Thomas Jefferson warnings about big government

The following are some quotations attributed to Thomas Jefferson.  We would do well to keep them in mind, as they are quite instructive as to the direction of the federal government, and particularly the Obama administration and its pursuit of socialized medicine.

“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.”

“A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men 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.”

“Experience hath shown, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”

“It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.”

“My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.”

“That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves.”

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

“Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we should soon want bread.”

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

“To preserve our 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.”

“There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.”

“Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single government. Public servants at such a distance, and from under the eye of their constituents, must, from the circumstance of distance, be unable to administer and overlook all the details necessary for the good government of the citizens; and the same circumstance, by rendering detection impossible to their constituents, will invite public agents to corruption, plunder and waste.”

Food for thought.

Updated: November 20, 2009 — 3:41 pm


  1. The Jefferson quotes are interesting, and useful if taken in context.

    For instance, the “pay its own debts as it goes” quotation was in a letter to Destutt de Tracy, concerning the University of Virginia, which Jefferson considered his “hobby”, This was written in 1820. Before FDR was president, though, mortgages weren’t amortized. They were written for a year at a time. At the end of the year, you couldn’t pay it off, so you’d pay the interest, offer something towards the principle, and ask the lender to roll over the rest. Given that a generation is 20 years, if you read Jefferson’s words without understanding the context, you’d think that he thought 30-year mortgages to be immoral. In fact, 99-year commercial leases were not uncommon in Jefferson’s time, and he had no problem with them, even though neither lessor nor lessee would be alive in 99 years.

    The quotation about “when to sow and when to reap” comes from his biography, written in 1821. He wasn’t asserting that government should limit its functionality in this quotation; he was pointing out that the country was divided into states, states into counties, counties into townships or wards, and townships into farms. When it’s time to plant corn in Iowa, it’s too early in Minnesota, and it’s getting a late start in Mississippi. It’s not an indictment of “big government” as we think of the term, but of “inflexible” government.

    Often when I see quotations, I quickly discover that they weren’t written by the author to whom they are attributed. In this case, the ones I checked are Jefferson’s. A photo of that letter is available at the Library of Congress site, and his autobiography is available for free download as well. We do, however, need to look at the full context to understand what Jefferson was saying.

  2. Well, we get the government we want and vote for.

    We must now live with that. Thomas is not around to help.

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