I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, ME 10:173. September 23, 1800.)

“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” (Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independance, July 4, 1776.)

“Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785.)

I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow the banks to control the issuance of their currency, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people of all property until their children will wake up homeless on the continent their fathers occupied. The issuing power of money should be taken from the banks and restored to Congress and the people to whom it belongs.” (Thomas Jefferson, this indignant protest can be heard today across the vista of two whole centuries Letter to the Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, 1802.)

“The banks themselves were doing business on capitals, three-fourths of which were fictitious. This fictitious now to be lost, and to fall on somebody; it [the bank] must take on those who have property to meet it, and probably on the less cautious part, who, not aware of the impending catastrophe, have suffered themselves to contract, or to be in debt, and must now sacrifice their property of a value many times the amount of the debt. We have been truly sowing with wind, and are now reaping the whirlwind.” (Thomas Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10:133.)

“At the time we were funding our national debt, we heard much about 'a public debt being a public blessing'; that the stock representing it was a creation of active capital for the aliment of commerce, manufactures and agriculture. This paradox was well adapted to the minds of believers in dreams...” (Thomas Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 13:420.)

“We are overdone with banking institutions, which have banished the precious metals, and substituted a more fluctuating and unsafe medium.... These have withdrawn capital from useful improvements and employments to nourish idleness.... [These] are evils more easily to be deplored than remedied.” (Thomas Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 12:379-80.)

“It has long, however, been my opinion, and I have never shrunk from its expression…that the germ of dissolution of our federal government is in the constitution of the federal judiciary; an irresponsible body, (for impeachment is scarcely a scare-crow) working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little today and a little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief, over the field of jurisdiction, until all shall be usurped from the States, and the government of all be consolidated into one. To this I am opposed; because, when all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.” (Thomas Jefferson, Bergh, 15:331. 1821.)

“Every law consistent with the Constitution will have been made in pursuance of the powers granted by it. Every usurpation or law repugnant to it cannot have been made in pursuance of its powers. The latter will be nugatory and void.” (Thomas Jefferson, Elliot, p. 4:187-88.)

“The power of declaring war being with the [Congress], the executive should do nothing neccesarily committing them to decide for war.” (Thomas Jefferson, Ford, p. 9:100.)

“I say the same as to the opinion of those who consider the grant of the treaty making power as boundless. If it is, then we have no Constitution.” (Thomas Jefferson, a letter to Wilson Cary Nicholas The Works of Thomas Jefferson, September 7, 1803.)

“By the general power to make treaties, the Constitution must have intended to comprehend only those objects which are usually regulated by treaty, and cannot be otherwise regulated. It must have meant to except out of those the rights reserved to the states; for surely the President and Senate cannot do by treaty what the whole government is interdicted from doing in any way.” (Thomas Jefferson, A Manual of Parliamentary Practice, p. 110. 1873.)

“It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible asportation and education of the infant against the will of the father” (Thomas Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Memorial Edition, vol. 17, p. 423. September 9, 1817.)

“The concentrating of these [legislative, executive, and judicial] in the same hands, is precisely the definition of despotic government.” (Thomas Jefferson, quoted by James Madison Federalist Papers, No. 48. February 1, 1788.)

“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day. I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens who, reading newspapers, live and die in the belief, that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time.…General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war…but no details can be relied on.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Norvell, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, pp. 224-225. June 11, 1807.)

“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?” (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, ME 2:227. 1782.)

“If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Thomas Cooper, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 10, p. 342. November 29, 1802.)

“Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, to plainly prove a deliberate systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.” (Thomas Jefferson, Rights of British America, ME 1:193, Papers 1:125. July 1774.)

“The man who never looked into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer the truth than he whose mind is filled with half-truths and errors.” (Thomas Jefferson, in the ripeness of his years)

“I place economy among the first and most important of republican virtues, and public debt as the greatest of dangers to be feared.” (Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 15:47.)

“How powerfully did we feel the energy of this organization [of wards] in the case of [the] embargo [prohibiting imports from England]?

“I felt the foundations of the government shaken under my feet by the New England townships [wards]. There was not an individual in the State [of Massachusetts] whose body was not thrown with all its momentum into action; and although the whole of the other States were known to be in favor of the measure, yet the organization of this little…minority enabled it to overrule the Union.

“What would the unwieldy counties of the Middle, the South, and the West do? Call a county meeting, and the drunken loungers at and about the courthouses would have collected, the distances being too great for the good people and the industrious generally to attend. The character of those who really met would have been the measure of the weight they would have had in the scale of public opinion. As Cato, then, concluded every speech with the words, ‘Carthago delenda est,’ so do I [conclude] every opinion, with the injunction, ‘divide the counties into wards!’” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Joseph C. Cabell The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 14:421-23. 1816.)

“The elementary republics of the wards, the county republics, the State republics, and the republic of the Union, would form a gradation of authorities, standing each on the basis of law, holding every one its delegated share of powers, and constituting truly a system of fundamental balances and checks for the government.

“[Here] every man is a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic, or of some of the higher ones, and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day; when there shall not be a man in the State who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great or small, he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte.(Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Samuel Kercheval The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 15:38. 1816.)

“My proposition [to divide every county into wards] had for a further object, to impart to these wards those portions of self-government for which they are best qualified, by confiding to them the care of their poor, their roads, police, elections, the nomination of jurors, administration of justice in small cases, elementary exercises of militia; in short, to have made them little republics, with a warden at the head of each, for all those concerns which, being under their eye, they would better manage than the larger republics of the county or State. A general call of ward meetings by their wardens on the same day through the State, would at any time produce the genuine sense of the people on any required point, and would enable the State to act in mass.” (Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to John Adams The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 13:400. 1813.)

“The article…nearest my heart is the division of counties into wards. These will be pure and elementary republics, the sum of which taken together composes the State, and will make of the whole a true democracy as to the business of the wards, which is that of nearest and daily concern. The affairs of the larger sections, of counties, of States, and of the Union, not admitting personal transactions by the people, will be delegated to agents elected by themselves; and representation will thus be substituted where personal action becomes impracticable. Yet even over these representative organs, should they become corrupt and perverted, the division into wards constituting the people, in their wards, a regularly organized power, enables them by that organization to crush, regularly and peaceably, the usurpations of their unfaithful agents, and rescues them from the dreadful necessity of doing it insurrectionally. In this way we shall be as republican as a large society can be, and secure the continuance of purity in our government by the salutary, peaceable, and regular control of the people.” (Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to to Samuel Kercheval The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 15:70. 1816.)

“These wards [of approximately 100 families], called townships in New England, are the vital principle of their governments and have proved themselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and for its preservation.” (Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Samuel Kercheval The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson, p. 74-75. 1816.)

“Divide the counties into wards of such size as that every citizen can attend, when called on, and act in person. Ascribe to them the government of their wards in all things relating to themselves exclusively. A justice chosen by themselves, in each a constable, a military company, a patrol, a school, the care of their own poor, their own portion of the public roads, the choice of one or more jurors to serve in some court, and the delivery within their own wards of their own votes for all elective officers of higher sphere, will relieve the county administration of nearly all its business, will have it better done, and by making every citizen an acting member of the government, and in the offices nearest and most interesting to him, will attach him by his strongest feelings to the independence of his country and its republican Constitution.” (Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Samuel Kercheval Letters, 1399-1400. 1816.)

“These little republics would be the main strength of the great one. We owe to them the vigor given to our revolution in its commencement in the Eastern States.” (Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to John Tyler The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 12:394. 1810.)

“If it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the governor and council, the commissioners of the literary fund or any other general authority of the government than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience.” (Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Joseph C. Cabell 1816.)

“There are two subjects, indeed, which I shall claim a right to further as long as I breathe: the public education, and the sub-division of counties into wards. I consider the continuance of republican government as absolutely hanging on these two hooks.” (Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Joseph C. Cabell Letters, 14:84. 1816.)

“It is not by the consolidation or concentration of powers, but by their distribution that good government is effected. Were not this great country already divided into States, that division must be made that each might do for itself what concerns itself directly and what it can so much better do than a distant authority. Every state again is divided into counties, each to take care of what lies within its local bounds; each county again into townships or wards, to manage minuter details; and every ward into farms, to be governed each by its individual proprietor.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letters, 1308. 1821.)

“If invited by private authority, [to] county or district meetings, these divisions are so large that few will attend; and their voice will be imperfectly, or falsely, pronounced. Here, then, would be one of the advantages of the ward divisions I have proposed. The mayor of every ward, on a question like the present, would call his ward together, take the simple yea or nay of its members, convey these to the country court, who would hand on those of all its wards to the proper general authority; and the voice of the whole people would be thus fairly, fully, and peaceably expressed, discussed, and decided by the common reason of the society.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Samuel Kercheval Letters, 1402-1403. 1816.)

“A plan was formerly proposed to the legislature of this State for laying off every county into hundreds or wards of five or six miles square, within each of which should be a school for the education of the children of the ward, wherein they should receive three years' instruction gratis, in reading, writing, arithmetic as far as fractions, the roots and ratios, and geography.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Peter Carr Letters, p. 1348. 1814.)

“I hope they will adopt the subdivision of our counties into wards. The former may be estimated at an average of twenty-four miles square; the latter should be about six miles square each, and would answer to the hundreds of your Saxon Alfred.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Major John Cartwright. “Saxon Alfred” referes to the Anglo Saxon King Alfred (870 A.D) whose government was derived from the government of ancient Israel. English common law originated from the Anglo Saxons, from which Americans derived their laws. Letters, 1402. 1824.)

“No, my friend, the way to have good and safe government is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the function he is competent to.

“Let the National Government be entrusted with the defence of the nation and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself.

“It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man's farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Joseph C. Cabell Letters, p. 1388. 1816.)

“I hold the precepts of Jesus, as delivered by Himself, to be the most pure, benevolent and sublime which have ever been preached to man. I adhere to the principles of the first age, and consider all subsequent innovations as corruptions of His religion, having no foundation in what came from Him.” (Thomas Jefferson, The Real Thomas Jefferson, p. 366.)

“I am for free commerce with all nations, political connection with none, and little or no diplomatic establishment. And I am not for linking ourselves by new treaties with the quarrels of Europe, entering that field of slaughter to preserve their balance, or joining in the confederacy of Kings to war against the principles of liberty.” (Thomas Jefferson, to Elbridge Gerry ME 10:77, 1799.)

“I have ever deemed it fundamental for the United States never to take active part in the quarrels of Europe. Their political interests are entirely distinct from ours. Their mutual jealousies, their balance of power, their complicated alliances, their forms and principles of government, are all foreign to us. They are nations of eternal war. All their energies are expended in the destruction of the labor, property and lives of their people.” (Thomas Jefferson, to James Monroe ME: 15:436, 1823.)

“I sincerely join... in abjuring all political connection with every foreign power; and though I cordially wish well to the progress of liberty in all nations, and would forever give it the weight of our countenance, yet they are not to be touched without contamination from their other bad principles. Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto.” (Thomas Jefferson, to Thomas Lomax ME 10:124. 1799.)

“Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none, I deem [one of] the essential principles of our government, and consequently [one of] those which ought to shape its administration.” (Thomas Jefferson, 1st Inaugural Address ME 3:321. 1801.)

“We wish not to meddle with the internal affairs of any country, nor with the general affairs of Europe. Peace with all nations, and the right which that gives us with respect to all nations, are our object.” (Thomas Jefferson, to C. W. F. Dumas ME 9:56. 1793.)

“The people of every country are the only safe guardians of their own rights, and are the only instruments which can be used for their destruction. And certainly they would never consent to be so used were they not deceived.” (Thomas Jefferson, to John Wyche 1809.)

“A just and solid republican government maintained here will be a standing monument and example for the aim and imitation of the people of other countries; and I join... in the hope and belief that they will see from our example that a free government is of all others the most energetic; that the inquiry which has been excited among the mass of mankind by our revolution and its consequences will ameliorate the condition of man over a great portion of the globe.” (Thomas Jefferson, to John Dickinson ME 10:217. 1801.)

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” (Thomas Jefferson)

“Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.” (Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801.)

“The Constitution on which our Union rests shall be administered by me according to the safe and honest meaning contemplated by the plain understanding of the people of the United States at the time of its adoption -- a meaning to be found in the explanations of those who advocated, not those who opposed it.…These explanations are preserved in the publications of the time.” (Thomas Jefferson)

“we have appealed to their [our British bretheren’s] native justice and magnanimity as well as to the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations which [would inevitably] interrupt our connection and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity, and when occasions have been given them, by the regular course of their laws, of removing from their councils the disturbers of our harmony, they have, by their free election, reestablished them in power. At this very time too, they are permitting their chief magistrate to send over not only soldiers of our common blood, but Scotch and foreign mercenaries to invade and destroy us. These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren. We must endeavor to forget our former love for them, and hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends. We might have been a free and a great people together.” (Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence included this last feeling statement as an incitement of their brethren across the sea which either by infamy or apathy allowed this tyranny to occur. The British people held the ultimate responsibility for the actions their government took. June 1776.)

“Should we wander in moments of error or alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.” (Thomas Jefferson, upon repealing the “Alien and Sedition Acts”)

“We are completely saddled and bridled, and…the bank is so firmly mounted on us that we must go where [it] will guide.” (Thomas Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 9:337-338.)

“That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.” (Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786.)

“…the spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless...They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights.” (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Chapter 17. February 27, 1787.)

“Are we not better for what we have hitherto abolished of the feudal system? Has not every restitution of the ancient Saxon laws had happy effects? Is it not better now that we return at once into that happy system of our ancestors, the wisest and most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man, as it stood before the eighth century?” (Thomas Jefferson, to Edmund Pendleton to convince him that Virginia must abolish the remnants of feudalism and return to the “ancient principles.” Letter to Edmund Pendleton, August 13, 1776.)

“To preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt.” (Thomas Jefferson)

“What country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Colonel Smith, November 13, 1787.)

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