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Canons of Conduct
Thomas Jefferson often took the opportunity to advise his children, grandchildren, and others on matters of personal conduct. Over the years he developed a list of axioms for personal behavior. Some seem to have been of his own invention; others derived from classical or literary sources.
a dozen Canons of conduct in life
1. never put off to tomorrow what you can do to-day.
2. never trouble another with what you can do yourself
3. never spend your money before you have it
4. never buy a thing you do not want, because it is cheap, it will be dear to you.
5. take care of your cents: Dollars will take care of themselves!
6. pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
7. we never repent of having eat[en] too little.
8. nothing is troublesome that one does willingly.
9. how much pain have cost us the evils which have never happen d
10. take things always by their smooth handle.
11. think as you please, & so let others, & you will have no disputes.
12. when angry, count 10. before you speak; if very angry, 100.
Jefferson sent a slightly shorter version of the above list to Paul Clay, the son of his friend Charles Clay, in 1817.2 He sent a still more refined version in 1825 to John Spear Smith, on behalf of his son Thomas Jefferson Smith.3 In his 1825 letter, Jefferson listed a "Decalogue of Canons for observation in practical life":
- Never put off till tomorrow what you can do to-day.
- Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
- Never spend your money before you have it.
- Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.
- Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
- We never repent of having eaten too little.
- Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
- How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened!
- Take things always by their smooth handle.
- When angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, an hundred.4
- Anna Berkes, 4/20/08; revised 10/22/13.
- 1. Jefferson to Cornelia Jefferson Randolph, undated, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. Transcription of extract available online at Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters.
- 2. Jefferson to Paul Clay, [ca. July 12, 1817], in PTJ:RS, 11:525. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 3. John Spear Smith was married to Cary Ann Nicholas, the daughter of Jefferson's friend Wilson Cary Nicholas.
- 4. Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Smith, February 21, 1825, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available in Founders Online.