FACT CHECK: Did Thomas Jefferson Say, ‘That Government Is Best Which Governs The Least’?
The right-leaning organization Turning Point USA claimed in a Facebook post April 6 that founding father Thomas Jefferson said, “That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves.”
There is no record of Jefferson ever saying this, though the quote is often misattributed to him. The first half of the expression was popularized by author Henry David Thoreau, although its earliest known appearance dates back to the 1830s, when it became the motto for a U.S. magazine.
Turning Point isn’t the first group to attribute the quote to Jefferson, the country’s third president. In fact, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation debunked the quote in a 2008 entry, labeling it a “spurious quotation.”
“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,” Research Librarian Anna Berkes wrote. “However, this quotation has been associated with the ideological descendants of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party for a very long time … and this is likely why it ultimately came to be attributed to him.”
The first known record of the expression dates back to the 1830s when it became the motto for The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, which printed on its cover the phrase, “The best government is that which governs least.”
The motto was then repeated in the opening lines of Thoreau’s famous essay “Civil Disobedience.”
“I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least;’ and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically,” Thoreau wrote in the 1849 publication.