Faith of the Founders #6: Thomas Jefferson’s Rules for Life
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The “Faith of the Founders” blog series is a multi-part, multi-year, bite-size, fact-focused attempt to unpack the profound and ubiquitous role of faith in the American Founding. You can read all the individual articles here.
Just over a year before his death, at the request of a father, Thomas Jefferson was asked to give some life advice to a newborn child who was named after him. His name was Thomas Jefferson Smith. The great statesman responded to this request on February 21, 1825. He noted that “This letter will, to you, be as one from the dead. The writer will be in the grave before you can weigh its counsels.” (Jefferson ended up dying a year and three months later on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence)
The boy’s father had asked “that I [Jefferson] would address to you something which might possibly have a favorable influence on the course of life you have to run.”
“I too, as a namesake, feel an interest in that course,” he wrote.
He then summarized his life advice as follows:
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.
The “Good Man” of Psalm 15
Jefferson than quoted a poetic rendition of Psalm 15. He described it as “the portrait of a good man by the most sublime of poets [King David], for your imitation”:
Lord, who’s the happy man that may to thy blest courts repair,
Not stranger-like to visit them but to inhabit there?
‘Tis he whose every thought and deed by rules of virtue moves;
Whose generous tongue disdains to speak the things his heart disproves.
Who never did a slander forge His neighbor’s fame to wound;
Nor hearken to a false report by malice whispered round.
Who vice in all its pomp and power can treat with just neglect;
And piety, though clothed in rags, religiously respect.
Who to his plighted vows and trust has ever firmly stood;
And though he promise to his loss, he makes his promise good.
Whose soul in usury disdains His treasure to employ;
Whom no rewards can ever bribe the guiltless to destroy.
The man who by this steady course has happiness insur’d,
When earth’s foundations shake, shall stand, by Providence secur’d.
A Decalogue for Practical Life
Jefferson concluded with what he called A Decalogue of Canons for Observations in Practical Life. Those “Ten Commandments” were as follows:
1. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
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, a hundred.
In short, Jefferson’s advice to his young namesake wasn’t merely practical and wise. Rather, it was infused with profound religious sentiments, many drawn directly from the pages of the Bible.