Happy Constitution Day!
While we’re on the subject of writings that are frequently decontextualized in order to suit partisan opportunistic gains, many of the “quotes” frequently attributed to Thomas Jefferson — a guy who had a hand in the constitution — are total nonsense.
Luckily, the good people at Monticello have pored through T.J.’s writings to try to demonstrate that a lot of these spurious quotes are straight up made up.
So if you’ve got these on your Facebook wall, twitter bio, or god forbid a tattoo, you might want to reconsider.
1. “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.”
This is from a John Sharp Williams speech about Jefferson. Sorry, libertarians.
2. “The beauty of the Second Amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it.”
There is no evidence Jefferson ever said this.
3. “The Bible is the source of liberty”
Nope. Jefferson actually re-wrote the Bible one time, so it’s not clear why people would think this is a real quote.
4. “The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”
This “Jefferson quote” first appeared in 1986, slightly after Jefferson’s death in, oh, 1826.
5. “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”
While an accurate interpretation of Jefferson’s opinions on education, the origin of this “quote” is an article on PickTheBusiness.com. The Internet was not available to Jefferson nor any of his contemporaries, as far as we know.
6. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
There is no evidence that Jefferson ever said this. Frederick Douglass, James Buchanan, and William Henry Harrison all did say it, though.
7. “A government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have.”
This quote first appeared in print in 1953. The quote was not attributed to Jefferson until recently.
8. “I would rather be judged by 12 farmers than 12 scholars.”
The quote has not appeared in any writings by Jefferson. It was attributed to T.J. by Glenn Beck in a December, 2009 appearance on The Jay Leno Show.
9. “Sir, no nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man, and I as chief magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example.”
Yeah, no, Jefferson probably never said this. It was a tertiary anecdote from the Reverend Ethan Allen, essentially the email forwards of the 19th century. Its authenticity is highly questionable.
10. “Yes, we did produce a near-perfect republic. But will they keep it? Or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memory of freedom? Material abundance without character is the path of destruction.”
This is most likely cobbled together from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
11. “Information is the currency of democracy.”
12. “If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their Fathers conquered…I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies… The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs.”
No, Thomas Jefferson did not predict the recession and blame it on the Fed. While Jefferson wasn’t a fan of central banking by any stretch, these are all spurious and have no evidence to back them up. “Inflation” and “Deflation” were not words used until after Jefferson’s lifetime.
13. “Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see.”
Thomas Jefferson absolutely grew hemp, but he didn’t even smoke tobacco. Sorry, people trying to legalise it.
14. “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.”
Never said it! First appeared in print in 1989.
15. “I have examined all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology.”
Sorry, /r/Atheism. Never said it.
16. “That government is best which governs least”
17. “Those who hammer their guns into plows will plow for those who do not.”
There’s no evidence this was ever said.
“When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.“
It’s from a 1946 West coast folklore book. Jefferson may have said many things that could go on motivational posters, this is not one of them.
19. “Without God, liberty will not last.”
This came from a 1996 article by Thomas G. West. Not Jefferson.
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