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Thomas Jefferson and the End of Democracy

Posted by sbh on Thursday, 22 July 2010

Did Thomas Jefferson write:

The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not

as claimed here for example?

No. It’s a modern fake, first seen in 1986 in a book written under the pseudonym John Galt, the name of a character in a piece of once-popular fiction (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged).

For matters related to Thomas Jefferson I strongly recommend the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia at the Monticello.org website. It has a brief article devoted to this fake that gives the databases used in running it down; the short version is that they ran the phrases “democracy will cease to exist” and “willing to work” through several digitized collections of Jefferson’s words and failed to find it, or anything much like it, for that matter. I amused myself by running various phrases from the saying through the Library of Congress Jefferson papers search engine (the collection by the way does not include everything Jefferson wrote) as well as an online version of Ford’s edition, and while I am quite convinced that Jefferson used each and every one of the words of this saying, I can not find any example of his using them together in this sequence. In other words, it appears to be a fake.

Out of curiosity I attempted to run down any nineteenth century uses of the phrase “democracy will cease to exist” without notable success. The closest I came was in a 1907 English translation of a tract by Wilhelm Liebknecht entitled “No Compromise; No Political Trading.” The passage reads:

No, Social Democracy must remain for itself, must seek for and generate its power within itself. … Therefore, we will not turn from the old tactics, nor from the old program. Ever advancing with science and economic development, we are what we were and we will remain what we are.

Or—the Social Democracy will cease to exist.

And a 1919 writer observes:

The average man in our democracy must be fitted to understand and comprehend sound principles of government, or American democracy will cease.

Neither of these gets us anywhere. Going back to the Jefferson Encyclopedia we learn from the researchers there that they found a superficially similar passage among Jefferson’s works:

To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, “the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, & the fruits acquired by it.”

This comes from a comment Jefferson made in a prospectus for translation of Destutt de Tracy’s Treatise on Political Economy (found here [Lipscomb & Berg, The writings of Thomas Jefferson, 13:466]), but Jefferson is not here writing about democracy or its possible demise, but about the unfair effects that certain forms of taxation have on different groups of people. And there is nothing whatever to suggest that the genuine quotation in any way gave rise to the fake. It’s another dead end.

The Jefferson Encyclopedia researchers noted that

To establish the earliest appearance of this phrase in print, the following sources were searched for the phrase, “democracy will cease to exist” and “willing to work”: Google Books, Google Scholar, Amazon.com, Internet Archive, America’s Historical Newspapers, American Broadsides and Ephemera Series I, Early American Imprints Series I and II, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 19th Century U.S. Newspapers, American Periodicals Series Online, JSTOR.

What they found is that the authority for claiming this saying as Jefferson’s is an unreferenced quotation given on page 312 of Dreams Come Due: Government and Economics as if Freedom Mattered (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), written under the pseudonym of “John Galt”.

Now it may of course be that the fictional tycoon has a valid source (perhaps some unpublished scrap of Jefferson’s writing) for this otherwise unattested saying—but if so, it is his business to give it. Until he does, and that source proves to be in fact by the third president of the United States, the saying can only be regarded as fictional as its promoter.


The Democracy Will Cease to Exist (Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia)

2 Responses to “Thomas Jefferson and the End of Democracy”

  1. Ed B said

    Thanks for that !
    On another note, though, I believe that ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is still a fairly popular book.

  2. Anna said

    I loved your post…it warms the cockles of my heart that there are others dedicated to stamping out the fake Jefferson quotes! Please keep it up…

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