On September 27 2019, a Facebook user shared the following meme, which attributes a quote about tyranny to Thomas Jefferson:
Underneath an image of what appeared to be a firearm trigger, text read:
“Tyranny is defined as that which is legal for the government but illegal for the citizenry.” — Thomas Jefferson
No source or link appeared alongside it offering any context for the quote. The same image and quote was shared by the Facebook page “Guns, Gear & Ammo” in August 2019.
It wasn’t new to the internet in August 2019 either, as one of the first results returned in a search for it was a 2006 Cato Institute blog post in which its author added the purported Jefferson commentary to their thoughts on internet gambling bans:
That quote, commonly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, comes to mind when contemplating yesterday’s vote in Congress to ban Internet gambling … a good number of Congressmen, most of them Republican, voted to ban Internet gambling sites operated by private citizens, but voted to allow them when operated by the government.
The online presence for Monticello.org hosts materials from Jefferson’s library and papers. In its “Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters” section, the quote appears in its own entry. That entry describes it as a “quotation commonly misattributed to Thomas Jefferson.”
A separate page [“Tyranny is defined as that which is legal for the government (Spurious Quotation)”] references a number of sources checked by Monticello.org historians in March 2009. It concludes:
This quotation has not been found in any of the writings of Thomas Jefferson.
A quote asserting that Thomas Jefferson said “tyranny is defined as that which is legal for the government but illegal for the citizenry” has been floating around the internet since at least 2006, likely even earlier. Historians at Jefferson’s official library and website searched extensively in an attempt to corroborate the quote, finding that it appeared nowhere in Jefferson’s writings or quotations. Its origin is unknown, but Jefferson has been ruled out.