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Thomas Jefferson Letter to Thomas Cooper Washington

Preventing Government From Wasting the Labors of the People

The following quote is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”

Actually, the popular quote is inaccurate. In a letter to Thomas Cooper Washington on November 29, 1802, Jefferson  wrote: “If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy.”

However, a larger exerpt from the text provides a more complete view of the thoughts Jefferson was imparting in the letter: “I think you will be sensible that our citizens are fast returning, from the panic into which they were artfully thrown to the dictates of their own reason; and I believe the delusions they have seen themselves hurried into will be useful as a lesson under similar attempts on them in future. The good effects of our late fiscal arrangements will certainly tend to unite them in opinion, and in a confidence as to the views of their public functionaries, legislative & executive. The path we have to pursue is so quiet that we have nothing scarcely to propose to our Legislature. A noiseless course, not meddling with the affairs of others, unattractive of notice, is a mark that society is going on in happiness. If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy. Their finances are now under such a course of application as nothing could derange but war or federalism. The gripe of the latter has shown itself as deadly as the jaws of the former. Our adversaries say we are indebted to their providence for the means of paying the public debt. We never charged them with the want of foresight in providing money, but with the misapplication of it after they have levied it. We say they raised not only enough, but too much; and that after giving back the surplus we do more with a part than they did with the whole.”

Jefferson was an ardent supporter of Republican principles. Many of those principles  stemmed from the positions taken by Whig activists prior to the American Revolution. Jefferson’s remarks did refer to the need of the People themselves to restrain the government. His letter also included Jefferson’s opinion that the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in France had been a “retrogradation from a limited to an unlimited despotism.” What Jefferson actually advocated in his letter to Thomas Cooper Washington was an Executive Branch, and implicitly the Legislative Branch as well, with policies that resulted in limited interference upon in the lives of the citizenry. His belief that government should not waste the labors of the people should come as no surprise. He was of the firm belief that the product of labor should remain with the individual rather than being redistributed to others by means of governmental rule, regulation, or legislation.

Read the entire text of Jefferson’s letter to Thomas Cooper at:

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As always, remain motivated, vigilant, and engaged in the political process.

Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.

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