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Canons of Conduct by Thomas Jefferson

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomAlthough in today’s world it is very hard to believe, but there was a time that political leaders and statesmen actually exemplified the highest standards of their office, of civic virtue, of moral character, of conviction, of charity, and concern for their fellow man. Thomas Jefferson was one of those individuals. Mind you, as many biographies can attest, he wasn’t perfect, but he was a man of principle and believed in the importance of education, especially self-directed education, and the quest for knowledge and truth — and Truth (with a capital “T”). He also believed that it was important for elders to pass on the wisdom they acquired through experience and age to young people to help them make better choices. To that end, Jefferson took the time to write several letters containing the “Canon of Conduct” to his children, grandchildren, as well as the children of his friends to provide guidance on matters of personal conduct. In a 1817 letter to Paul Clay, the son of a friend, Jefferson included 10 canons. However, in a letter (c. 1805) to his granddaughter, Cornelia Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson listed these 12 rules of conduct. Although some of the rules are original, others are derived from well-known proverbs. Throughout the 19th century, these “Canons of Conduct” were reprinted in newspapers and magazines; moreover, young schoolchildren were required to memorize them.

A Dozen Canons of Conduct of Life

1. Never put off to tomorrow what you can do today.

2. Never trouble another with what you can do yourself.

3. Never spend your money before you have it.

4. Never buy a thing you do not want, because it is cheap, it will be dear to you.

5. Take care of your cents: Dollars will take care of themselves!

6. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.

7. We never repent of having eat[en] too little.

8. Nothing is troublesome that one does willingly.

9. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.

10. Take things always by their smooth handle.

11. Think as you please, & so let others, & you will have no disputes.

12. When angry, count 10. before you speak; if very angry, 100.

All of these rules for living are fairly straightforward. The one that might puzzle modern readers is number nine: “How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.” A clearer paraphrase of this is: “Don’t worry so much about things that probably will not happen.”

If you were to write Canons of Conduct for your children and grandchildren, what would your list include?

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