Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson quotes

Quotes by and about Thomas Jefferson

(Continued from his main entry on the site.)

Jefferson: "Of all machines, the human heart is the most complicated and inexplicable."

Jefferson: "To fortify our minds against ... calamities [we must] assume a perfect resignation to the Divine will."

Jefferson: "The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest."

Jefferson: "Self-love ... is no part of morality. Indeed it is exactly its counterpart."

Jefferson: "I am really mortified to be told that ... a [blasphemous] book can be carried before the [U.S. Courts]. ... It is an insult to ... religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason."

[Letter to John Adams after his wife's death:]
Jefferson: "I know well, and feel what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure. The same trials have taught me that for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medicines. I will not, therefore, by useless condolences, open afresh the sluices of your grief, nor, although mingling sincerely my tears with yours, will I say a word more where words are vain."

Jefferson: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."

Jefferson: "I have the consolation to reflect that during the period of my administration not a drop of the blood of a single fellow citizen was shed by the sword of war or of the law."

Jefferson: "St. Paul was the first corruptor of the teachings of Jesus."

Abraham Lincoln: "The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. ... All honor to Jefferson."

Woodrow Wilson: "Thomas Jefferson was a great leader of men because he understood and interpreted the spirits of men."

[At a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners:]
John F. Kennedy: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

Richard Brookhiser: "Jefferson was a prophet snatching up any new idea that caught his eye."

Richard Brookhiser: "Jefferson liked to tease Madison that Madison's teacher at Princeton had thought him 'perfectly proper.'"

Richard Brookhiser: "Madison and Jefferson compiled a list of books for a library of congress; 1400 volumes from Aristotle to Voltaire. But Congress would not make the investment."

Roderick Graham: "Due to Hume's atheism ... Jefferson would purposefully avoid reading Hume."


On the benefits of reading fiction

Jefferson: "The entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant. That they are pleasant when well written every person feels who reads. But wherein is its utility asks the reverend sage, big with the notion that nothing can be useful but the learned lumber of Greek and Roman reading with which his head is stored?

I answer, everything is useful which contributes to fix in the principles and practices of virtue. When any original act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deeply impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also. On the contrary when we see or read of any atrocious deed, we are disgusted with its deformity, and conceive an abhorence of vice.

Now every emotion of this kind is an exercise of our virtuous dispositions, and dispositions of the mind, like limbs of the body acquire strength by exercise. But exercise produces habit, and in the instance of which we speak the exercise being of the moral feelings produces a habit of thinking and acting virtuously. ...

The field of imagination is thus laid open to our use and lessons may be formed to illustrate and carry home to the heart every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that ever were written."


[Asked about his silence in Congress:]
Jefferson: "In general I [am] willing to listen. If every sound argument or objection [is] used by [someone else], it [is] enough: if not, I [think] it sufficient to suggest the omission, without going into a repetition of what [has] been already said by others."

Jefferson: "I am among those who think well of the human character generally. I consider man as formed for society, and endowed by nature with those dispositions which fit him for society. ... I believe also ... that his mind is perfectible to a degree of which we cannot as yet form any conception."

Jefferson: "To preserve the freedom of the human mind then and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will, and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement."

Jefferson: "The Count de Vergennes had the reputation with the diplomatic corps of being wary and slippery in his diplomatic intercourse; and so he might be with those whom he knew to be slippery and double-faced themselves. As he saw that I had no indirect views, practised no subtleties, meddled in no intrigues, pursued no concealed object, I found him as frank, as honorable, as easy of access to reason as any man with whom I had ever done business."

Jefferson: "I do not charge [anyone] with wilful and ill-intentioned error; but honest error must be arrested where its toleration leads to public ruin."

[On attending the opening of the States General in 1789:]
Jefferson: "I felt it very interesting to understand the views of the parties of which it was composed, and especially the ideas prevalent as to the organization contemplated for their government. I went therefore daily from Paris to Versailles, and attended their debates, generally till the hour of adjournment."


On France

Jefferson: "I cannot leave this great and good country without expressing my sense of its preeminence of character among the nations of the earth. A more benevolent people, I have never known, nor greater warmth and devotedness in their select friendships. Their kindness and accommodation to strangers is unparalleled, and the hospitality of Paris is beyond anything I had conceived to be practicable in a large city. Their eminence too in science, the communicative dispositions of their scientific men, the politeness of the general manners, the ease and vivacity of their conversation, give a charm to their society to be found nowhere else.

In a comparison of this with other countries we have the proof of primacy, which was given to Themistocles after the battle of Salamis. Every general voted to himself the first reward of valor, and the second to Themistocles. So ask the travelled inhabitant of any nation, In what country on earth would you rather live? - Certainly in my own, where are all my friends, my relations, and the earliest and sweetest affections and recollections of my life. Which would be your second choice? France."


Jefferson: "The discussions began at the hour of four, and were continued till ten o'clock in the evening; during which time I was a silent witness to a coolness and candor of argument unusual in the conflicts of political opinion; to a logical reasoning, and chaste eloquence, disfigured by no gaudy tinsel of rhetoric or declamation, and truly worthy of being placed in parallel with the finest dialogues of antiquity, as handed to us by Xenophon, by Plato and Cicero."

Jefferson: "I always was of opinion that the placing a youth to study with an attorney was rather a prejudice than a help. we are all too apt by shifting on them our business, to incroach on that time which should be devoted to their studies. The only help a youth wants is to be directed what books to read, and in what order to read them."

Jefferson: "There may be people to whose tempers and dispositions contention is pleasing, and who, therefore, wish a continuance of confusion, but to me it is of all states but one, the most horrid. My first wish is a restoration of our just rights; my second, a return of the happy period, when, consistently with duty, I may withdraw myself totally from the public stage, and pass the rest of my days in domestic ease and tranquillity, banishing every desire of ever hearing what passes in the world."

Jefferson: "Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. ... With hearts fortified ... we most solemnly, before God and the world, declare that... we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverence, employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves."

Jefferson: "Above all things, lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, courageous, etc. Consider every act of this kind as an exercise which will strengthen your moral faculties and increase your worth."

Jefferson: "It is rare that the public sentiment decides immorally or unwisely, and the individual who differs from it ought to distrust and examine well his own opinion."

Jefferson: "If we do not learn to sacrifice small differences of opinion, we can never act together. Every man cannot have his way in all things. If his own opinion prevails at some times, he should acquiesce on seeing that of others preponderate at others. Without this mutual disposition we are disjointed individuals, but not a society. ... The greatest good we can do our country is to heal its party divisions and make them one people."

Jefferson: "[Jesus's] moral doctrines ... were more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids."

Jefferson: "The old fellows say we must read to gain knowledge, and gain knowledge to make us happy and admired. Mere jargon! Is there any such thing as happiness in this world? No. And as for admiration, I am sure the man who powders most, perfumes most, embroiders most, and talks most nonsense, is most admired. Though to be candid, there are some who have too much good sense to esteem such monkey-like animals as these, in whose formation, as the saying is, the tailors and barbers go halves with God Almighty; and since these are the only persons whose esteem is worth a wish, I do not know but that, upon the whole, the advice of these old fellows may be worth following."


On the downfall of the French monarchy

Jefferson: "And here again was lost another precious occasion of sparing to France the crimes and cruelties thro' which she has since passed. ... The king was now become a passive machine in the hands of the National assembly, and had he been left to himself, he would have willingly acquiesced in whatever they should devise as best for the nation. A wise constitution would have been formed, hereditary in his line, himself placed at its head, with powers so large as to enable him to do all the good of his station, and so limited as to restrain him from its abuse. This he would have faithfully administered, and more than this I do not believe he ever wished.

But he had a Queen of absolute sway over his weak mind, and timid virtue; and of a character the reverse of his in all points. This angel, as gaudily painted in the rhapsodies of the Rhetor Burke, with some smartness of fancy, but no sound sense was proud, disdainful of restraint, indignant at all obstacles to her will, eager in the pursuit of pleasure, and firm enough to hold to her desires, or perish in their wreck. Her inordinate gambling and dissipations, with those of the Count d'Artois and others of her clique, had been a sensible item in the exhaustion of the treasury, which called into action the reforming hand of the nation; and her opposition to it her inflexible perverseness, and dauntless spirit, led herself to the Guillotine, and drew the king on with her, and plunged the world into crimes and calamities which will forever stain the pages of modern history.

I have ever believed that had there been no queen, there would have been no revolution. No force would have been provoked nor exercised. The king would have gone hand in hand with the wisdom of his sounder counsellors, who, guided by the increased lights of the age, wished only, with the same pace, to advance the principles of their social institution.

The deed which closed the mortal course of these sovereigns, I shall neither approve nor condemn. I am not prepared to say that the first magistrate of a nation cannot commit treason against his country, or is unamenable to its punishment: nor yet that where there is no written law, no regulated tribunal, there is not a law in our hearts, and a power in our hands, given for righteous employment in maintaining right, and redressing wrong.

Of those who judged the king, many thought him wilfully criminal, many that his existence would keep the nation in perpetual conflict with the horde of kings, who would war against a regeneration which might come home to themselves, and that it were better that one should die than all. I should not have voted with this portion of the legislature. I should have shut up the Queen in a Convent, putting harm out of her power, and placed the king in his station, investing him with limited powers, which I verily believe he would have honestly exercised, according to the measure of his understanding. In this way no void would have been created, courting the usurpation of a military adventurer, nor occasion given for those enormities which demoralized the nations of the world, and destroyed, and is yet to destroy millions and millions of its inhabitants.

There are three epochs in history signalized by the total extinction of national morality. The first was of the successors of Alexander, not omitting himself. The next the successors of the first Caesar, the third our own age. This was begun by the partition of Poland, followed by that of the treaty of Pilnitz; next the conflagration of Copenhagen; then the enormities of Bonaparte partitioning the earth at his will, and devastating it with fire and sword; now the conspiracy of kings, the successors of Bonaparte, blasphemously calling themselves the Holy Alliance, and treading in the footsteps of their incarcerated leader, not yet indeed usurping the government of other nations avowedly and in detail, but controlling by their armies the forms in which they will permit them to be governed; and reserving in petto the order and extent of the usurpations further meditated. But I will return from a digression, anticipated too in time, into which I have been led by reflection on the criminal passions which refused to the world a favorable occasion of saving it from the afflictions it has since suffered."


Joseph J. Ellis: "Diplomatic demeanor ... came so naturally to him."

Joseph J. Ellis: "Jefferson [had an] elusive personality."

Joseph J. Ellis: "Jefferson could afford to emphasize the broadest contours of a political problem because Madison was ... handling the messier specifics."

Joseph J. Ellis: "[In political struggles] Jefferson [remained] behind the scenes and above the fray."

Joseph J. Ellis: "Jefferson ... found political infighting ... offensive."

Joseph J. Ellis: "[In their relationship] Madison had intelligence [while] Jefferson was the psychological superior."

John Quincy Adams: "[Jefferson was] a man of ... pleasing manners."

Joseph J. Ellis: "[Jefferson's] view of ... politics ... was ... moralistic in tone and populated with clearly delineated villains and heroes."

Joseph J. Ellis: "Hamilton's mind projected relentless energy rather than Jeffersonian serenity."

Joseph J. Ellis: "Jefferson's disappointments occurred when reality failed to measure up to his expectations."