Thomas Jefferson on Liberty

by Derrick G. Jeter

“Thomas Jefferson survives.” These were some of the last words to pass over the lips of John Adams. But what Adams didn’t know was that Jefferson had died a few hours before these words were uttered.

Adams’s words would probably have simply been recorded in a book and placed on a shelf in a dusty library, alongside the sayings of other men who used to be significant once, if it was not for the fact that they are part of one of the grand ironies in American history. Thomas Jefferson, the penman of Independence, called Adams the “Colossus of Independence” because he led the debate in the Continental Convention for the complete and irrevocable break with Great Britain. Both men, one from Massachusetts and the other from Virginia, loved liberty more than life. Both men struck fatal blows to English tyranny in America and advanced the cause of freedom, one with his voice and the other with his pen. And both men, Adams and Jefferson, died on the exact same day—the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826.

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of John Adams, David McCullough wrote, “That John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had died on the same die, and that it was, of all days, the Fourth of July, could not be seen as a mere coincidence: it was a ‘visible and palpable’ manifestation of ‘Divine favor,’ wrote John Quincy Adams in his diary that night, expressing what was felt and would be said again and again everywhere the news spread.” [1]

The timing of their deaths is ironic enough, but Adams’s words about Jefferson only added to the richness of their story. Little did Adams know how true his words would echo through the ages: Thomas Jefferson does survive. In the pantheon of Founding Fathers it is Jefferson, next to Washington himself, that most American’s admire. And more than any other Founder, it is Jefferson whom we most quote. Jefferson surely survives—through his words, as these quotations on liberty prove; each one just as relevant and resonant today as on the day when Jefferson put pen to paper. [2]

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Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God. (Motto on Jefferson’s Seal)

Under the law of nature, we are all born free. (Legal Argument, 1770)

The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but it cannot disjoin them. (A Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774)

Our attachment to no nation on earth should supplant our attachment to liberty. (Declaration on Taking Up Arms, 1775)

We do then most solemnly, before God and the world declare that, regardless of every consequence, at the risk of every distress, the arms we have been compelled to assume we will use with the perseverance, exerting to their utmost energies all those powers which our Creator hath given us, to preserve that liberty which He committed to us in sacred deposit and to protect from every hostile hand our lives and our properties. (Declaration on Taking Up Arms, 1775)

Postpone to the great object of Liberty every smaller motive and passion. (Letter to the President of Congress, 1780)

Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? (Notes on Virginia, 1782)

The commotions in Massachusetts [regarding Shays’s rebellion] are proof that the people love liberty, and I could not wish them less than they have. (Letter to Ezra Stiles, 1786)

Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it. (Letter to John Jay, 1786)

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. (Letter to William Stephens Smith, 1787)

What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that the people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. (Letter to William Stephens Smith, 1787)

The policy of the American government is to leave their citizens free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits. (Letter to M. L’Hommande, 1787)

The people are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty. (Letter to James Madison, 1787)

I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms are in the physical. (Letter to James Madison, 1787)

A little rebellion now and then . . . is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government. (Letter to James Madison, 1787)

What a cruel reflection that a rich country cannot long be a free one. (Travels in France, 1787)

The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. (Letter to Mrs. John Adams (Abigail), 1787)

The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground. (Letter to Edward Carrington, 1788)

It astonishes me to find such a change wrought in the opinions of our countrymen since I left them, as that three-fourths of them should be contented to live under a system which leaves to their governors the power of taking from them the trial by jury in civil cases, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of commerce, the habeas corpus laws, and of yoking them with a standing army. This is degeneracy in the principles of liberty to which I have given four centuries instead of four years. (Letter to William Stephens Smith, 1788)

Liberty is the great parent of science and of virtue; and a nation will be great in both in proportion as it is free. (Letter to Dr. Willard, 1789)

We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather bed. (Letter to Marquis de Lafayette, 1790)

The ground of liberty is to be gained by inches and we must be contented to secure what we can get, from time to time, and eternally press forward for what is yet to get. It takes time to persuade men to do even what is for their own good. (Letter to Rev. Charles Clay, 1790)

I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it. (Letter to Archibald Stuart, 1791)

Light and liberty go together. (Letter to Tench Coxe, 1795)

The agitations of the public mind advance its powers, and at every vibration between the point of liberty and despotism, something will be gained for the former. (Letter to Thomas Cooper, 1802)

I sincerely pray that all the members of the human family may, in the time prescribed by the Father of us all, find themselves securely established in the enjoyment of . . . liberty. (Reply to Address, 1807)

Affectionate concern for the liberty of my fellow citizens will cease but with life to animate my breast. (Reply to Address, 1808)

The freedom and happiness of man . . . are the sole objects of all legitimate government. (Letter to General Kosciusko, 1810)

The last hope of human liberty in this world rests on us. We ought, for so dear a stake, to sacrifice every attachment and every enmity. (Letter to William Duane, 1811)

The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe. (Letter to Charles Yancey, 1816)

That we should wish to see the people of other countries free, is as natural, and at least as justifiable, as that one king should wish to see the kings of other countries maintained in their despotism. (Letter to Albert Gallatin, 1817)

I will not believe our labors are lost. I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance. (Letter to John Adams, 1821)

Possessing ourselves the combined blessings of liberty and order, we wish the same to other countries. (Letter to M. Coray, 1823)

[1] David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), 647.

[2] All quotations come from The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, The University of Virginia,, accessed April 18, 2010.