The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Spurious Jefferson Quotes

If there is a quotation going around and no one knows the source, they will probably attribute it to Thomas Jefferson. Or so it seems. Experience suggests, however, if there is a so-called "Thomas Jefferson Quote" and it does not identify the precise source, who it was written to and the date, then more than likely it is a fake. Below is a summary of some apparently spurious quotes that have come to my attention. Some of the quotes are discussed more fully in other essays, and the indicated link will bring you to the relevant essay.

This is the best known of the doubtful Jefferson Quotes. It's best known source is as the opening quote in Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience of the year 1849. The quote, in full, is:

    "That government is best which governs least."

Thoreau does not identify the source, but he adds this statement:

    "Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe,--'That government is best which governs not at all.'

The quote has many similarities to some things that Jefferson did say, and Jefferson certainly did believe in limited government. But no one has ever been able to find this statement in his writings, and it does not quite square with other statements that we are sure he made. In fact, the quote is probably a variation made by Thoreau on a statement of John L. O'Sullivan made in the year 1837:

    "The best government is that which governs least."

The unlikely authorship by Jefferson is considered in more detail at That government is best...

  • Debarred the Use of Arms

This one is tricky because the first part of it is authentic and the second part might be. But of this we are certain: the two parts have been spliced together. It is quoted in the following form:

    "No free man shall ever be de-barred the use of arms. 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."

The first sentence-- with the word "freeman" connected together into one word-- appears in Jefferson's first draft of a Constitution for the State of Virginia. The second sentence, however, DOES NOT appear with the first. It sounds a lot like Jefferson, but I have not been able to locate it. This quote is considered briefly under Gun Control.

The second sentence of the above quote was included in the December 1992 issue of Analog Magazine, which is a publication devoted mainly to science fiction. The original source was not listed. Although Analog is a reputable science fiction magazine, we could not, of course, accept it as an authoritative source for the writings of Thomas Jefferson. Moreover, it was quoted with a slight change of wording that, in fact, sounds a bit more like Jefferson:

    "The most important reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, if necessary, at last resort to protect themselves from tyranny in government."

All of this shows how easily quotations become altered and the importance of referring to verifiable sources for those quotations that claim Jefferson as their author.

  • Unequal People

An inquiry was forwarded to me concerning the following quotation attributed to Jefferson:

    "There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people."

The inquirer stated that she had seen it for years used in connection with the education of gifted children, it had always been attributed to Jefferson, but she was never able to verify that it was written by Jefferson. The earliest source seemed to be a judge in the 19th century who ascribed it to "a wise man who once said..." But it seems unlikely that the same man who inscribed those immortal words,

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

would have penned such a statement. Moreover, it is contradicted by so much that Jefferson DID write, that it appears highly doubtful that he would have entered into a discussion of the inequality of man in any way supportive thereof. In fact, many people have winced at the thought that Jefferson wrote that quote, and have been much relieved to discover that in all likelihood he did not. This reputed quotation is considered in greater detail under Educational Elitism.

  • A Man is Not a Man

A more difficult kind of question is a quote partially remembered. One enquiry concerned the following which was thought to be by Jefferson, but the enquirer was not sure:

    "Without... the possibility of choice, a man is not a man but... an instrument, a thing."

After much searching, it was impossible to verify this quote in an authentic source. When that happens, one is left only with conjecture. In my opinion, however, it just doesn't sound like Jefferson. Unfortunately, I have been wrong about this on other occasions. But I think that if Jefferson were going to express a thought in that vein, my sense of his manner of expression would suggest that he would always assume the natural entitlement to the spiritual freedom of man, and put any lessening of that in terms of a degradation due to some external tyranny, usually in the form of despotic government. The above quote seems too "psychological" for Jefferson in my view. As in the famous quote,

    "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774.

man always intrinsically possesses liberty (or choice) in Jefferson's expressions, but this liberty might be suppressed or destroyed by external force and tyranny. Hence, the idea of man "becoming" an "instrument or thing" as the result of any kind of condition seems to be slightly alien to his usual expression, in my estimate of his thought. Certainly, he spoke of the degradation of the people of a nation by their despotic rulers who
    "...keep them down by hard labor, poverty and ignorance, and... take from them, as from bees, so much of their earnings, as that unremitting labor shall be necessary to obtain a sufficient surplus to sustain a scanty and miserable life." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Johnson, 1823.

Such people are certainly treated as "instruments and things" by their masters, but they don't really "become" that because, as he wrote in the previous quote, life and liberty are inseparably joined together. Our entitlement to liberty cannot be taken away from our nature and we cannot "become disjoined" from our right to liberty.

It is difficult to believe that Jefferson would express thoughts in such a vein indicated by the questionable quote without making clear that our inherent and inalienable rights are forever immutable. Part of the problem may be that this is a partially remembered fragment. With the substitution or addition of a few words, it could easily be rendered into something that better agrees with Jefferson's political philosophy.

  • Eternal Vigilance

A very famous quote, often attributed to Jefferson is:

    "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

Indeed, this is a sentiment that is consonant with Jefferson's writings, and there are several genuine quotes that are similar to it. But Jefferson did not write it. Bartlett's "Familiar Quotations" credits it to John Philpot Curran, a contemporary of Jefferson. Bartlett's says it is "commonly quoted" as stated above. However, the original version is, in my opinion, much more interesting:

    "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."

Jefferson wrote the following, expressing approximately the same sentiments:

    "Lethargy [is] the forerunner of death to the public liberty." --Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 1787.

    "We, I hope, shall adhere to our republican government and keep it to its original principles by narrowly watching it." --Thomas Jefferson to ------, March 18, 1793. ME 9:45

    "I do most anxiously wish to see the highest degrees of education given to the higher degrees of genius and to all degrees of it, so much as may enable them to read and understand what is going on in the world and to keep their part of it going on right; for nothing can keep it right but their own vigilant and distrustful superintendence." --Thomas Jefferson to Mann Page, 1795. ME 9:306

Thus, it is easy to see how the quote in question might be attributed to Jefferson.

  • A Plethora of Probable Fakes

For a brief period recently, I tried policing the Newsgroups, using Deja News to identify any posting that quoted Jefferson. If one turned up that looked doubtful, I emailed the person who posted the quote, asking if they had a source and expressing my doubts. I got into a few very heated exchanges, but I also made a few friends. In at least one instance, I was able to supply the individual with some authentic quotes on the same topic as the dubious ones they were using in their signature.

One incident occurred, however, that is interesting and reveals how trustworthy one should consider quotations seen posted on the Newsgroups. This involved a young man who was apparently a student (I hoped not a faculty member) at a college in Virginia. He had used the following "Jefferson" quote in his signature:

    "The natural progress of things is for government to gain ground and liberty to yield."

It sounded familiar, but there was something not quite right about it. I checked it out, and the correct quote is as follows:

    "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground." (Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1788.)

I emailed him and pointed out that the phrases were reversed, and this distorted the meaning of the quote. His reply was that he preferred it that way, and he wasn't going to let me bully him into changing it! The lesson learned from this is, quotations taken from the Newsgroups are a very dubious source. Apparently, some persons are not at all embarrassed to post quotes that they know are incorrect.

This particular quote is quite misleading, because what Jefferson was saying was that when the people let their guard down--when liberty yields--government gains ground, and this is the natural progress of things. To reverse the phrases, however, is to put the blame on government, as though it were the sole initiating cause, not the laxity of We the people. This, of course, is consonant with the anti-government sentiment we see manifested so much today. But even after all this was pointed out to the young man, he stubbornly refused to correct the quotation.

A person really has to be careful in order to prevent error from slipping in unawares. I would estimate that as much as 50% of the quotes a person might see on the Newsgroups attributed to Jefferson are fakes. Below is a small collection I have gathered from various Newsgroups postings and Websites on the Internet.

Some religious people apparently do not hesitate to stretch things a little in order to put Jefferson on their side, as evidenced by the following, all attributed to Jefferson:

    "The reason that Christianity is the best friend of Government is because Christianity is the only religion that changes the heart." --[President Thomas Jefferson?]

    "The Bible is the cornerstone of liberty. Students' perusal of the sacred volume will make us better citizens."

    "The First Amendment has erected a wall of separation between church and state, but that wall is a one directional wall; it keeps the government from running the church, but it makes sure Christian principles will always stay in government." --[Thomas Jefferson? Jan 1, 1802, address to the Danbury Baptists?]

The last is the most surprising, because the Danbury letter is so famous and so readily available. (See Letter from Danbury Baptist Association and Jefferson's Reply) It is the source of the phrase, "wall of separation between church and state," and a moment's perusal will reveal that the above sentence is nowhere to be found therein. This sentence, which is not at all in the style of Jefferson, also suggests one way fake quotes probably come into being: They likely begin life as the comment of some critic who tries to explain away the genuine writings of Jefferson. This explanation is then picked up by someone else, mistakenly thinking it was written by Jefferson himself. And from there on, it has Jefferson's name affixed to it as the author.

There are also a series of quotes attributed to Jefferson that are in imitation of a genuine quote by Benjamin Franklin:

    "A nation that limits freedom in the name of security will have neither." --[Thomas Jefferson?]

    "Those who desire to give up Freedom in order to gain Security, will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." --[Thomas Jefferson?]

    "A society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will deserve neither and lose both." --[Thomas Jefferson?]

    "Those who desire to give up freedom in exchange for security will have, nor do they deserve, either one." --[Thomas Jefferson?]

That last one doesn't even make grammatical sense.

There are also a number of quotes found on the Internet that are highly doubtful, but difficult to rule out absolutely:

    "The end of democracy, and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of the lending institutions and moneyed incorporations." --[Thomas Jefferson?]

    "When man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property." --[Thomas Jefferson?], 1807.

    Thomas Jefferson once said: "...that the anarchist can stand free beside the President: that is the beauty of our democracy."

    "When the government fears the people, there is liberty; When the people fear the government, there is tyranny." --[Thomas Jefferson?]

The last is not quite Jefferson's style, but it certainly is his sentiment. The "public trust/public property" quote is cited as being in Rayner's Life of Jefferson (Boston, 1834. pg. 356). There is no source for it in any of the collections of Jefferson's writings, because it is related as a piece of conversation in a book of someone else's memoirs. The context makes the quote much more interesting, and also makes it sound more like something Jefferson would say. It can be read online in Chapter 32 of Rayner's Life of Jefferson. The story is that Baron von Humboldt visited President Jefferson in the White House and was shocked to see there a newspaper filled "with the most wanton abuse and licentious calumnies against the President." The Baron felt the fellow who wrotes such lies should be hung. But the President smiled and replied, "What! Hang the guardians of the public morals?" Then Jefferson went on to explain how this was an example of the extent of freedom in America. He then added,

    "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."

Finally, we are not sure the following were posted in all seriousness:

    "I have nothing but contempt for anyone who can spell a word only one way." --[Thomas Jefferson?]

    "I am a big believer in luck. The harder I work, the more I have." --[Thomas Jefferson?]

The last was from a posting on a Newsgroup related to gambling. I contacted the individual who posted it, and he assured me that he was serious, and had gotten the quote from a gambling magazine. It is not typical of Jefferson's writing, however. It may be genuine, but it does not have Jefferson's eloquence.

The conclusion from all this is, taking unattributed quotes off the Internet is a very risky business, and even some of the attributed ones are phonies. As for verifying a doubtful quote, probably the best way is to put a key phrase from the quote (surrounded by quotation marks) into Alta Vista or Infoseek, and see if it comes up with someone who uses it and provides a source. Eventually, the site, Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government, will contain every significant, quotable statement that Jefferson made on politics and government. When that happens, it will be possible to say that if it isn't listed there, it probably is not authentic.

  • Don't Bank On It!

A visitor to these Jefferson websites inquired about a source for the following quotation, said to be written by Jefferson:

    "If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks... will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered... The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs." --?Thomas Jefferson?

I have seen this quote before in some person's signature, suspected it was a fake, and was never able to find a source for it. It has certain phrases in it that are not consonant with Jefferson's genuine writings, in my opinion. Before analyzing the text itself, it would be helpful to examine a few quotes that are authentic Jefferson and are in somewhat the same vein.

    "Although we have so improvidently suffered the field of circulating medium to be filched from us by private individuals, yet I think we may recover it in part, and even in the whole, if the States will cooperate with us." . . "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." . . "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... which offers anything but cash in exchange for discounted bills." . . "No one has a natural right to the trade of a money lender, but he who has the money to lend. Let those 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." to John Eppes, 1813.

    "I am an enemy of all banks discounting bills or notes for anything but coin." to Thomas Cooper, 1814.

    "Shall we build an altar to the old paper money of the Revolution, which ruined individuals but saved the republic, and burn on that all the bank charters, present and future, and their notes with them? For these are to ruin both republic and individuals." to John Adams, 1814.

A comparison between authentic Jefferson quotes and the quote in question reveals these differences:

    1. Jefferson did not employ the concept of banks that "control the issue of... currency." Instead, Jefferson spoke against banks issuing discounted bills. Issuing discounted bills is the way the banks control the currency, but the conceptual terminology, "controlling the currency," was not typical of Jefferson.

    2. Jefferson did not speak in terms of the American people and their currency. Rather, he spoke of paper money vs. silver, and the "mass of circulating coin," "the circulating medium." His statements on banks were in terms of specific banking elements, not in terms of theoretical banking concepts, which seem not to have been that well-developed in his time.

    3. Jefferson did not address the problem of inflation and deflation, but rather that of the depreciation of the circulating coin. This is just about the same thing, but the point is, he did not use the former terminology, which describes a general economic effect.

Jefferson did write something approximating the quote in question.

    "The unlimited emission of bank paper has banished all [Great Britain's] specie, and is now, by a depreciation acknowledged by her own statesmen, carrying her rapidly to bankruptcy, as it did France, as it did us, and will do us again, and every country permitting paper to be circulated, other than that by public authority." to John W. Eppes, 1813.

But notice, whereas Jefferson expresses somewhat the same basic idea as the quote in question, his terminology and conceptual framework is entirely different. The disputed quote is phrased in later, more sophisticated economic concepts than Jefferson used. As with many of the other spurious quotations attributed to Jefferson, it is not possible to say absolutely that he could never have written this one. But all the evidence indicates that it was the product of a different time and a different mind.

  • Why?

Even in Jefferson's lifetime, spurious quotations were frequently attributed to him. So much so, that he once wrote to a friend:

    "So many persons have of late found an interest or a passion gratified by imputing to me sayings and writings which I never said or wrote, or by endeavoring to draw me into newspapers to harass me personally, that I have found it necessary for my quiet and my other pursuits to leave them in full possession of the field, and not to take the trouble of contradicting them even in private conversation." --Thomas Jefferson to Alexamder White, Sept. 10, 1797. (ME 9:424)

The difficulty in dealing with these reputed quotations today is the fact that it is almost impossible to prove a negative. The source of a real quote can always be cited, but a spurious one remains clouded in mystery. After all, one could claim that it once existed in some lost document and is only remembered because it was quoted by other persons who had seen it. And there are doubtless dozens of other possible explanations for unattributed quotes. The enormous reputation and the acknowledged wisdom of Jefferson may cause many to assume that he was the author of a quote that they, for whatever reason, particularly like. The best we can do when confronted by dubious quotes is to ask, "What is your source?" And if that question has no clear and reliable answer, it should be considered unauthentic until proven otherwise.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

The Jeffersonian Perspective: Top of This Page | Table of Contents | Front Page
Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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