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The democracy will cease to exist... (Quotation)

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

Variations: None known.

Sources consulted: Searching on the phrase "democracy will cease to exist" and "willing to work"

  1. Monticello website
  2. Ford's Works of Thomas Jefferson
  3. L&B (CD-ROM version)
  4. UVA EText Jefferson Digital Archive: Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, Thomas Jefferson on Politics and Government, Texts by or to Thomas Jefferson from the Modern English Collection
  5. Thomas Jefferson Retirement Papers
  6. Quotable Jefferson (searching in the index under "democracy" and "work")

Earliest known appearance in print: 1986[1][2]

Earliest known appearance in print, attributed to Jefferson: See above.

Other attributions: None known.

Status: This exact quotation has not been found in any of the writings of Thomas Jefferson. It bears a very vague resemblance to Jefferson's comment in a prospectus for his translation of Destutt de Tracy's Treatise on Political Economy: "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.'"[3]


  1. John Galt, Dreams Come Due: Government and Economics as if Freedom Mattered] (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), 312.
  3. 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,, 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.
  4. L&B 14:446.

Further Sources


Lucretius2327's picture
It is always amusing to see persons like Brock Powers assert what is (or is not) meant by the moniker "liberal". All they end up demonstrating is their ignorance of the origin and history of the term, having no idea of what it meant in Jeffersons time or even how the "Liberal"-"Conservative" dichotomy originates in Burke's conservative reaction to the French Revolution; how "Right" and "Left" originated from the seating arrangements in the French Revolutionary Legislature; and how the antipode to Burke's "conservatism" was articulated in the writings of TJ's lifelong friend Thomas Paine and embodied in the early phases of the French Revolution. Like those of the Right who tried to highjack TJ's name to support their very contemporary views, such persons have little regard for, and even less knowledge, of the history of ideas, of political designations, and parties — in their brains "liberal", "socialist", "communist" all cling together in an undifferentiated soup. Mixing old with new, they stand in complete indifference to the radical transformation of America's economic-social order: from the agrarian times of TJ to the present day of international corporatism. They don't care — or are unable and unwilling — to imagine what TJ might actually think about these changed conditions. They simply use him for their own purposes. RB Weston points the way: get out of your echo-chamber; engage, with an open mind, with those who disagree with you. That was the way of TJ and Thomas Paine. Persons on both sides would do well to follow it. Unfortunately our American educational system has left too many folks with no other resort than that of dogmatic self-assertion. The task of sitting down and actually learning about the Founders (I suggest Hofstadter, American Political Tradition, chapter 1; Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution; and Wood, The Creation of the American Republic) is too much bother. Much simpler to just project their own most cherished view — "conservative" or "liberal" — back upon TJ and his era, wear funny hats, and call themselves "the Tea Party."
Walter M. Rober...
TJ s Largess's picture
I am amazed on several levels as follows: First that this quote is not a direct quote from TJ. Second third and forth that a discussion of it can be reduced to a battle over what philosophical/political "religion" our forefather's revolution can be "blamed" on. It is without question that our revolutionary fore-bearers didn't agree with each other on everything. This defines the fact that there were liberals and conservatives in that gang of rebels. Obviously rebellion is not the provence of any ONE philosophy and to quote Merriam-Webster is to distort the definition of a single word and further defines EXACTLY what is wrong with political dissertation in America which is further exemplified by that above thread. No party or wing of any party has the corner on solutions to any subject. It is by default that a majority has control. It is the brilliance of TJ and his friends that exploits the fact that the majority changes periodically and therefore so does control and the currentness of what is "right". How many people went before and taught Churchill that "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others?" To quote one Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along?" We are all Americans here (I hope) and all have the future of America in our concerns. Indeed, some conservatives need to learn that liberal isn't a synonym for communist and conversely, some liberals need to understand that conservative isn't a synonym for mongol hordes. Maybe in todays politically correct society we need new uncorrupted names for political wings of the various parties and indeed maybe the parties need new names to allow us to go all the way back to the respect that Tip O'Neill and Reagan had for each other. As to my first point, I agree that (if all of the earlier stated facts in this thread are correct) it is a stretch to accept the quote as attributable to TJ. However, I submit that were TJ alive today he would be horrified by the actual occurrence of the condition that the "non" quote implies. Surely no one can argue that our country isn't heading willy-nilly toward bankruptcy with the causes open for serious discussion. Far from the side tracks the above thread seems to be taking. So please, sirs and/or madams, can't we stay on point here? TJ needs no protection but our children and grandchildren do.
RB Weston
Doubtful's picture
Jefferson would never have said anything about protecting a democracy, because he did not believe that democracy was a wise form of government. He did, however, say the following: "A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circlue of our felicities." "A republican government is slow to move, yet once in motion it's momentum becomes irresistible." "Every citizen should be a soldier. This was the case with the Greeks and Romans, and must be that of every free state." "I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [the banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs."
snydly's picture
I have seen this circulated by a few people but I wouldn't call them concervatives. Also I don't agree with your definitions. Conservatives maintain status quo really??? As I understand it they simply want a smaller gov't and fiscal responsibility and I think TJ would favor that. I hope people do more research so they don't just believe quotes floating around are what they appear to be. TJ deserves that.
snydly (not verified)
drold's picture
Vague Resemblance? Seems very similar to me. But maybe you should just include the real quote in your list of quotes since that was what I was looking to verify not the fake quote.
John Donne's picture
"Vague resemblance" is generous. I see no mention whatever of democracy "ceasing to exist" or anyone being "willing to work."
John Donne
skycastle's picture
drold, you missed the point. This is not a Jefferson quote. He didn't say or write it. He translated someone else's work which paraphrased says something similar to "Democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work . . ." Conservatives are circulating this fake quote and trying to align themselves with Jefferson but our Founding Fathers were more akin to liberal policy. By definition Conservatives maintain the status quo and Liberals advocate for change and progress. A revolution against the English Crown was not a conservative act. It was a profound rebellious movement for change and progress.
Brock Powers's picture
Sorry Skycastle, but your assertion is simply a hijacking of reality. Our forefathers were champions of individual rights and property ownership. In no way were these concepts liberal. A man who fights for the freedom and liberty of the individual is for certain, not a liberal. As Lincoln would later describe in his argument regarding liberty and tyranny, it is a matter of the origination of a man's fortune: either you earn it for yourself with your labor and skill, or you receive it from the effort of another. This is where conservatism is forever forged in America. To say otherwise is complete blasphemy. If you think the revolution was a radical liberal event, you are sorely mistaken.
Brock Powers
Carl E. Mott III's picture
To say otherwise is complete blasphemy? What you have said is nonsensical. rev·o·lu·tion Merriam-Webster 2 a : a sudden, radical, or complete change b : a fundamental change in political organization; especially : the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed c : activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation d : a fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something : a change of paradigm con·ser·va·tism Merriam-Webster a : disposition in politics to preserve what is established b : a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change. 3 : the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change Liberalism From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Liberalism first became a distinct political movement during the Age of Enlightenment, when it became popular among philosophers and economists in the Western world. Liberalism rejected the notions, common at the time, of hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy, and the Divine Right of Kings. The early liberal thinker John Locke is often credited with founding liberalism as a distinct philosophical tradition. Locke argued that each man has a natural right to life, liberty and property[8] and according to the social contract governments must not violate these rights. Liberals opposed traditional conservatism and sought to replace absolutism in government with democracy and the rule of law. The revolutionaries in the American Revolution, the French Revolution and other liberal revolutions from that time used liberal philosophy to justify the armed overthrow of what they saw as tyrannical rule. The nineteenth century saw liberal governments established in nations across Europe, Spanish America, and North America.[9]
Carl E. Mott III
TJ s Largess's picture
Gentleman, gentleman: If the facts regarding the false quote from TJ are correct, then I agree that the quote is inaccurate at best. However I fail to see why this thread has degenerated into accusations about who believes what and even assertions about who actually rebelled in 1776! Can we (at least here on a site dedicated to a great patriot) agree to the following: in 1776 our forefathers were of several philosophies. Among these there certainly were both liberals and conservatives. Further can we agree that liberals are not communists and conservatives are not the mongol hordes. I feel confident that TJ would recognize the vitriol i see in this thread but I don't think he would feel good about it, just as I would hope that 200 years from now these issues would be settled without too many deaths. But truly, how can we ever hope to get anywhere near that point if we are reduced to quoting Merriam-Webster on the definitions of some words and pompously stating that a definitive point was made. I also couldn't help but notice that Webster was used for conservatism and Wikipedia for liberalism; a little cherry picking here? In the words of street talkers, lighten up. TJ and his friends gifted us with a system that insures that as long as there is an America, the current philosophical majority will be "in charge" and just as soon as they screw-up too badly they will lose their power. Liberals are not ALWAYS right or wrong. Conservatives are not ALWAYS right or wrong. I believe the biggest disease in this country is that affliction that causes way too many people to surround themselves with those that agree with them politically and philosophically. In short, get more people around you that don't agree with you and listen to them once in a while. Maybe you can even sway just one to your way of seeing some small portion of your philosophy. Maybe they can temper you just a tad into seeing how "innocent" they are in their way of seeing things. In short, what progress is ever made by preaching to the choir so to speak. And certainly, the preaching of what a conservative is to a conservative has little if any value. You might as well talk to a wall.
RB Weston


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