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Thomas Jefferson's 10 Rules Of Life — Mocked

Thomas Jefferson.
Library of Congress
Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson was a great one for giving out advice. As Anna Berkes points out on the Monticello website, the third U.S. president often took the opportunity to advise family and friends on all-around "best practices."

Over the years, she writes, Jefferson "developed a list of axioms for personal behavior. Some seem to have been of his own invention; others derived from classical or literary sources."

Here is a "decalogue of canons for observation in practical life" that the former president imparted in 1825. The list was more popularly known as

Thomas Jefferson's 10 Rules Of 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.
  • Throughout the 19th century, "Jefferson's 10 Rules" were printed and reprinted in newspapers and magazines. The Western Farmer published the rules in 1839; Southern Planter proffered them in 1843. "I vividly remember," wrote Margaret Cleveland in the August 1873 edition of Shaker and Shakeress Monthly, "in my early school-days, committing to memory Thomas Jefferson's Ten Rules of Life."

    All across the country, the rules were recited and debated and taken to heart.

    And, this being America, the rules were eventually satirized.

    Obviously inspired by Jefferson's commandments, a twisted list of rules appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune on Nov. 11, 1878. Numbered and rearranged for clarity, here are

    Ten Rules for Young Men

  • Never pay to-day the man you can put off until tomorrow.
  • Never trouble yourself to do for another man what he can do just as well for himself.
  • Never spend your own money when you can get things for nothing.
  • Never buy what you don't want, simply because the man says he is just out of it.
  • Remember that it costs more to go to a high-priced theatre than it does to take a back pew in a free church.
  • Do not despise a 20 cent cigar or a $1 dinner because another man pays for it.
  • Nothing is troublesome to you that other people do for you willingly.
  • Do not poultice your own elbow for the boil on another man's neck.
  • Always pick up a hot poker by the cold end.
  • When angry, be sure you can handle your man before you call him a liar.

  • Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.