Quotation: "That government is best which governs least."


  1. "The best government is that which governs least."
  2. "That government is best which governs least, because its people discipline themselves."

Sources consulted:

  1. Founders Online
  2. Thomas Jefferson Retirement Papers

Other attributions:

  1. Henry David Thoreau
  2. An "Old Patriot"[1]

Earliest known appearance in print: 1837 (as variation #1)[2]

Earliest known appearance in print, attributed to Thomas Jefferson: 1853[3]

Comments: Although the ideas expressed in this quotation may be in line with Jefferson's opinions to some extent, the exact phrasing is almost certainly not Jefferson's.  However, this quotation has been associated with the ideological descendants of Jefferson's Democratic-Republican party for a very long time (see above), and this is likely why it ultimately came to be attributed to him.  Merrill Peterson even referred to the quotation as a "Jeffersonian maxim" in The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960).[4]

- Anna Berkes, 2/5/08; updated 8/28/14

Further Sources

  • Coates, Robert Eyler. "That government is best ...." The Jeffersonian Perspective. Further analysis of this quotation and its relation to Jefferson's beliefs.


  1. ^ Yankee Doodle 2, no. 34 (1847): 134.
  2. ^ [John L. O'Sullivan], "Introduction," United States Magazine and Democratic Review 1, no. 1 (1837): 6. A discussion of this earlier source can be found in Paul F. Boller, Jr., Not So! Popular Myths About America from Columbus to Clinton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 49.
  3. ^ Edward Peterson, History of Rhode Island (New York: John S. Taylor, 1853), 41.
  4. ^ Merrill Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), 79.