A Guide to Thomas Jefferson quotes: Did he really say that? Probably not.

Jefferson. Image Source: Gage Skidmore, Flickr, Creative Commons

Image Source: Gage Skidmore, Flickr, Creative Commons

Monticello, Virginia (TFC) – Thomas Jefferson is arguably the most important founding father of the United States. He was many things; a renaissance man. Architect, gardener, philosopher, writer, Governor of Virginia, Congressman, Secretary of State, and President; he served in all of these roles. He founded the University of Virginia. When the British burned the Library of Congress during the War of 1812, he replaced the books that were destroyed with books from his own private collection. Jefferson’s library was more than twice the size of the original Library of Congress. He orchestrated the Louisiana Purchase. All of that was after he was involved in his Revolutionary War activities, when he served as a Continental Congress Delegate and drafted that little document we call the Declaration of Independence.

He’s often quoted and misquoted. Many of your favorite Thomas Jefferson quotes may not have originated with him.

Here are some of Jefferson’s most memorable quotes:

“I cannot live without books: but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object.”

“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. Unsuccesful rebellions indeed generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

“I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

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

“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 we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away all this artificial scaffolding…”


“Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.”

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

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

“Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry…”

“History, in general, only informs us what bad government is.”

“Nothing gives one person so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances.”

“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.”

So what are some of the more famous invented quotes?

“The beauty of the Second Amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it.” (Invented: 2007)

“Government is best which governs least.” (Although in line with all of Jefferson’s writings, this was actually the work of Henry David Thoreau in Civil Disobedience.)

“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” (John Philpot Curran)

“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.” (Invented in 1989, but consistent with Jefferson’s writings.)

“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.” (Invented: 1986)

“If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their Fathers conquered…I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies… The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs.” (Invented in 1933,  but consistent with Jefferson’s writings with the exception of the terms “inflation” and “deflation.” Those terms did not come into usage until after Jefferson’s death.)

“Without God, liberty will not last.” (Invented: 1996)

“A government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have.” (Invented: Circa 1950, Copyrighted by General Features Corporation in 1957)

“Sir, no nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man, and I as chief magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example.” (Invented: 1857 by Reverend Ethan Allen)

“When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” (Invented in 1914 and attributed to Jefferson in 1994. Oddly enough, it is often attributed to his writings in The Federalist. Jefferson did not write The Federalist.)


The Meme... KP

The Meme…


He did write a “Decalogue of Canon 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, a hundred.

Why attribute a false quote to Jefferson?

To put it bluntly, he was a genius. He was easily one of the greatest minds the United States can claim. His devotion to reason and extremely limited government is a source of strength to many. Jefferson was almost an anarchist in thought. He referred to the tyranny of the mind. Attributing writings to this name gives them credibility they would not have otherwise. More often than not, Jefferson’s quotes on the same subject are much more profound than the invented quotes.