December 7, 2004

Fake Jefferson quote update

Thanks to commentor Steve H. for the link to the University of Virginia's Jefferson quotations site, which entirely bears out my initial suspicions about the following passage, which has been very widely quoted with a spurious attribution to Thomas Jefferson:

"A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49%".

The genuine and properly referenced quotes appearing on the University of Virginia site are but a selection, to be sure, but they are also quite a broad selection (some 2,700 in number) chosen as representative of Jefferson's political philosophy. Needless to say, the denigration of democracy as mob rule would not be a sentiment to be expected from the likes of Jefferson. And sure enough, the passage is nowhere to be found on the site, striking though it is -- striking enough to demand inclusion (if genuine) if only to be placed in context. I don't have the time to nail down every last detail, but I've read enough to declare myself convinced that the passage is spurious. Others may now gain their share of glory by tracking down where the passage might have come from, and when.

Here are some of the genuine quotes for purposes of comparison; under the heading of Majority Rule, we find:

"The first principle of republicanism is that the lex majoris partis is the fundamental law of every society of individuals of equal rights; to consider the will of the society enounced by the majority of a single vote as sacred as if unanimous is the first of all lessons in importance, yet the last which is thoroughly learnt. This law once disregarded, no other remains but that of force, which ends necessarily in military despotism." --Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, 1817. ME 15:127

"The will of the people... is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waring, 1801. ME 10:236

"The measures of the fair majority... ought always to be respected." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792. ME 8:397

"I subscribe to the principle, that the will of the majority honestly expressed should give law." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1793. ME 1:332

"All... being equally free, no one has a right to say what shall be law for the others. Our way is to put these questions to the vote, and to consider that as law for which the majority votes." --Thomas Jefferson: Address to the Cherokee Nation, 1809. ME 16:456

"[We acknowledge] the principle that the majority must give the law." --Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael, 1788. ME 7:28

"This... [is] a country where the will of the majority is the law, and ought to be the law." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:85

"Civil government being the sole object of forming societies, its administration must be conducted by common consent." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.VIII, 1782. ME 2:120

"The fundamental principle of [a common government of associated States] is that the will of the majority is to prevail." --Thomas Jefferson to William Eustis, 1809.

"The voice of the majority decides. For the lex majoris partis is the law of all councils, elections, etc., where not otherwise expressly provided." --Thomas Jefferson: Parliamentary Manual, 1800. ME 2:420

"It is the multitude which possess force, and wisdom must yield to that." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:492

Keep scrolling down, and you'll find a plethora of mentions of majority rule as natural law, with constant invocations of the lex majoris partis. And though Jefferson had the following to say about close votes, he was nonetheless a committed believer in majority rule -- unlike those who falsely invoke his name to denounce the essential principle of democracy:
"Bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801. ME 3:318

"Great innovations should not be forced on a slender majority."
--Thomas Jefferson to John Armstrong, 1808. ME 12:42

"[Sometimes] the minorities are too respectable, not to be entitled to some sacrifice of opinion, in the majority."
--Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1788. ME 7:184

Indeed, could the mob rule "quote" ever have come from the same pen as the following?
"If the measures which have been pursued are approved by the majority, it is the duty of the minority to acquiesce and conform." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1811. ME 13:51

"Every man's reason [is] his own rightful umpire. This principle, with that of acquiescence in the will of the majority, will preserve us free and prosperous as long as they are sacredly observed." --Thomas Jefferson to John F. Watson, 1814. ME 14:136

"It is a rule in all countries that what is done by the body of a nation must be submitted to by all its members." --Thomas Jefferson: Address to Miami and Delaware Nations, 1803. ME 16:398

"[With a majority] having declared against [our proposal], we must suppose we are wrong, according to the fundamental law of every society, the lex majoris partis, to which we are bound to submit." --Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, 1789. ME 7:324

ADDENDUM: Why the great popularity of such an openly antidemocratic "quote" in online signatures? Do so many people really feel that some should be more equal than others?

ADDENDUM: There is now an entry at the Monticello website specifically devoted to this spurious quotation.

Posted by David on December 7, 2004 11:27 AM


> Why the great popularity of such an openly antidemocratic "quote" in online signatures? Do so many people really feel that some should be more equal than others?

I suspect that anyone using this quote in a .sig feels himself to be part of the oppressed 49%, and the feelings of superiority you detect are coupled with a healthy dose of fear.

I don't think there can be any doubt that the fears held by a minority are sometimes justified.

Posted by: John on December 8, 2004 1:01 PM

The lyric of the quote suggests Burke, ("mob") but the music of it suggests HL Mencken or Ambrose Bierce. In any case it doesn't ring with the tones of Jefferson.

Posted by: Pouncer on December 8, 2004 1:32 PM

I'm not certain of the exact quote, but both Heinlein and Twain expressed similar sentiments.

Posted by: Marcus on December 9, 2004 1:52 AM

An article in today's (12/26/04) Los Angeles Times, California section, about the Cupertino teacher in trouble about teaching reltion is this "quote" attributed to Thomas Jefferson:
"The Bible makes the best people in the world."
Where did this originate?

Ken Bonnell

Posted by: Ken Bonnell on December 26, 2004 2:42 PM

I have no idea where this other "quote" originated, save that Jefferson had nothing to do with it.

Posted by: David on December 26, 2004 9:36 PM

It's most likely true that Jefferson did not say that.

It was Ben Franklin that warned of "the tyranny of the majority".



Posted by: Andrew Somers on February 19, 2005 3:34 PM

Handy info.

But why was a relevant quote like the following not included in looking at anything similar he said?

"The majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre
Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816.

Posted by: Craig on May 20, 2005 11:13 PM


It was not included in the post because since one cannot include every relevant quote in the limited space available, one must have recourse to a representative selection instead.

And if you'll look at the post again, there is a selection of quotes expressing concern regarding abuses by a majority. The point being that even though Jefferson was acutely aware of its potential problems, he remained a staunch advocate of majority rule.

Posted by: David on May 23, 2005 11:16 PM

It was Alexis de Tocqueville in his book, Democracy in America, written in 1831 that said 'tyranny of the majority.'

Posted by: Anonymous on February 14, 2008 7:23 PM

Can anyone verify this Jefferson quote? Looks fake to me, but then I thought the tree of liberty-blood of patriots and tyrants quote was fake too, and it is not.

"Laws that forbid the carrying of arms...disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes...Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man. -Thomas Jefferson"

Posted by: Tad Cook on April 19, 2008 12:01 AM

I would hesitate to call that quote "openly antidemocratic".
Majority rule is not democracy's core principle. The United States' founding fathers--Jefferson included--recognized the dangers of tyranny of the majority.
>>Do so many people really feel that some should be more equal than others?
Combating tyranny of the majority does not require inequality; it requires citizens to recognize and denounce laws which encroach upon the liberty of others.

Posted by: Douglas Myers-Turnbull on February 11, 2009 12:19 AM