FACT CHECK: Did Thomas Jefferson Say, ‘When Injustice Becomes Law, Resistance Becomes Duty’?

David Sivak | Fact Check Editor

People took to Twitter Friday to wish Thomas Jefferson a happy 275th birthday, with some attributing the following quote to America’s third president: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”

But did Jefferson really say that?

Verdict: False

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation calls the quote “spurious,” and etymologists say there’s no evidence Jefferson ever said it.

Fact Check:

The U.S. government has officially commemorated April 13 as “Thomas Jefferson’s Birthday” ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it a day of national observance in 1938.

Some have used the day as an opportunity to quote Jefferson.

“Jefferson was born on April 13. A good day to remember his words. Happy Birthday, you would not believe the s**t we are seeing in politics today,” said one Twitter user.

“#ObamaGate #ClintonFoundation #Comey #Benghazi #JUSTICENOW #Awan #WitchHunt #ClearFlynnNow #FridayFeeling #LockThemAllUp The duty of The People is to protect its Country from the government! JUSTICE IS NOT JUST FOR US!” exclaimed another user.

Both conservatives and liberals have shared the quote, with many liberal users placing a special significance on Jefferson sayings that invoke the word “resistance,” a popular term that has come to represent opposition to President Donald Trump.

“Happy BDay Thomas Jefferson! #MSNBC #theResistance #Comey,” one user tweeted.

Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, did believe in rebellion, and some of his letters convey that sentiment.

“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive,” he wrote in 1787. “It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.”

But Jefferson never said the far more pithy, “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which maintains his property at Monticello, could not find the saying anywhere in Jefferson’s writings.

The expression “has been credited to such famous figures as Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Nelson Mandela, but there’s no evidence that either person ever said it,” writes etymologist Barry Popik.

The first known attribution to Jefferson was in 2006, although the saying has been in circulation for decades. Popik believes the phrase was actually popularized by social activists in Australia.

“The High Court of Australia’s decision to keep refugee children imprisoned in detention centres makes it crystal clear that injustice has become law in this country,” said a member of Australia’s Socialist Alliance in 1993. “And when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”

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David Sivak

Fact Check Editor
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