Another Jefferson Diamond

Posted By on March 27, 2012

Recently on facebook “The Federalist Papers” posted a quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson. I, in turn, “shared” the post and received a few comments on it from my friends. These comments, and my insatiable curiosity drove me to investigate the quote and read its original source, if I could.

Almost immediately I discovered the quote was actually a slight misquote, and didn’t even begin to communicate the depth of the context as originally written by Mr. Jefferson. Once again I was confronted by the “tyranny” of the sound bite. We in modern America, and due to our common television infused, fast-food restaurant, short attention span masses fail to understand the vast wealth of information and wisdom available to us from our founding fathers. In our attempts to gain quick quotes, and tantalizing tidbits often fail to discover the almost unlimited knowledge available from that astute generation.

The quote in question? “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.” (attributed to Thomas Jefferson) This quote in itself would be exceptional, but when it is discovered to be inaccurate its efficacy is severely diminished. So, David, just what did you discover?

This misquote finds its origin in a letter written by Mr. Jefferson in January of 1802, right around the same time as his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. The letter in question was written to his friend Dr. Thomas Cooper, someone he (Jefferson) described as “one of the ablest men in America.” I was unable to find the letter to which Jefferson was responding, but the Jefferson letter I found was quite telling, and written in November, 1802.

Now I won’t bore you with the entire letter, just provide the sentences around the quote in question (the entire letter may be found at the Library of Congress website here):

The good effects of our late fiscal arrangements will certainly tend to unite them in opinion, and in a confidence as to the views of their public functionaries, legislative & executive. The path we have to pursue is so quiet that we have nothing scarcely to propose to our Legislature. A noiseless course, not meddling with the affairs of others, unattractive of notice, is a mark that society is going on in happiness. If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy. Their finances are now under such a course of application as nothing could derange but war or federalism. The gripe of the latter has shown itself as deadly as the jaws of the former. Our adversaries say we are indebted to their providence for the means of paying the public debt. We never charged them with the want of foresight in providing money, but with the misapplication of it after they had levied it. We say they raised not only enough, but too much; and that after giving back the surplus we do more with a part than they did with the whole.

This speaks VOLUMES for our current governmental situation. Do I really need to explain it? Let me break out the major points:

The path we have to pursue is so quiet that we have nothing scarcely to propose to our Legislature. A noiseless course, not meddling with the affairs of others, unattractive of notice, is a mark that society is going on in happiness.

The happiness of the people of these United States is best realized when government does NOT meddle in their affairs, and does as LITTLE as possible. Oh, if our politicians would simply learn this lesson.

If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy.

Government would do well to STOP TAKING CARE OF US!

We never charged them with the want of foresight in providing money, but with the misapplication of it after they had levied it. We say they raised not only enough, but too much; and that after giving back the surplus we do more with a part than they did with the whole.

Again, this government would do well to realize that we don’t NOT have a problem with levying funds, BUT in misappropriating the funds they have collected, AND applying those precious funds to services and expenditures that are unauthorized by the Constitution, the very document which establishes it.

Let’s continue to strive to learn important lessons from those men who set this nation on its course to greatness from the very beginning, by keeping it small and limited and unobtrusive.

 

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