Jefferson’s 10 Rules – Wisdom to Apply in “Practical Life”

by Jeff Cobb

Jefferson's 10 RulesOne of my good friends has a framed document hanging in his house that lists ten rules that Thomas Jefferson believed were essential for leading a fulfilling life.  According to the Th: Jefferson Encyclopedia,  these were compiled at the request of a father who had named his baby son Thomas Jefferson Smith. They were pared down somewhat from an earlier list Jefferson sent to his granddaughter, Cornelia Jefferson Randolph.

It occurred to me as I saw the document once again at my friend’s house this past weekend, that this type of accumulated life wisdom – particularly from a mind as sharp and disciplined as Jefferson’s – is something I ought to highlight from time-to-time here on Mission to Learn. So, here are Jefferson’s 10 Rules, which he described as a “decalogue of canons for observation in practical life.”

  1. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do to-day.
  2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
  3. Never spend your money before you have it.
  4. Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you.
  5. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
  6. We never repent of having eaten too little.
  7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.
  8. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.
  9. Take things always by their smooth handle.
  10. When angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, an hundred.

Certainly these words apply as well today as they did in Jefferson’s time – or any other time, for that matter. If you have a list like this that you particularly like – especially one from a less known source – please comment and share.


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posted on September 29, 2009

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob D July 10, 2013 at 4:41 am

Thanks for this post, Jeff. I happened to visit Monticello this past weekend and noticed the list in the gift shop. Great advice, and certainly timeless. I have to note, however, that a couple of the items drew snide comments from me and some in my party: at the time of his death, Jefferson owed more than $100,000. Apparently he could not live up to #3. Also, at odds with #2, not only did he have slaves to do just about everything for him, at the time of his death, he had over 130 slaves apparently being troubled to do work which TJ was not doing himself. Despite those awkward realities, the advice is sound, and I do appreciate you having posted this.

Jeff Cobb July 11, 2013 at 7:55 am

Rob – Yes, he was a man of contradictions, to put it mildly. I recently read Jon Meacham’s excellent biography and had thoughts similar to yours when I cam across this list of axioms late in the book. Still, as you suggest, these are words worth reading, reflecting upon, and trying to live up to! – Jeff

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