Earliest known appearance in print, attributed to Thomas Jefferson: 19943
Other attributions: Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine
Status: We have not found any evidence that Thomas Jefferson said or wrote, "When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny," nor any evidence that he wrote its listed variations.
Comments: One source attributes this quotation to Jefferson in The Federalist.4The Federalist, however, was the work of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, not Thomas Jefferson; nor does The Federalist contain the text of this quotation. This quotation is vaguely similar to Jefferson's comment in an 1825 letter to William Short: "Some are whigs, liberals, democrats, call them what you please. Others are tories, serviles, aristocrats, &c. The latter fear the people, and wish to transfer all power to the higher classes of society; the former consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them therefore, and wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competent."5 To date, however, the most likely source of this quotation appears to be a series of debates on socialism published in 1914, in which John Basil Barnhill said, "Where the people fear the government you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people you have liberty."
2. To establish the earliest appearance of this phrase in print, the following sources were searched for the phrase, "When governments fear the people, there is liberty": Google Books, Google Scholar, Amazon.com, Internet Archive, JSTOR, American Broadsides and Ephemera, American History and Culture Online: Sabin Americana, 1500-1926, Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans (1639-1800), Early American Imprints, Series II: Shaw-Shoemaker (1801-1819), Eighteenth Century Collections Online, The Making of the Modern World: The Goldsmiths'-Kress Library of Economic Literature, America's Historical Newspapers, 19th Century United States Newspapers, American Founding Era Collection.