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Thomas Jefferson
1743 - 1826

Third President of the U.S. (1801-1809). Jefferson was a successful plantation owner, a political activist, author of the American Declaration of Independence (1776), governor of Virginia (1779), minister to France (1785), Secretary of State (1790-1793) to George Washington, Vice President (1797-1801) to John Adams, and founder of the University of Virginia. As president he won the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and helped plan the Lewis and Clark expedition, but his greatest contributions had arguably already been made. Jefferson's shaping of the United States through his entrenchment in its founding documents of principles of individual liberty and restraint of government gave the U.S. a long head start against other nations, even those that had already existed for centuries.

Books by Thomas Jefferson
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Portable Thomas Jefferson, The (1977)
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Writings:Autobiography; A Summary View of the Rights of British America; Notes on the State of Virginia; Addresses, Messages, Letters (1984)
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Click here for essays by Thomas Jefferson
The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.

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.

widely cited as being from a letter to the Danbury Baptists, but it does not appear in that letter. See the quotation "Believing with you that religion..." etc. in the collection here on conservativeforum.org for the words Jefferson used.
Enlighten people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.

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.

Nov. 13, 1787 - from a letter to William S. Smith
No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free, no one ever will.

Sep. 9, 1792 - from a letter to George Washington
There is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talent.

Oct. 28, 1813 - from a letter to John Adams
[When] corruption... has prevailed in those offices [of]... government and so familiarized itself as that men otherwise honest could look on it without horror,... [then we must] be alive to the suppression of this odious practice and... bring to punishment and brand with eternal disgrace every man guilty of it, whatever be his station.

1804 - from a letter to W.C. Claiborne
The body of the American people is substantially republican. But their virtuous feelings have been played on by some fact with more fiction; they have been the dupes of artful maneuvers, and made for a moment to be willing instruments in forging chains for themselves. But times and truth dissipated the delusion, and opened their eyes.

1799 - from a letter to Thomas Lomax
... there is no act, however virtuous, for which ingenuity may not find some bad motive.

Apr. 19, 1803 - from a letter to Edward Dowse
Our particular principles of religion are a subject of accountability to our god alone. I enquire after no man's and trouble none with mine; nor is it given to us in this life to know whether yours or mine, our friend's or our foe's, are exactly the right.

Sep. 26, 1814 - from a letter to Miles King
Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education & free discussion are the antidotes of both.

Aug. 1, 1816 - from a letter to John Adams
Laws abridging the natural right of the citizen should be restrained by rigorous constructions within their narrowest limits.

1813 - from a letter to I. McPherson
It is to secure our rights that we resort to government at all.

1795 - from a letter to M. D'Ivernois
Information is the currency of democracy.

No longer persevere in sacrificing the rights of one part of the empire to the inordinate desires of another; but deal out to all equal and impartial right.

from A Summary View of the Rights of British America
I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.

Dec. 20, 1787 - in a letter to James Madison
Let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.

Mar. 4, 1801 - from his first Inaugural Address
Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.

Mar. 4, 1801 - from his first Inaugural Address
All, too, will 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.

Mar. 4, 1801 - from his first Inaugural Address
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 which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, so as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.

Jan. 30, 1787 - from a letter to James Madison
It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.

1782 - from Notes on the State of Virginia
Our liberty depends on freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.

Jan.28, 1786 - from a letter to James Currie
Do not bite at the bait of pleasure, till you know there is no hook beneath it.

Oct. 12, 1786 - from a letter
The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it always to be 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.

1787 - from a letter to Abigail Adams
An equal application of law to every condition of man is fundamental.

1807 - letter to George Hay
Most bad government has grown out of too much government.

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.

from The Thomas Jefferson Papers, C.J. Boyd, ed.
The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first.

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Jul. 4, 1776 - from the Declaration of Independence
I have no fear that the result of our experiment will be that men may be trusted to govern themselves without a master.

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.

1784 - from Notes on the State of Virginia
A bold, unequivocal virtue is the best handmaid even to ambition, and would carry [one] further, in the end, than [the pursuit of a] temporizing, wavering policy.

1789 - from a letter to John Jay
Were we directed from Washington when to sow, and when to reap, we should soon want bread.

from his autobiography
An elective despotism was not the government we fought for...

1784 - from Notes on the State of Virginia
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 through every change of ministers (administrations), too plainly proves a deliberate systematic plan of reducing us to slavery.

... it is not by the consolidation, or concentration of powers, but by their distribution, that good government is effected.

from his authobiography
Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.

1819 - from a letter to Nathaniel Macon
Nothing is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.

1824 - from a letter to John Cartwright
Lay down true principles and adhere to them inflexibly.

Jul. 12, 1816 - from a letter to Samuel Kercheval
Self-interest, or rather self-love, or egoism, has been more plausibly substituted as the basis of morality. But I consider our relations with others as constituting the boundaries of morality. With ourselves, we stand on the ground of identity, not of relation, which last, requiring two subjects, excludes self-love confined to a single one. To ourselves, in strict language, we can owe no duties, obligation requiring also two parties. Self-love, therefore, is no part of morality. Indeed, it is exactly its counterpart.

1814 - from a letter to Thomas Law
The time to guard against corruption and tyranny, is before they shall have gotten hold of us. It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold, than to trust to drawing his teeth and claws after he shall have entered.

1784 - from Notes on the State of Virginia
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.

It is always better to have no ideas than false ones; to believe nothing, than to believe what is wrong.

Jul. 19, 1788 - from a letter to James Madison
Shake off all fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.

Aug. 10, 1787 - from a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr
When principles are well understood, their application is less embarrassing.

1793 - from a letter to Gouverneur Morris
Without virtue, happiness cannot be.

1814 - from a letter to Amos Cook
Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?

1782 - from Notes on the State of Virginia
Man [is] a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights and with an innate sense of justice.

1823 - from a letter to William Johnson
The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.

Mar. 31, 1809 - from a speech to the Republican Citizens of Washington County, Maryland [March 31, 1809]
To unequal privileges among members of the same society the spirit of our nation is, with one accord, adverse.

1801 - from a letter to Hugh White
Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.

On every question of construction, 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.

Jun. 12, 1823 - from a letter to William Johnson
The policy of the American government is to leave their citizens free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits.

1787 - from a letter to M. L'Hommande
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.

The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer the truth than he whose mind is filled with errors and falsehood.

To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.

1779 - from Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which became a model for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.

Jan. 8, 1789 - from a letter to Richard Price
Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the Author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.

I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.

Dec. 23, 1791 - from a letter to Archibald Stuart
The question whether one generation has the right to bind another by the deficit it imposes is a question of such consequence as to place it among the fundamental principles of government. We should consider ourselves unauthorized to saddle posterity with our debts, and morally bound to pay them ourselves.

Fear can only prevail when victims are ignorant of the facts.

That government is strongest of which every man feels himself a part.

I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.

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.

Nov. 13, 1787 - from a letter to William S. Smith
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.

1778 - from A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge
Sometimes it is said that man cannot 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.

We must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude.

Jul. 12, 1816 - from a letter to Samuel Kercheval
... the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction...

1779 - from Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which became a model for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty.

If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or change its republican form, let them stand as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.

It is not enough that honest men are appointed Judges. All know the influence of interest on the mind of man, and how unconsciously his judgment is warped by that influence.

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

Sep. 23, 1800 - from a letter to Benjamin Rush
Principles conscientiously adopted [should] not be given up.

1793 - from The Anas
... when all government... in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the centre 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.

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

The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.

He who knows nothing is nearer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.

The care of every man's soul belongs to himself. But what if he neglect the care of it? Well what if he neglect the care of his health or his estate, which would more nearly relate to the state. Will the magistrate make a law that he not be poor or sick? Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills.

Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories.

Of liberty then 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.

On matters of style, swim with the current, on matters of principle, stand like a rock.

The public money and public liberty ... will soon be discovered to be sources of wealth and dominion to those who hold them...

1784 - from Notes on the State of Virginia
A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.

1774 - from Rights of British America
It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself to resist invasions of it in the case of others.

Natural rights [are] the objects for the protection of which society is formed and municipal laws established.

1797 - from a letter to James Munroe
The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.

Government big enough to supply everything you need is big enough to take everything you have ... The course of history shows that as a government grows, liberty decreases.

What is true of every member of the society, individually, is true of them all collectively; since the rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights of the individuals.

1789 - from a letter to James Madison
Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now.

1784 - from Notes on the State of Virginia
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

from a letter to Colonel Charles Yancey
Let me add that only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.

The principles on which we engaged, of which the charter of our independence is the record, were sanctioned by the laws of our being, and we but obeyed them in pursuing undeviatingly the course they called for. It issued finally in that inestimable state of freedom which alone can ensure to man the enjoyment of his equal rights.

1809 - from a speech to the Georgetown Republicans
Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day. But a series of oppressions, pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly proves a deliberate systematic plan of reducing us to slavery.

[We intend] 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 has earned. This is the sum of good government.

Mar. 04, 1801 - from his first Inaugural Address
In a republican nation whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of first importance.

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

1824 - from a letter to William Ludlow
Truth is the first object.

1809 - from a letter to Dr. Maese
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, & 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 & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

Jan. 1, 1802 - from a letter to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association
I know of 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 a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.

Sep. 28, 1820 - letter to William Charles Jarvis
When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.

The multiplication of public offices, increase of expense beyond income, growth and entailment of a public debt, are indicators soliciting the employment of the pruning knife.

from a letter to Spencer Roane
It is not by the consolidation, or concentration, of powers, but by their distribution that good government is effected.

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