Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Born: 1743. Died: 1826.


- All human beings are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights.

- Governments are established to protect the rights of citizens.

- The right to work the land is a fundamental human right; consequently, a state that allows private ownership of land must provide employment to those who do not have such property.

- Freedom of religion should be absolute, and citizens should not be taxed for the support of religious institutions.

- Universal education is the most effective means of preserving democracy and good government.


Author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, third president of the United States, and founder of the University of Virginia.

His father Peter Jefferson was a successful planter and surveyor and his mother Jane Randolph a member of one of Virginia's most distinguished families. Having inherited a considerable landed estate from his father, Jefferson began building Monticello when he was twenty-six years old. Three years later, he married Martha Wayles Skelton, with whom he lived happily for ten years until her death. Their marriage produced six children, but only two survived to adulthood. Jefferson, who never remarried, maintained Monticello as his home throughout his life, always expanding and changing the house.

Jefferson inherited slaves from both his father and father-in-law. In a typical year, he owned about 200, almost half of them under the age of sixteen. About eighty of these lived at Monticello; the others lived on adjacent Albemarle County plantations, and on his Poplar Forest estate in Bedford County, Virginia. Jefferson freed two slaves in his lifetime and five in his will and chose not to pursue two others who ran away. All were members of the Hemings family; the seven he eventually freed were skilled tradesmen.

Having attended the College of William and Mary, Jefferson practiced law and served in local government as a magistrate, county lieutenant, and member of the House of Burgesses in his early professional life. As a member of the Continental Congress, he was chosen in 1776 to draft the Declaration of Independence, which has been regarded ever since as a charter of American and universal liberties. The document proclaims that all men are equal in rights, regardless of birth, wealth, or status, and that the government is the servant, not the master, of the people.

After Jefferson left Congress in 1776, he returned to Virginia and served in the legislature. Elected governor from 1779 to 1781, he suffered an inquiry into his conduct during his last year in office that, although finally fully repudiated, left him with a life-long pricklishness in the face of criticism.

During the brief private interval in his life following his governorship, Jefferson wrote Notes on the State of Virginia. In 1784, he entered public service again, in France, first as trade commissioner and then as Benjamin Franklin's successor as minister. During this period, he avidly studied European culture, sending home to Monticello, books, seeds and plants, statues and architectural drawings, scientific instruments, and information.

In 1790 he accepted the post of secretary of state under his friend George Washington. His tenure was marked by his opposition to the pro-British policies of Alexander Hamilton. In 1796, as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Republicans, he became vice-president after losing to John Adams by three electoral votes.

Four years later, he defeated Adams and became president, the first peaceful transfer of authority from one party to another in the history of the young nation. Perhaps the most notable achievements of his first term were the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 and his support of the Lewis and Clark expedition. His second term, a time when he encountered more difficulties on both the domestic and foreign fronts, is most remembered for his efforts to maintain neutrality in the midst of the conflict between Britain and France; his efforts did not avert war with Britain in 1812.

Jefferson was succeeded as president in 1809 by his friend James Madison, and during the last seventeen years of his life, he remained at Monticello. During this period, he sold his collection of books to the government to form the nucleus of the Library of Congress. Jefferson embarked on his last great public service at the age of seventy-six, with the founding of the University of Virginia. He spearheaded the legislative campaign for its charter, secured its location, designed its buildings, planned its curriculum, and served as the first rector.

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, just hours before his close friend John Adams, on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He was eighty-three years old, the holder of large debts, but according to all evidence a very optimistic man.

Major Books of Thomas Jefferson

- 1784, A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Daedalus
- A Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States, 1801
- A Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774
- Autobiography, 1821
- The Declaration of Independence, 1776
- Jefferson Bible, or The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth
- Memorandums Taken on a Journey From Paris into the Southern Parts of France and Northern Italy, in the year 1787
- Notes on the State of Virginia, 1782

Major Articles of Thomas Jefferson

- 1784, A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Daedalus
- 1775, Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms

Quotes from Thomas Jefferson

- "Comte de Vergennes: You replace Mr. [Benjamin] Franklin [as minister to France]?
   Jefferson: I succeed him: no one could replace him." (1785)

- "And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." (from "The Declaration of Independence", 1776)

- "Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." (from "The Declaration of Independence", 1776)

- "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown 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." (from "The Declaration of Independence", 1776)

- "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." (from "The Declaration of Independence", 1776)

- "The care of every man's soul belongs to himself. But what if he neglects] the care of it? Well what if he neglect[s] the care of his health or estate ... ? Will the magistrate make a law that he shall not be poor or sick? Laws provide against injury from others, but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills." (from "Scraps Early in the Revolution", 1776)

- "Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid;, and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous." (from "Notes on the State of Virginia", 1782)

- "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever." (from "Notes on the State of Virginia", 1782)

- "It is better to toss up cross and pile [heads or tails] in a cause than to refer it to a judge whose mind is warped by any motive whatever, in that particular case. But the common sense of twelve honest men gives still a better chance of just decision than the hazard of cross and pile." (from "Notes on the State of Virginia", 1782)

- "It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself." (from "Notes on the State of Virginia", 1782)

- "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others." (from "Notes on the State of Virginia", 1782)

- "Man is an imitative animal." (from "Notes on the State of Virginia", 1782)

- "Never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. ... Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry-Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry." (from "Notes on the State of Virginia", 1782)

- "No man has the right to abandon the care of his salvation to another." (from "Notes on the State of Virginia", 1782)

- "Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons." (from "Notes on the State of Virginia", 1782)

- "They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labor." (from "Notes on the State of Virginia", 1782)

- "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth." (from "Notes on the State of Virginia", 1782)

- "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the others." (from "Notes on the State of Virginia", 1782)

- "Style in writing or speaking is formed very early in life, while the imagination is warm, and impressions are permanent." (from a letter to J. Bannister, 1785)

- "Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right." (from a letter to James Madison, 1785)

- "Wherever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been extended, as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on." (from a letter to James Madison, 1785)

- "The sun-my almighty physician." (from a letter to James Monroe, 1785)

- "An honest heart being the first blessing, a knowing head is the second." (from a letter to his nephew Peter Carr, 1785)

- "Give about two [hours], every day, to exercise; for health must not be sacrificed to learning. A strong body makes the mind strong." (from a letter to his nephew Peter Carr, 1785)

- "Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were the whole world looking at you, and act accordingly." (from a letter to his nephew Peter Carr, 1785)

- "There is no king, who, with a sufficient force, is not always ready to make himself absolute." (from a letter to George Wythe, 1786)

- "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost." (from a letter to James Currie, 1786)

- "Almighty God hath created the mind free." (from "The Virginia Act for Religious Freedom", 1786)

- "The opinions of men are not the subject of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction." (from "The Virginia Act for Religious Freedom", 1786)

- "It is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order." (from "The Virginia Act for Religious Freedom", 1786)

- "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." (from a letter to Abigail Adams, 1787)

- "The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory." (from a letter to Charles Thompson, 1787)

- "Among [European governments], under pretense of governing, they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep." (from a letter to Colonel Edward Carrington, 1787)

- "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." (from a letter to Colonel Edward Carrington, 1787)

- "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." (referring Shays's Rebellion which was started by debt-ridden farmers in Massachusetts in August 1786 from a letter to Colonel William S. Smith, 1787)

- "It is while we are young that the habit of industry is formed. If not then, it never is afterwards. The fortune of our lives, therefore, depends on employing well the short period of youth." (from a letter to his daughter Martha, 1787)

- "No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing." (from a letter to his daughter Martha, 1787)

- "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 of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." (from a letter to his nephew Peter Carr, 1787)

- "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." (from a letter to his nephew Peter Carr, 1787)

- "It is more dangerous that even a guilty person should be punished without the forms of law than that he should escape." (from a letter to William Carmichael, 1788)

- "If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all." (from a letter to Francis Hopkinson, 1789)

- "The happiest moments of my life have been the few which I have passed at home in the bosom of my family." (from a letter to Francis Willis, Jr., 1790)

- "Take more pleasure in giving what is best to another than in having it yourself, and then all the world will love you, and I more than all the world." (from a letter to his daughter Maria, 1790)

- "We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed." (from a letter to Marquis de Lafayette, 1790)

- "I would rather be exposed to the inconveniencies attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it." (from a letter to Archibald Stuart, 1791)

- "If there be one principle more deeply rooted than any other in the mind of every American, it is, that we should have nothing to do with conquest." (from a letter to William Short, 1791)

- "No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free, no [government] ever will." (from a letter to George Washington, 1792)

- "Have you become a farmer? Is it not pleasanter than to be shut up within four walls and delving eternally with the pen?." (from a letter to Henry Knox, 1795)

- "I do not recollect in all the animal kingdom a single species but man which is eternally and systematically engaged in the destruction of its own species. ... When we add to this [the destruction of] other species of animals, the lions and tigers are mere lambs compared with man as a destroyer." (from a letter to James Madison, 1796)

- "Timid men ... prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty." (from a letter to Phillip Mazzei, 1796)

- "[The Presidency] is but a splendid misery." (from a letter to Elbridge Gerry, 1797)

- "It is the old practice of despots to use a part of the people to keep the rest in order." (from a letter to John Taylor, 1798)

- "Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on [offices], a rottenness begins in his conduct." (from a letter to Tench Coxe, 1799)

- "I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." (from a letter to Benjamin Rush, 1800)

- "The merchants will manage the better, the more they are left free to manage for themselves." (from a letter to Gideon Granger, 1800)

- "It is rare that the public sentiment decides immorally or unwisely, and the individual who differs from it ought to distrust and examine well his own opinion." (from a letter to William Findley, 1801)

- "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." (from the First Inaugural Address, 4 March 1801)

- "All ... 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." (from the First Inaugural Address, 4 March 1801)

- "Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle." (from the First Inaugural Address, 4 March 1801)

- "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." (from the First Inaugural Address, 4 March 1801)

- "Agriculture, manufactures, commerce, and navigation, the four pillars of our prosperity, are the most thriving when left to individual enterprise." (from the First Annual Message to Congress, 4 March 1801)

- "It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others." (from a letter to Benjamin Rush, 1803)

- "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. On the contrary, we are bound, you, I, and everyone, to make common cause, even with error itself, to maintain the common right of freedom of conscience." (from a letter to Edward Dowse, 1803)

- "We are firmly convinced ... that with nations, as with individuals, our interests soundly calculated, will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties." (from the Second Inaugural Address, 4 March 1805)

- "That government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part." (from a letter to H. D. Tiffin, 1807)

- "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." (from a letter to John Norvell, 1807)

- "Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle." (from a letter to John Norvell, 1807)

- "Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. Divide his paper into 4 chapters, heading the 1st, Truths. 2d, Probabilities. 3d, Possibilities. 4th, Lies." (from a letter to John Norvell, 1807)

- "I never believed there was one code of morality for a public [man], and another for a private man." (from a letter to Don Valentine de Feronda, 1809)

- "Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to [Negroes] by nature, and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them therefore with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others." (from a letter to Henri Gregoire, 1809)

- "In times of peace the people look most to their representatives; but in war, to the executive solely." (from a letter to Caesar A. Rodney, 1810)

- "A strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means." (from a letter to John B. Colvin, 1810)

- "[I have never] been able to conceive how any rational being could propose happiness to himself from the exercise of power over others." (from a letter to Destutt de Tracy, 1811)

- "My principle is to do whatever is right, and leave consequences to Him who has the disposal of them." (from a letter, 1813)

- "I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. ... There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents. ... The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent it's ascendancy." (from a letter to John Adams, 1813)

- "An honest man can feel no pleasure in the exercise of power over his fellow citizens." (from a letter to John Melish, 1813)

- "The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead." (from a letter to John W. Eppes, 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." (from a letter to William Canby, 1813)

- "The good opinion of mankind, like the lever of Archimedes, with the given fulcrum, moves the world." (from a letter to Correa delta Sera, 1814)

- "[George Washington's] character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great." (from a letter to Dr. Walter Jones, 1814)

- "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." (from a letter to Horatio Gates Spafford, 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." (from a letter to Horatio Gates Spafford, 1814)

- "For God's sake, let us freely hear both sides!" (from a letter to Nicholas G. Dufief, 1814)

- "I cannot live without books." (from a letter to John Adams, 1815)

- "The moral sense is as much a part of our constitution as that of feeling, seeing, or hearing." (from a letter to John Adams, 1816)

- "Opinion is power." (from a letter to John Adams, 1816)

- "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free ... it expects what never was and never will be. ... Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe." (from a letter to Colonel Charles Yancey, 1816)

- "I sincerely believe ... that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies." (from a letter to John Taylor, 1816)

- "It is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read." (from a letter to Mrs. Samuel H. Smith, 1816)

- "Morality, compassion, generosity are innate elements of the human constitution." (from a letter to Pierre-Samuel Du Pont, 1816)

- "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 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." (from a letter to Samuel Kercheval, 1816)

- "I sincerely believe ... 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." (from a letter to Virginia Sen. John Taylor, 1816)

- "Men are disposed to live honestly, if the means of doing so are open to them." (from a letter to Francois de Marbois, 1817)

- "I am a sect by myself, as far as I know." (from a letter to Reverend Ezra Stiles, 1819)

- "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." (from a letter to William C. Jarvis, 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." (from a letter to William Roscoe, 1820)

- "The office of reformer of the superstitions of a nation is ever dangerous." (from a letter to William Short, 1820)

- "Speaking of Plato, I will add, that no writer, ancient or modern, has bewildered the world with more ignes fatui [i.e., inflamed folly] than this renowned philosopher in Ethics, in Politics and Physics." (from a letter to William Short, 1820)

- "What a Bedlamite is man!" (from a letter to John Adams, 1821)

- "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." (from a letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, 1822)

- "Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests. ... Call them ... 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." (from a letter to Henry Lee, 1824)

- "Nothing ... is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man." (from a letter to Major John Cartwright, 1824)

- "How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened." (from a letter to Thomas Jefferson Smith, 1825)

- "Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you." (from a letter to Thomas Jefferson Smith, 1825)

- "Never spend your money before you have it." (from a letter to Thomas Jefferson Smith, 1825)

- "Never trouble another for what you can do yourself." (from a letter to Thomas Jefferson Smith, 1825)

- "We never repent of having eaten too little." (from a letter to Thomas Jefferson Smith, 1825)

- "When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, an hundred." (from a letter to Thomas Jefferson Smith, 1825)

- "There is not a truth existing which I fear, or would wish unknown to the whole world." (from a letter to Henry Lee, 1826)

- "It was one of the rules which, above all others, made Doctor [Benjamin] Franklin the most amiable of men in society: never to contradict anybody." (from "The Hero in America: A Chronicle of Hero-Worship" by Dixon Wecter)

- "Where the private interests of a member [of Congress] are concerned in a bill of question, he is to withdraw." (from "The Rich and the Super-Rich: A Study in the Power of Money Today" by Ferdinand Lundberg)

- "I had [Jame Hubbard] severely flogged in the presence of his old companions." (about the escaped slave who had been captured and returned to Jefferson's plantation in September 1805, from "Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery" by William Cohen)

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


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