Jefferson Said What? ~ Neil Alexander

Via elephant journal
on Feb 27, 2013
get elephant's newsletter


People who think they are quoting Thomas Jefferson are far too often deceived.

“The problem with quotes on the Internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity”

~ Abraham Lincoln

Reading through the recent posts of an online political forum, I noted where one of the participants asserted: “Schools should teach real history.” He then followed this statement with a completely contrived Thomas Jefferson “quote.”

Since the December 14th Newtown school shootings, the internet has once again been flooded with a host of such quotes, often alleged to have come from one or another of the founding fathers, and which conveniently support current popular interpretations of the second amendment. Certainly one can’t help but wonder what such historical figures as Jefferson, Washington, Adams and Franklin would have thought about the tragedy.

The only problem with the quotes being freely passed around is that too many have the same singular distinguishing trait: They are wholly fictitious.

Apocryphal quotes misattributed to the founders have been used as supportive commentary to the arguments surrounding all sorts of contemporary issues, the role of the second amendment no less and often more so than others.

Thomas Jefferson may be the most misquoted man on the internet. The many statements misattributed to him range from the plainly false to the patently fantastic. A number of these have been debunked by such sites as and

On the issue of Jefferson, I generally defer to They are a site without an agenda beyond that of promoting Monticello VA, the location of Jefferson’s principal residence from 1770 until his death there in 1826, and with portraying an accurate representation of our third president.

Here is a ubiquitous Jefferson quote on the internet commonly used to justify widespread gun ownership:

“When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. 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.”

Jefferson never said it.

According to this quote first appeared in 1914 and was subsequently attributed to Jefferson much later, in the 1990s.

Statements of this sort depend on what is often called “The Insurrectionary Theory of the Second Amendment,” which represents the second amendment as having been put in place to protect us from our own government.

However that theory doesn’t make sense on several grounds. In brief, anyone who believes that the constitution gives its citizens the right to rebel against their own government needs to go back to that same document and reread Article III, Section 3, Clause 1, which defines treason and gives Congress the power to declare punishment. You don’t criminalize a behavior in one part of the constitution and then enthusiastically endorse it in another.

More to the point, the overriding concern for the drafters of the constitution was in the survival of their newly born nation, not in providing for its eventual destruction. This fraudulent quote is merely another example of countless efforts to superimpose 21st century concerns on 18th century concepts.

Another popular alleged Jefferson quote being circulated:

“You will not need the second amendment until they try to take it away.”

Seems to be perfectly clear, succinct and to the point. However, it’s not in any of Jefferson’s speeches or writing, including his many letters. can’t find it appearing anywhere at all until 2007.

Here is a small sampling of the many false quotes attributed to Jefferson, which all too conveniently address contemporary controversies:

“Government that is big enough to give everything you need and want is also strong enough to take it away.”

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

“Those who hammer their guns into plows will plow for those who do not.”


And so on. Not a single one of these reportedly Jefferson quotes is legitimate, nor did they originate with any of the other figures of his time. And yet I have seen people happily declare themselves to be “Jeffersonians” on the basis of their enchantment with a manufactured quote that they came across on the internet and never questioned, never verified.

A long list of false quotes misattributed to Jefferson can be found at

We really have no way of conceiving what Jefferson or any of the several other frequently misquoted founding fathers would have to say about the Newtown school shootings. We can justifiably assume they would be horrified. Would they call for more firearms in our increasingly gun soaked society, would they believe that you can prevent a pot from boiling over by adding more hot water? We will never know.

Revisionism is no way to deal with history. You don’t honor the founders by planting falsehoods in the mouths of dead men.

Because I agree: “Schools should teach real history.” And so should the rest of us.


NeilAlexander Neil Alexander is a professional magician, a Tai Chi enthusiast and occasional Tai Chi instructor, and the owner of the Online Ginseng Store. A former nightclub comic who spent years on the road, he currently resides in his hometown of NYC, and has lived on both coasts and several points in between. An unabashed practitioner of the art of alliteration and its resultant mix of prose and poetry, he is on an endless quest to uncover the perfect word—the philosopher’s stone of writers. In the meantime he is willing to accept all reasonable substitutions.


Like enlightened society on Facebook.

Ed: Kate Bartolotta


About elephant journal

elephant journal is dedicated to "bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society." We're about anything that helps us to live a good life that's also good for others, and our planet. >>> Founded as a print magazine in 2002, we went national in 2005 and then (because mainstream magazine distribution is wildly inefficient from an eco-responsible point of view) transitioned online in 2009. >>> elephant's been named to 30 top new media lists, and was voted #1 in the US on twitter's Shorty Awards for #green content...two years running. >>> Get involved: > Subscribe to our free Best of the Week e-newsletter. > Follow us on Twitter Fan us on Facebook. > Write: send article or query. > Advertise. > Pay for what you read, help indie journalism survive and thrive.


9 Responses to “Jefferson Said What? ~ Neil Alexander”

  1. karlsaliter says:

    Excellent article, Neil, and I love your bio, too. Thanks for your research here, I look forward to seeing more of your work on ej.

  2. Neil Alexander says:

    Thanks Karl, glad you dropped by to take a look!

  3. kevin says:

    very interesting,nice work neil..

  4. guest says:

    What is missing here is one simple fact. Treason can only be comitted against an authentic government of the people. Once the govt has crossed a line into tyranny or despotism, it is no longer the govt of the people. Cross this line and the people have a duty to rebel. If things continue as they have been, with our leaders being stupid and playing games and insisting on taking away our rights and making things rights that should not be… there will be no other option but to retake our govt. This is not treason. This is patriotism.

  5. Neil Alexander says:

    There will always be people who consider the government to be illegitimate. When the constitution was ratified, replacing the original Articles of Confederation that remained in effect until 1789, many people opposed the move to federalism and considered it an illegal usurpation of states' rights and sovereign power.

    The question becomes, who is the judge of what is and isn't authentic? When an administration is democratically elected with a majority of both the popular vote, by over 3 million votes, and the arguably outmoded electoral college, there will still be those who lost the election and will insist that the government is illegitimate. Do they have the right to speak for the majority who voted that government in?

    Certainly the lines have blurred between the two parties, and the NDAA is as bad or worse than the Patriot Act. But when you also speak of "making things rights that should not be" that sounds like code words for bigotry, particularly when you provide no examples. The democratic experiment is a slow evolution toward an egalitarian society. There will always be those who consider that a threat, who do not really believe that "All men are created equal", when they don't like some of those other men.

    Otherwise I agree, the erosion of protections that should have been guaranteed by the constitution is alarming, and when the government decides they are above the law they are inviting disaster.

    As to treason being patriotism, aside from the Orwellian nature of such statements, that would depend on what you intend on replacing the government with; not slogans or vague representations, specific policies. Would it be a government where certain segments of the population are the victims of institutionalized bigotry? That is not patriotism, that is just a new brand of tyranny, no matter how many flags you wrap around it.

  6. Mark Ledbetter says:

    Neil, I suspect you're misreading Guest. He's correct about several things. I see no reason to assume bigotry in his assertion that we have many new 'rights' which aren't rights. Nowadays, for example, we have rights to medical care, education, safe food, good housing etc. Calling these things rights is a radical departure from the original and intended meaning. These are all good things, but they aren't rights. That's what I assume Guest was pointing out.

    Also, there's a modern tendency that I deduce in your response to overpraise democracy. Democracy must always be the lesser god. Freedom (i.e. 'rights' in the original meaning) must be at the center. Freedom must trump democracy when the two are in conflict. Just because you win the sanction of the people through an election doesn't mean that you (or the people) have the 'right' to take the freedoms and rights of others. Remember, Hitler was democratically elected. He had the sanction of the people.

    Btw, nice article, Neil. There are groups out there trying to hijack Jefferson and also Washington for their own purposes. Thanks for pointing it out.

  7. Mark Ledbetter says:

    P.S. We don't actually have to go back to Hitler to find the evils of democracy in action. The military-industrial complex along with policing of the world and perpetual warfare by the United States is democratically sanctioned. You can't get elected president if you oppose those things.

    We also have millions in jail for victimless crimes; families, neighborhoods, and communities destroyed by those jailings, which I call the American Gulag. And it's all democratically sanctioned. You can't get elected president if you oppose the war on drugs.

    Also, we have spending and debt so far out of control that all the laws of nature and economics insure a collapse at some point. When govt is allowed to do anything simply because it has the sanction of the people, this is what will always result. You win elections by promising something for nothing. The 'something' in this case is all kinds of new 'rights', the nothing is that we won't have to pay for it! Yaay!!! Well, democracy can't cancel the laws of nature or economics. It only works when it is tightly chained by a constitution dedicated to protecting individual rights. This is something that I think Guest would agree we don't have anymore.

  8. Neil Alexander says:

    Hi Mark,

    Good comments, good points. The question of what is a "right" and what is a "privilege" is important in determining the course of our nation. I may have interpreted too narrowly what the guest, who has since identified himself to me elsewhere as Eric, was trying to say.

    This is how we grow as a nation, through debate and frank discussion. There are some who would argue that the right to life includes the right to health, food, and shelter.

    Others might have a more Hobbesian view, claiming that it merely means you can't be executed without due process, that the right to life is solely the right not to be put to death without just cause. Some would insist that the right to own a gun is God given. Others might argue that the right to education is God given.

    We need to find some common ground where we can agree on what "Freedom" means, and what rights are guaranteed us in the constitution, and also which are covered by the 9th amendment:
    "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people".

    The continuing privatization of our prisons has created a new kind of corruption, and there are too many people on all levels whose livelihood now depends on maintaining the war on drugs without any thought as to its lack of effectiveness or destructive nature.

    This is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately, before our bloated prisons and those many aspects of the legal system financially orbiting around the "War on Drugs" become the latest example of "too big to fail".

    As to spending, it has become too much another case of institutionalized corruption. FDR made a famous speech in which he cautioned against listening to those who promised things that "wouldn't cost you a single penny". Eisenhower warned us about allowing the military-industrial complex to have free reign.

    We should have listened.

  9. Great post. Some good insights that will benefit those who find your site. Thank you.