spurious Jefferson quote #303

Posted on Mar 3, 2012

“When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” not Thomas Jefferson

It’s a powerful quote. And it carries a great deal of truth.

Surf the internets and you’ll soon find this quote, or close derivatives, attributed to Mr. Jefferson. But you can add this to the list of quotes erroneously attributed to Thomas Jefferson.

According to the amazing researchers at Monticello— who know more about spurious Jefferson quotes than anyone else— Jefferson never said this.

Nope, never.

The closest thing they could dig up was something Jefferson wrote in an 1825 letter to William Short, his former secretary and “adoptive son.” Jefferson wrote:

“Some are whigs, liberals, democrats, call them what you please. Others are tories, serviles, aristocrats, &c. The latter fear the people, and wish to transfer all power to the higher classes of society; the former consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them therefore, and wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competent.” (January 8, 1825)

Powerful words, but not exactly the same.

Jefferson’s observations to Short were in keeping with a sentiment he expressed privately and professional throughout his adult life, that the wealthy and privileged in America are not to be trusted with the power that they tend to have.

Even more importantly perhaps, that this power must be limited, checked, even bested, by the power of the masses of those less fortunate.

For Thomas Jefferson, if the health of a democratic republic is to be maintained over time, the authority of the mass of people must be strengthened at every opportunity— for the vitality of that authority of “the people” is in fact the very health of the democracy it aims to support.

One and the same.

As I wrote in my book Thomas Jefferson on Leadership, our goal as a free people “is not good government or even less government; not compassionate conservatism or enlightened liberalism; bipartisanship, profitable industries, peace in the streets, or democracy itself. No, those are not the goals. Our goal as a free people is the preservation and strengthening of individual human liberties— protecting everyone’s inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. All else— government, business or the law— is just a collection of tools we have developed to help us achieve those ends. And as Jefferson so wisely cautioned us, we must not confuse the two or sacrifice the end to the means.”

The researchers at Monticello have concluded that the quote “When governments fear the people…” — while Jefferson-esque— does not actually appear in the historic record until a full 88 years after Thomas Jefferson died.

In a 1914 public debate about socialism, publisher and author John Basil Barnhill was quoted as saying: “Where the people fear the government you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people you have liberty.”

A great line, to be sure.

But it’s a Barnhill.

Not a Jefferson.

Happy quoting—