Not thirsting for gain

. . . Hands as clean as they are empty . .

By Thomas Jefferson


When I first entered on the stage of public life, I came to a resolution never to engage while in public office in any kind of enterprise for the improvement of my fortune, nor to wear any other character than that of a farmer. I have never departed from it in a single instance. Thus I have thought myself richer in contentment than I should have been with any increase of fortune.

No man ever had less desire of entering into public offices than myself. In truth, I wish for neither honors nor offices. I am happier at home than I can be elsewhere. I have no ambition to govern men; no passion which would lead me to delight to ride in a storm. Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct. I love to see honest and honorable men at the helm, men who will not bend their politics to their purses, nor pursue measures by which they may profit, and then profit by their measures. I have’ the consolation of having added nothing to my private fortune, during my public service, and of retiring with hands as clean as they are empty.

The glow of one warm thought is to me worth more than money. It is neither wealth nor splendor, but tranquility and occupation, which give happiness. Wealth, title, and office are no recommendations to my friendship. On the contrary, great good qualities are requisite to make amends for their having wealth, title, and office. I have not observed men’s honesty to increase with their riches. In the great work which has been effected in America, no individual has a right to take any great share to himself.

Greediness for wealth, and fantastical expense, have degraded, and will degrade, the minds of our citizens. These are the peculiar vices of commerce. The selfish spirit of commerce knows no country, and feels no passion or principle but that of gain. Would a missionary appear, who would make frugality the basis of his religious system, and go through the land, preaching it up as the only road to salvation, I would join his school, though not generally disposed to seek my religion out of the dictates of my own reason, and feelings of my own heart.

I have never been so well pleased, as when I could shift power from my own, on the shoulders of others; nor have I ever been able to conceive how any rational being could propose happiness to himself from the exercise of power over others. I have seen enough of political honors to know that they are but splendid torments. The little spice of ambition which I had in my younger days has long since evaporated, and I set still less store by a posthumous than present name. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst, and cold.

Never did a prisoner, released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power. Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the times in which I have lived, have forced me to take a part in resisting them, and to commit myself on the boisterous ocean of political passions. I thank God for the opportunity of retiring from them without censure, and carrying with me the most consoling proofs of public approbation.

Note: True to his word, Thomas Jefferson died penniless on July 4, 1826 (same day as John Adams) after a lifetime of public service. In fact, President James Madison urged the Congress to appropriate funds from the national treasury to purchase the writings of Thomas Jefferson for the Library of Congress. It was understood at the time that the purchase was tantamount to an act of charity for the impoverished and aging former president who humbly dedicated much of his retirement years as secretary/treasurer of the University of Virginia—which he founded.

James Madison, generally known at the father of the Constitution, was not wealthy at the time of his death, either, and also dedicated his sunset years to the University of Virginia.

The essay above is taken from Light and Liberty: Reflections on the Pursuit of Happiness. The 154-page book is a compilation of the works of Thomas Jefferson edited by Eric Petersen into essays that could be called "the essential Thomas Jefferson." It is available for $11.95 at If you do not have access to the Internet, give us a call and we will help you obtain a copy of this truly inspirational work.


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Created: 2007-04-30 
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