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Thomas Jefferson

To Thomas Jefferson Smith.
Monticello, February 21, 1825.

This letter will, to you, be as one from the dead. The writer will be in the grave before you can weigh its counsels. Your affectionate and excellent father has requested that I would address to you something which might possibly have a favorable influence on the course of life you have to run, and I too, as a namesake, feel an interest in that course. Few words will be necessary, with good dispositions on your part. Adore God. Reverence and cherish your parents. Love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than yourself. Be just. Be true. Murmur not at the ways of Providence. So shall the life into which you have entered, be the portal to one of eternal and ineffable bliss. And if to the dead it is permitted to care for the things of this world, every action of your life will be under my regard. Farewell. […]

A Decalogue of Canons for observation in practical life.

1. Never put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day.

2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.

3. Never spend your money before you have it.

4. Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.

5. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.

6. We never repent of having eaten too little.

7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.

8. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.

9. Take things always by their smooth handle.

10. When angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, an hundred.


Letter written by Thomas Jefferson to his friend John Spear Smith, on behalf of Smith’s son and namesake, Thomas Jefferson Smith. Jefferson, who was born 271 years ago yesterday, was 81 when he wrote this letter.

The Monticello website has an extended discussion of the meaning of rule #9, about which there has been considerable speculation. It ties into last week’s post concerning the Ayaan Hirsi Ali-Brandeis affair:

Jefferson’s intended meaning is the subject of some debate. Julian Boyd wrote an article on this in 1957, “The Smooth Handle: A Challenge to the Organization Man.” Boyd believed that this statement embodied how Jefferson thought citizens of a republic should behave, and was descended from a similar saying by Epictetus, “Everything has two handles, one by which it can be borne; another by which it cannot.” While debate was essential to a healthy republic, Boyd argued, Jefferson believed strongly that the exchange of ideas must always be civil, and he expressed this belief in his advice to “take things always by their smooth handle.”

This is only one interpretation, however, and without an explicit explanation from Jefferson himself, each reader is free to interpret it as they will.

More Jefferson:

Jefferson's Ten Rules