Okay, it’s undeniably true that we here at WOOF have a positive fetish for this ridiculous quote. We also love the fact that several websites go on at length describing this event, some even naming the hapless traitor whom Jefferson ostensibly dispatched. The target is supposed to have been Rodney Cox, hailing from North Carolina, who was convicted, the story goes, of providing information on American naval plans to British agents. Jefferson supposedly substituted himself for the firing squad, shot Cox with a musket, and left him to bleed out over the next 10 hours. The source most often cited for this datum is “noted historian Robert Ludlum, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin.”
Sadly, there is no Robert Ludlum, Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, nor anywhere else so far as we have been able to discern. Robert Ludlum is, however, the name of the spy fiction writer who likes to mash proper and common nouns into thriller titles, like “The Bourne Identity” and “The Cassandra Compact.” He is nowhere on record regarding Jefferson’s alleged killing of Cox. So far as WOOF can ascertain, there is no discussion anywhere of Jefferson shooting Cox prior to the debut of the film “Swordfish” in 2001. In the film, hero John Travolta as Gabriel Shears, perhaps best described as an anti-terrorist entrepreneur, shoots a double-dealing U.S. Senator after informing him that “Thomas Jefferson once shot a man on the White House lawn for treason.” And bang! He bags the sleazy politician in mid-rebuttal.
Actually, of course, the White House wasn’t even particularly white during Jefferson’s presidency—it was painted starkly white after the British burned it during the war of 1812 (Jimmy Madison’s tenure). And we weren’t at war with England at the time of Jefferson’s presidency, either. But the cinematic moment is so wonderful that it becomes painful to accept the reality: Thomas Jefferson never shot anybody—and if he had it probably would have been Adams, or maybe scandalmonger James T. Callender. But he didn’t.
All that said, it remains true that Jefferson had a lot to say about the right to bear arms, including:
“No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.”
“The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”
And quoting the criminologist Cesare Beccaria, Jefferson wrote: “Laws that forbid the carrying of arms disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage then to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.”
He also wrote to his nephew, saying, “As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives [only] moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun, therefore, be the constant companion to your walks.” (Tried taking a walk with your gun around town lately?)
Tom didn’t shoot that Cox dude, though! Not for exercise, not for treason. But we LOVE the quote!