Thomas Jefferson Quotes

Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) was a Founding Father and the third U.S. President (1801-1809).

When the American Revolution started, Jefferson represented Virginia in the Continental Congress. He was also the Governor of Virginia during the war (1779-1781). After the war, he became a U.S. diplomat in Paris. In 1785, Jefferson became the U.S. Minister to France. He was also the first U.S. Secretary of State. Jefferson argued against the Jay Treaty and Hamilton’s efforts to establish a national bank.

Thomas Jefferson Quotes

Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he then be trusted with the government of others?

— Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address

It is not only vain, but wicked, in a legislator to frame laws in opposition to the laws of nature, and to arm them with the terrors of death. This is truly creating crimes in order to punish them.

— Thomas Jefferson, 1779

A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.

— Thomas Jefferson

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 invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Johnson, June 12, 1823, The Complete Jefferson, p322.

To preserve the freedom of the human mind then and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom.

— Thomas Jefferson, June 18, 1799

If ever there was a holy war, it was that which saved our liberties and gave us independence.

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John W. Eppes (6 November 1813)

Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital.

— Thomas Jefferson

The law of self-preservation is higher than written law.

— Thomas Jefferson

To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.

— Thomas Jefferson

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.

— Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, 1801

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.

— Thomas Jefferson, The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 (16 November 1798)

The policy of the American government is to leave its citizens free, neither restraining them nor aiding them in their pursuits.

— Thomas Jefferson

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.

— Thomas Jefferson

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

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Colonel Charles Yancey (6 January 1816)

One single object…[will merit] the endless gratitude of the society: that of restraining the judges from usurping legislation.

— Thomas Jefferson

Everyone must act according to the dictates of his own reason.

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Samuel Miller, 1808

Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty.

— Thomas Jefferson

A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks.

— Thomas Jefferson

An honest man can feel no pleasure in the exercise of power over his fellow citizens.

— Thomas Jefferson

Ignorance of the law is no excuse, in any country. If it were, the laws would lose their effect, because it can always be pretended.

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to André Limozin (22 December, 1787)

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.

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Charles Jarvis, (28 September 1820).

Those who don’t read the newspapers are better off than those who do insofar as those who know nothing are better off than those whose heads are filled with half-truths and lies.

— Thomas Jefferson

I have so much confidence in the good sense of man, and his qualifications for self-government, that I am never afraid of the issue where reason is left free to exert her force.

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Comte Diodati, 1789.

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.

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Andrew Jackson (3 December 1806)

The moral sense is as much a part of our constitution as that of feeling, seeing, or hearing.

— Thomas Jefferson

Whenever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force.

— Thomas Jefferson, Kentucky Resolutions, 1798

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. … And what country can preserve its liberties, if it’s rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the 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.

— Thomas Jefferson, In a letter to William Stephens Smith on 13 November, 1878.

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

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Madison December 20, 1787

With all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow citizens – a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it had earned.

— Thomas Jefferson, government,socialism

All persons shall have full and free liberty of religious opinion; nor shall any be compelled to frequent or
maintain any religious institution.

— Thomas Jefferson, Draft Constitution for Virginia (June 1776)

No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms.

— Thomas Jefferson, Draft Constitution for Virginia (June 1776)

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

— Thomas Jefferson

For a people who are free, and who mean to remain so, a well organized and armed militia is their best security.

— Thomas Jefferson

The general (federal) government will tend to monarchy, which will fortify itself from day to day, instead of working its own cures.

— Thomas Jefferson

I consider trial by jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.

— Thomas Jefferson

The glow of one warm thought is to me worth more than money.

— Thomas Jefferson

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.

— 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, Letter to William Hunter (11 March 1790)

Laws that forbid the carrying of arms… disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes… 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.

— Thomas Jefferson

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.

— Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII, 1781

One loves to possess arms, though they hope never to have occasion for them.

— Thomas Jefferson

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.

— Thomas Jefferson

We established however some, although not all its [self-government] important principles . The constitutions of most of our States assert, that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves, in all cases to which they think themselves competent, (as in electing their functionaries executive and legislative, and deciding by a jury of themselves, in all judiciary cases in which any fact is involved,) or they may act by representatives, freely and equally chosen; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed.

— Thomas Jefferson

…Societies exist under three forms, sufficiently distinguishable. 1. Without government, as among our Indians. 2. Under governments, wherein the will of every one has a just influence; as is the case in Enngland, in a slight degree, and in our States, in a great one. 3. Under governments of force; as is the case in all other monarchies, and in most of the other republics. To have an idea of the curse of existance under these last, they must be seen. It is a government of wolves over sheep….The second state has a great deal of good in it. The mass of mankind under that, enjoys a precious degree of liberty and happiness. It has its evils, too; the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. But weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing. Malo periculosum libertatum quam quietum servitutum. Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people, with 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.

— Thomas Jefferson

The idea is quite unfounded, that on entering into society we give up any natural right.

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Francis W. Gilmer (27 June 1816)

The same prudence which in private life would forbid our paying our own money for unexplained projects, forbids it in the dispensation of the public moneys.

— Thomas Jefferson

An individual, thinking himself injured, makes more noise than a State.

— Thomas Jefferson, 1785

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 functions he is competent to. Let the national government be entrusted with the defense of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, law, 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. What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body.

— Thomas Jefferson, government

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.

— Thomas Jefferson

Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction.

— Thomas Jefferson

The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object.

— Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address; 1801

The man who reads nothing at all is better than educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.

— Thomas Jefferson

Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
Never spend your money before you have it.
Never buy what you do not want because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.
Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst, and cold.
We never repent of having eaten too little.
Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.
Take things always by their smooth handle.
When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.

— Thomas Jefferson

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.

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Isaac H. Tiffany (1819)

Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the times in which I have lived have forced me to commit myself on the boisterous ocean of political passions.

— Thomas Jefferson

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.

— Thomas Jefferson, In a letter to Abigail Adams on 22 February, 1787

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.

— Thomas Jefferson

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.

— Thomas Jefferson, 1801

I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.

— Thomas Jefferson, A letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison (20 December 1787)

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.

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Francis W. Gilmer (27 June 1816)

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

— Thomas Jefferson

I am mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, the sale of a book can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too.

— Thomas Jefferson

To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, ‘the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, and the fruits acquired by it.’

— Thomas Jefferson

Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Dr. James Currie (28 January 1786)

Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law.

— Thomas Jefferson, Whether Christianity is Part of the Common Law (1764)

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

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Lafayette (2 April 1790)

When all government, 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

I, however, place economy among the first and most important republican virtues, and public debt as the greatest of the dangers to be feared.

— Thomas Jefferson, 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.

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp (30 July 1816)

I am for a government rigorously frugal and simple. Were we directed from Washington when to sow, when to reap, we should soon want bread.

— Thomas Jefferson

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.

— Thomas Jefferson, Quoted in Andrew A. Lipscomb’s Writings 16:281

Agriculture, manufacturers, commerce, and navigation, the four pillars of our prosperity, are then most thriving when left most free to individual enterprise.

— Thomas Jefferson, First annual message to Congress; December 8, 1801

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

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams (28 October 1813)

I think myself that we have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious.

— Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Ludlow (6 September 1824)

Our tenet ever was . . . that Congress had not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but were restrained to those specifically enumerated; and that, as it was never meant that they should provide for that welfare but by the exercise of the enumerated powers, so it could not have been meant they should raise money for purposes which the enumeration did not place under their action.

— Thomas Jefferson

…I am persuaded myself that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army. They may be led astray for a moment, but will soon correct themselves. The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right:…Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves….

— Thomas Jefferson, A letter to Colonel Edward Carrington about the perpetrators of Shays’s Rebellion.

Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms [of government] those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.

— Thomas Jefferson