Wolf by the ear

Thomas Jefferson used this phrase several times:

"But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."
- Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, (discussing slavery and the Missouri question), Monticello, 22 April 1820.[1]

"we have the wolf by the ear and feel the danger of either holding or letting him loose."
- Thomas Jefferson to Lydia Huntley Sigourney, Monticello, 18 July 1824[2]


"Wolf by the ears" is a phrase attributed to the emperor Tiberius by the biographer Suetonius: "The cause of his hesitation was fear of the dangers which threatened him on every hand, and often led him to say that he was 'holding a wolf by the ears'."[3] Thomas Jefferson owned a 1718 edition of Suetonius's works.[4]



  • 1. Ford 10:159. Note that Ford erroneously transcribed "ear" as "ears." Polygraph copy at the Library of Congress.
  • 2. Published in the Magazine of American History, XXI (1891), 481. The draft of this letter, in Jefferson's hand, uses the same phrase as in the letter to Holmes: "wolf by the ear." The recipient copy of the letter, in the hand of Jefferson's granddaughter Virginia and signed by Jefferson, reads "wolf by the ears," which has been repeated in the published transcription.
  • 3. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (Loeb Classical Library, 1913), 333. Text available online. This edition attributes the phrase further to a Greek proverb. See also Carl J. Richard, The Founders and the Classics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 264.
  • 4. Sowerby 82. See entry in Thomas Jefferson's Libraries Project.

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