Thomas Jefferson has been romanticized by many on the Right—such as Libertarians, Ancaps, Tea-partiers, et cetera—as a mythologized hero of small government and guns. They frequently quote Jefferson in their memes to give their arguments more weight than their reasoning warrants. However, the real Jefferson didn’t mind big government so much as monarchy. And many of the quotes of his they use are either completely fake, or—when taken out of the historical context—lose their original meaning almost entirely.
Misused & Spurious Quotes
One of the quotes that the modern small government crowd uses from Jefferson is the one where he says “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Later in the same letter, however, he admitted to being hyperbolic and spinning his own wheels because of a lack of new information to talk about. Jefferson said, “The want of facts worth communicating to you has occasioned me to give a little loose to dissertation. We must be contented to amuse, when we cannot inform.”
Another so-called quote people link to Jefferson is actually nowhere in his own writings, and didn’t appear anywhere until the late 20th century: “Tyranny is defined as that which is legal for the government but illegal for the citizenry.” At Monticello.org this quote is filed under Spurious Quotations. It is no surprise that it is fake because it doesn’t even make sense. Government officials can break laws, just like citizens, but it is still illegal for them to have broken them. And after breaking a law, having mountains of money will keep you out of jail a lot more than merely being in the government.
And many more…
- “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” It is a nice sentiment, but it is a fake. It didn’t appear in any of Jefferson’s writings, and didn’t appear anywhere until 2005.
- “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.” Not said by Jefferson. It was first in a John Sharp Williams speech about Jefferson around 1913, and it was likely later misquoted as Jefferson rather than Williams talking about Jefferson.
- “The beauty of the Second Amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it.” Nowhere until 2007.
- “A government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have.” Nowhere until 1952.
- “If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.” This often quoted fabrication too, never appeared anywhere in Jefferson’s writings.
- “The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” This is a fake quote as well, but it is apparently usually preceded by something Jefferson did write in the draft of the Virginia Constitution: “No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms.” Lies are easier to swallow with a sprinkle of truth it seems.
- “That government is best which governs the least.” It is nowhere in Jefferson’s writings, and it didn’t appear until 11 years after his death. This is one of the false Jefferson quotes I see the most.
- “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 prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed one.” This isn’t Jefferson, it is from a translation of Cesare Beccaria’s Essay on Crimes and Punishments.
Even I didn’t realize so many of these were fake quotes, but after I saw several that were nowhere in the biographies I’ve read of the founding fathers (including Jefferson), my suspicions were raised. Based on what appears on social media, it looks like Jefferson is falsely quoted as much as actually quoted.
The Real Jefferson
Jefferson was much less against a strong centralized government than people believe. Thomas Jefferson biographer and historian Jon Meacham points out that Jefferson “feared monarchy or dictatorship, which is different from fearing a strong national government…”
“…One of the terms he used to describe his opponents—‘monocrats’—is telling, for the word means government by the one. Jefferson fretted over the prospect of the return of a king in some form, either as an immensely powerful president unchecked by the Constitution of 1787 or in a more explicitly monarchical or dictatorial role. He did not oppose the wielding of power. He was a good-hearted, fair-minded student of how best to accumulate it and use it... [Jefferson said] ‘We were educated in royalism: no wonder if some of us retain that idolatry still.’”
Rather than being opposed to the government exercising its power, he actually encouraged it (if the person exercising it shared his ideas). While he was a representative under the Articles of Confederation, Jefferson wrote to James Madison,
“There never will never be money in the treasury till the confederacy shows its teeth. The states must see the rod; perhaps it must be felt by some of them.”
Jefferson had no issue with bending or breaking his own rules if he felt the time called for it. When governor of Virginia 1779-1781, Jefferson drafted a bill of attainder, which was essentially an automatic conviction, for a war criminal named Josiah Philips. He was violating the very principles of the Declaration of Independence he wrote in order to do what he felt was necessary.
In Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Jon Meacham says of Jefferson while he was Vice President…
“He [Jefferson] was always in favor of whatever means would improve the chances of his cause of the hour. When he was a member of the Confederation Congress, he wanted the Confederation Congress to be respected. When he was a governor, he wanted strong gubernatorial powers. Now that he disagreed with the federal government (although an officer of that government), he wanted the states to have the ability to exert control and bring about the end he favored… He would do what it took, within reason, to arrange the world as he wanted it to be.”
Jefferson was a pragmatist. Like most people of today and the rest of American history, if the federal government is doing what you want, you are for a strong federal government, if it is doing something you don’t like, you are for states rights.
When Jefferson made his move on the Louisiana Purchase, he was exercising extreme executive power. About this, Meacham says “Jefferson’s decision to acquire Louisiana without seeking a constitutional amendment expanded the powers of the executive in ways that would likely have driven Jefferson to distraction had another man been president… He did what had to be done to preserve the possibility of republicanism and progress. Things were neat only in theory.”Even the Federalists, the people Jefferson thought were likely to restore a monarchy, were amazed at the fearless extravagance which Jefferson exercised executive power. Federalist Gouverneur Morris said to a friend, “The [Republicans] have, as I expected, done more to strengthen the executive than Federalists dared think of even in Washington’s day.”Jefferson’s belief in a strong federal government didn’t wane is his older years either. In 1814 he wrote to his friend John Wayles Eppes…
“…No government can be maintained without the principle of fear as well as duty. Good men will obey the last, but bad ones the former only.”
I don’t say any of these things to imply Jefferson was a hypocrite; he was a pragmatist and a patriot. He was a real person with real flaws like everybody else. Jefferson himself, however, would have despised the romanticization and deification of those from his times. The Enlightenment thinker that he was would have hated people trying to substitute solid evidence and reason for his historical name. An actual quote of his goes as follows:
“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc 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… but I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind… 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 regiment of their barbarous ancestors.”
His true values can probably be best summarized with what he chose to put on his own grave stone: Here was buried, Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia But the real moral of this story is to get your quotations from history books (or the primary sources) rather than blogs.