Life Lessons from Thomas Jefferson

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Sep 20, 2014

“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Thomas Jefferson

As a powerful advocate of liberty, Thomas Jefferson was the principle author of the Declaration of Independence. As the third President of the United States (1801–1809), he was a pioneer for freedom of conscience and the right to live a happy fulfilled life.

In 1825 he was asked to write some words of advice for a newly born grandson of a friend of his. As a token of affection, the child was named Thomas Jefferson Smith, after the President. 

In his letter he wrote, “Your affectionate and excellent father has requested that I should address to you something which might possibly have a favourable influence on the course of life you have to run, and I too, as a namesake, feel an interest in that course.”

In this list, which he called “A Decalogue of Canons for Observation in Practical Life,” Jefferson shared some of his deeply held principles on how to live a fulfilled life. We would also do well to ponder them today.

“Never put off ‘til tomorrow what you can do today.” I have heard that the answer to the question, “What is today’s greatest labor saving device?” would be “Tomorrow.” Procrastination will never help us live a fulfilled life.

“Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.” We hear a lot these days about being co-dependent. Sure, we need each other but there are some things we need to accept responsibility for by simply doing them ourselves. And, unless we do, we will never live a fulfilled life.

“Never spend your money before you have it.” I have a friend who says that we have money to spend that we haven’t borrowed yet. We both always laugh at that statement. But, if we lack fiscal discipline, how can we ever live a fulfilled life?

“Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear (expensive) to you.” Evie and I always smile when we say, “Look how much money we can save by buying this or that while it is on sale.” Jefferson’s practical wisdom regarding one’s purchases will always help us live a fulfilled life.
“Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.” Few things ruin us more than pride. It really can bankrupt the best relationships and it can ruin our best opportunities. Without humility, we cannot live a fulfilled life.

“We never repent of having eaten too little.” What more needs to be said. Moderation at the dinner table will always help us live a fulfilled life.

“Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly.” As someone said, “Find a job you love and you will never have to work another day of your life.” Willing effort leads us to live a fulfilled life.

“How much pain has cost us the evils which have never happened.” This must be where my friend Ray got his saying, “I am an old man of many troubles, most of which never happened.” Worry will never help us live a fulfilled life.

“Take things always by their smooth handle.” Only when we find the easiest way possible to accomplish something, will we ultimately be able to live a fulfilled life.

“When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.” I have heard this all my life and the wisdom of it is still true. If our emotions control us, we will never live a fulfilled life.

Jefferson was 82 years old when he wrote this letter and must have known that the end was near. In the letter he wrote: “this letter will, to you, be as one from the dead. The writer will be in the grave before you can weigh its counsels.” He actually died the following year on July 4. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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