Thomas Jefferson often took the opportunity to advise his children, grandchildren, and others on matters of personal conduct. Over the years he developed a list of axioms for personal behavior. Some seem to have been of his own invention; others derived from classical or literary sources.
Jefferson’s most extensive list is the one he sent to Cornelia Jefferson Randolph, his granddaughter, while she was visiting her older sister and brother-in-law.1
A DOZEN CANONS OF CONDUCT IN LIFE
- never put off to tomorrow what you can do to-day.
- never trouble another with what you can do yourself
- never spend your money before you have it
- never buy a thing you do not want, because it is cheap, it will be dear to you.
- take care of your cents: Dollars will take care of themselves!
- pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
- we never repent of having eat[en] too little.
- nothing is troublesome that one does willingly.
- how much pain have cost us the evils which have never happen d
- take things always by their smooth handle.
- think as you please, & so let others, & you will have no disputes.
- when angry, count 10. before you speak; if very angry, 100.
Jefferson sent a slightly shorter version of the above list to Paul Clay, the son of his friend Charles Clay, in 1817.2 He sent a still more refined version in 1825 to John Spear Smith, on behalf of his son Thomas Jefferson Smith.3 In his 1825 letter, Jefferson listed a “Decalogue of Canons for observation in practical life”:
- Never put off till tomorrow what you can do to-day.
- Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
- Never spend your money before you have it.
- Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.
- Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
- We never repent of having eaten too little.
- Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
- How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened!
- Take things always by their smooth handle.
- When angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, an hundred.4
- Jefferson to Cornelia Jefferson Randolph, undated, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. Transcription of extract available online at Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters.
- Jefferson to Paul Clay, [ca. July 12, 1817], in PTJ:RS, 11:525. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- John Spear Smith was married to Cary Ann Nicholas, the daughter of Jefferson’s friend Wilson Cary Nicholas.
- Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Smith, February 21, 1825, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available in Founders Online.