Thomas Jefferson



To John Page
Paris, Fairfield 25, 1762

[R]ats will be rats.

And as for admiration, I am sure the man who powders most, perfumes most, embroiders most, and talks most nonsense, is most admired.


A Summary View of the Rights of British America (July, 1774)

That the exercise of a free trade with all parts of the world, possessed by the American colonists as of natural right, and which no law of their own had taken away or abridged, was next the object of unjust incroachment.

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 thro’ every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate, systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.

For the most trifling reasons, and sometimes for no conceivable reason at all, his majesty has rejected laws of the most salutary tendency.  The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state.  But previous to the infranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa.  Yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesty’s negative: thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few British corsairs to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature deeply wounded by this infamous practice.

The fictitious principle that all lands belong originally to the king, they were early persuaded to believe real, and accordingly took grants of their own lands from the crown.

That these are our grievances, which we have thus laid before his majesty with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people, claiming their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.


draft of report on Lord North’s motion 2 (July 25, 1775)

[W]hereas in truth our adversaries not only still claim a right of demanding ad libitum and of taxing us themselves to the full amount of their demands if we do not fulfil their pleasure, which leaves us without anything we can call property


Independence. Declaration of original Rough draught (Philadelphia: June 1776):

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.

[The present king of Great Britain] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers; is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.  determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

To Edmund Pendleton
Philadelphia, Aug. 13, 1776

The opinion that our lands were allodial possessions is one which I have very long held, and had in my eye during a pretty considerable part of my law reading which I found always strengthened it.

Are we not the better for what we have hitherto abolished of the feudal system?

To Edmund Pendleton
Philadelphia, Aug. 26, 1776

My reason for fixing them in office for a term of years rather than for life, was that they might have in idea that they were at a certain period to return into the mass of the people & become the governed instead of the governor which might still keep alive that regard to the public good that otherwise they might perhaps be induced by their independance to forget.

Whoever intends to live in a country…has a natural right of assisting in the preservation of it.

Punishments I know are necessary, & I would provide them, strict & inflexible, but proportioned to the crime.  Death might be inflicted for murther….  Rape, buggery &c—punish by castration.


To Giovanni Fabbroni
Williamsburgh in Virginia, June 8, 1778

This difference [in losses between British and American soldiers] is ascribed to our superiority in taking aim when we fire; every soldier in our army having been intimate with his gun from his infancy.


To James Monroe
Monticello, May 20, 1782

I have not the vanity to count myself among those whom the state would think worth oppressing with perpetual service.


Query 14 of Notes on the State of Virginia (Paris: 1784), 265:

To emancipate all slaves born after passing the act.  The bill reported by the revisors does not itself contain this proposition; but an amendment containing it was prepared, to be offered to the legislature whenever the bill should be taken up, and further directing, that they should continue with their parents to a certain age, then be brought up, at the public expence, to tillage, arts or sciences, according to their geniusses, till the females should be eighteen, and the males twenty-one years of age, when they should be colonized to such place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper, sending them out with arms, implements of houshold and of the handicraft arts, feeds, pairs of the useful domestic animals, &c. to declare them a free and independant people, and extend to them our alliance and protection, till they shall have acquired strength.

Query 18 of Notes on the State of Virginia (Paris: 1784), 289:

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us.  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 other.  Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal.  This quality is the germ of all education in him.  …  And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other.


To Edward Carrington
Paris, Jan. 16, 1787

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.

The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and 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.

I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under the European governments.  …  Among the latter, under pretence of governing they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves & sheep.  I do not exaggerate.  This is a true picture of Europe.

To James Madison
Paris, Jan. 30, 1787

[Those in power] may conclude too hastily that nature has formed man insusceptible of any other government but that of force, a conclusion not founded in truth, nor experience.

[G]overnments of force [are] government[s] of wolves over sheep.

Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietam servitutem.  Even this evil is productive of good.  …  I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, & as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.

Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietam servitutem” translates to “I prefer the tumult of liberty to the quiet of servitude“ (translation by Mike Lucido, 14 April 2009).

To Anne Willing Bingham
Paris, February 7, 1787

If we do not concur this year, we shall the next; or if not then, in a year or two more.  You see I am determined not to suppose myself mistaken.

To Abigail Adams
Paris, Feb. 22, 1787

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.  I like a little rebellion now and then.  It is like a storm in the Atmosphere.

To David Hartley
Paris, July 2, 1787

I have no fear, but that the result of our experiment will be, that men can be trusted to govern themselves without a master.  Could the contrary of this be proved, I should conclude, either that there is no God, or that he is a malevolent being.

To Edward Rutledge
Paris, July 14, 1787

I congratulate you, my dear friend, on the law of your state for suspending the importation of slaves, and for the glory you have justly acquired by endeavoring to prevent it forever.  This abomination must have an end, and there is a superior bench reserved in heaven for those who hasten it.

To William S. Smith
Paris, Nov. 13, 1787

What we have lately read in the history of Holland, in the chapter on the Stadtholder, would have sufficed to set me against a chief magistrate eligible for a long duration, if I had ever been disposed towards one: & what we have always read of the elections of Polish kings should have forever excluded the idea of one continuable for life.

Wonderful is the effect of imprudent & persevering lying.  The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers to repeat and model into every form lies about our being in anarchy, that the world has at length believed them…Yet where does this anarchy exist?  Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusetts?  And can history produce an instance of rebellion so honourably conducted?

God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.

[W]hat country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?  Let them take arms.  …  The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.  It is it’s natural manure.


To Jean Pierre Brissot de Warville
Paris, Feb. 11, 1788

[N]obody wishes more ardently to see an abolition not only of the trade but of the condition of slavery: and certainly nobody will be more willing to encounter every sacrifice for that object.

To Edward Carrington
Paris, May 27, 1788

The 2d amendment which appears to me essential is the restoring the principle of necessary rotation, particularly to the Senate & Presidency: but most of all to the last.  Re-eligibility makes him an officer for life, and the disastors inseparable from an elective monarchy, render it preferable, if we cannot tread back that step, that we should go forward & take refuge in an hereditary one.

The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, & government to gain ground.

[T]he whole residuary fabric vanishes into air & shews that paper is poverty, that it is only the ghost of money, & not money itself.


To James Madison
Paris, Sep. 6, 1789

[W]ith respect to future debts; would it not be wise and just for that nation to declare in the constitution they are forming that neither the legislature, nor the nation itself can validly contract more debt, than they may pay within their own age, or within the term of 19 years?  …  This would…bridle the spirit of war.


Opinion against the Constitutionality of a National Bank (February 15, 1791)

The incorporation of a bank, & the powers assumed by this bill, have not, in my opinion, been delegated to the U.S. by the Constitution.

[T]he power given to Congress by the Constitution, does not extend to the internal regulation of the commerce of a state (that is to say of the commerce between citizen & citizen) which remains exclusively with it’s own legislature; but to it’s external commerce only, that is to say, it’s commerce with another state, or with foreign nations or with the Indian tribes.

1. “to lay taxes to provide for the general welfare of the U.S.” that is to say “to lay taxes for the purpose of providing for the general welfare.”  for the laying of taxes is the power and the general welfare the purpose for which the power is to be exercised.  they are not to lay taxes ad libitum for any purpose they please but only to pay the debts or provide for the welfare of the Union.  in like manner they are not to do anything they please to provide for the general welfare, but only to lay taxes for that purpose. to consider the latter phrase, not as describing the purpose of the first, but as giving a distinct & independent power to do any act they please, which might be for the good of the Union, would render all the preceding & subsequent enumerations of power completely useless. it would reduce the whole instrument to a single phrase, that of instituting a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the U.S. and as they would be the sole judges of the good or evil, it would be also a power to do whatever evil they pleased.


To William Short
Philadelphia, Jan. 3, 1793

The little part above mentioned [the Hamiltonians] have espoused it [the constitution] only as a stepping stone to monarchy, and have endeavored to approximate it to that in it’s administration in order to render it’s final transition more easy.


Kentucky Resolutions of 1798

1. Resolved, That the several states composing the United States of America are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government; but that, by compact, under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States, and of amendments thereto, they constituted a general government for special purposes, delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving, each state to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government; and that whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force; that to this compact each state acceded as a state, and is an integral party; that this government, created by this compact, was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself, since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers; but that, as in all other cases of compact among powers having no common judge, each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress.

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.


Kentucky Resolutions of 1799

That the principle and construction, contended for by sundry of the state legislatures, that the general government is the exclusive judge of the extent of the powers delegated to it, stop nothing short of despotism—since the discretion of those who administer the government, and not the Constitution, would be the measure of their powers: That the several states who formed that instrument, being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of its infraction; and, That a nullification, by those sovereignties, of all unauthorized acts done under color of that instrument, is the rightful remedy.


First inaugural address
Washington D.C., Wednesday, March 4, 1801

All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle,…that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

Sometimes it is said that man can not 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.

[W]ith all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people?  Still one thing more, fellow-citizens—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.

[I]t is proper you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our Government…  Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies;…a jealous care of the right of election by the people—a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided;…the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid; the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected.


To messers Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut

Philadelphia, Jan. 3, 1802

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, 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.


To Edward Coles
Monticello, August 25, 1814

Your favour of July 31, was duly received, and was read with peculiar pleasure.  The sentiments breathed through the whole do honor to both the head and heart of the writer.  Mine on the subject of slavery of negroes have long since been in possession of the public, and time has only served to give them stronger root.  The love of justice and the love of country plead equally the cause of these people, and it is a moral reproach to us that they should have pleaded it so long in vain, and should have produced not a single effort, nay I fear not much serious willingness to relieve them & ourselves from our present condition of moral & political reprobation.

I had always hoped that the younger generation receiving their early impressions after the flame of liberty had been kindled in every breast, & had become as it were the vital spirit of every American, that the generous temperament of youth, analogous to the motion of their blood, and above the suggestions of avarice, would have sympathized with oppression wherever found, and proved their love of liberty beyond their own share of it.

Yet the hour of emancipation is advancing, in the march of time.  It will come.

This enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation.

[Emancipation is a] doctrine truly christian.


To Joseph C. Cabell
Monticello, February 2, 1816

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 functions he is competent to.

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, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or of the aristocrats of a Venetian senate.

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.  Where 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 everyday.

To John Taylor
Monticello, May 28, 1816

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

To Samuel Kercheval
Monticello, July 12, 1816

But it will be said, it is easier to find faults than to amend them.  I do not think their amendment so difficult as is pretended.  Only lay down true principles, and adhere to them inflexibly.

The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen, in his person and property, and in their management.

Submit [legislators] to approbation or rejection at short intervals.  Let the executives be chosen in the same way, and for the same term, by those whose agent he is to be; and leave no screen of a council behind which to skulk from responsibility.

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 them exclusively.

We should thus marshal our government into, 1, the general federal republic, for all concerns foreign and federal; 2, that of the State, for what relates to our own citizens exclusively; 3, the county republics, for the duties and concerns of the country; and 4, the ward republics, for the small, and yet numerous and interesting concerns of the neighborhood; and in government, as well as in every other business of life, it is by division and subdivision of duties alone, that all matters, great and small, can be managed to perfection.  And the whole is cemented by giving to every citizen, personally, a part in the administration of the public affairs.

The sum of these amendments is, 1. General Suffrage.  2. Equal representation in the legislature.  3. An executive chosen by the people.  4. Judges elective or removable.  5. Justices, jurors, and sheriffs elective.  6. Ward divisions.  And 7. Periodic amendments of the constitution.

[T]o preserve [the people’s] independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt.  We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude.  If we run into such debts, as that we must be taxed in our meat and in our drink, in our necessaries and our comforts, in our labors and our amusements, for our callings and our creeds, as the people of England are, our people, like them, must come to labor sixteen hours in the twenty-four, give the earnings of fifteen of these to the government for their debts and daily expenses; and the sixteenth being insufficient to afford us bread, we must live, as they now do, on oatmeal and potatoes; have no time to think, no means of calling the mismanagers to account; but be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow-sufferers.

A departure from principle in one instance becomes a precedent for a second; that second for a third; and so on, till the bulk of the society is reduced to be mere automatons of misery, and to have no sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering.  Then begins, indeed, the bellum omnium in omnia, which some philosophers observing to be so general in this world, have mistaken it for the natural, instead of the abusive state of man. And the fore horse of this frightful team is public debt.  Taxation follows that, and in its train wretchedness and oppression.

[T]he dead have no rights.  They are nothing; and nothing cannot own something.


To Justice William Johnson
June 12, 1823

We [the Republicans] believed, with them [the people], that man was a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights and with an innate sense of justice.

We believed that men enjoying in ease and security the full fruits of their own industry, enlisted by all their interests on the side of law and order, habituated to think for themselves and to follow their reason as their guide, would be more easily and safely governed than with minds nourished in error and vitiated and debased, as in Europe, by ignorance, indigence, and oppression.  The cherishment of the people, then, was our principle, the fear and distrust of them that of the other party [the Federalists].


To Major John Cartwright
Monticello, June 5, 1824

With respect to our State and federal governments, I do not think their relations correctly understood by foreigners.  They generally suppose the former subordinate to the latter.  But this is not the case.  They are co-ordinate departments of one simple and integral whole.  To the State governments are reserved all legislation and administration, in affairs which concern their own citizens only, and to the federal government is given whatever concerns foreigners, or the citizens of other States; these functions alone being made federal.  The one is the domestic, the other the foreign branch of the same government; neither having control over the other, but within its own department.

Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.

To William Ludlow
Monticello, September 6, 1824

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


To Thomas Jefferson Smith
Monticello, February 21, 1825

Never spend your money before you have it.

To Miss Frances Wright
August 7, 1825

The abolition of the evil [of slavery] is not impossible; it ought never therefore to be despaired of.  Every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards the ultimate object.


Thomas Jefferson’s self-written epitaph
July 4, 1826

Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.  Born April 2 1743 Died July 4 1826.


In To Robert Skip with a List of Books (Monticello: Aug. 3, 1771), Jefferson lists a number of books worth reading.  Along with the list, he provides some commentary on literature and virtue.

On page 271 of Notes on the State of Virginia (Paris: 1784), Jefferson expresses a belief in evolution making classes of beings “distinct by time and circumstance.”  Unfortunately, this is surrounded by some rather racist suppositions about blacks, and a call for the non-mixing of the races.

In the Ordinance of 1784, Jefferson provided “That after the year 1800 of the Christian era, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states, otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been convicted the have been personally guilty.”  Unfortunately, Congress deleted this section.

In To James Madison (Fontainebleau: Oct. 28, 1785), Jefferson muses on the passage of property from those who die to further generations.  His thoughts are not very developed, and are in my opinion wanting.

In To Diodati (Paris: August 3, 1789), Jefferson discusses the various decisions being made and goals being aimed at in the concurrent French Revolution, and muses optimistically of success.

Jefferson, in To James Madison (Paris: Sep. 6, 1789), presents his perspective on the natural limit to public debts and the restraints of laws.

Jefferson discusses the idea of splitting the counties into wards and radically localising power in To John Tyler (Monticello: May 26, 1810), To Joseph C. Cabell (Monticello: February 2, 1816), and To Samuel Kercheval (Monticello: July 12, 1816).

In To John Taylor (Monticello: May 28, 1816), Jefferson praises Taylor’s book and describes his own view of a republic.