The Jefferson Test

Sometimes when another person’s lifestyle choices strike me as different from what I would choose, even markedly so, but don’t actually affect me, I’ll just shrug and say, “Well, it passes the Jefferson test.” Usually people have no idea what I’m talking about, so I thought I’d go ahead and explain it here so that I can conveniently refer people to it when the need arises.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” And that seems like an appropriately high standard to maintain before getting involved in someone else’s business. If someone has a particularly strange belief or activities, but it does me no injury, then it passes the Jefferson test, and I move on. Life is short, and goals are hard enough to reach as it is without being deterred by things that aren’t actually obstacles.

Now, I’m aware that Jefferson was a hypocrite when it came to individual liberty, that his enslavement of other people manifestly fails the Jefferson test, and his other writings confirm that he was not merely unaware of the problem because of the era in which he lived, but wrestled with it, referring to slavery as a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot”. That’s why if you ask me who the figures from the American Revolution are who I respect I’ll say Thomas Paine and Roger Sherman, not Jefferson. However, those gentlemen didn’t come up with this particular pithy remark, Jefferson did, so there it is.