Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943

Uncommon Sense

The following is from the Uncommon Sense archives. It first appeared in the Fall 2004 issue, no. 119.

Thomas Jefferson’s “Dances with Wolves”

Greek Proverb —Greek Proverb1

Known as a master wordsmith, Thomas Jefferson sometimes outdid even himself. Thus, for example, in a letter about the Missouri Crisis he wrote to John Holmes on April 22, 1820, Jefferson said, “But as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”2 Nowhere did anyone more powerfully capture the moral and practical quandary facing anti-slavery southerners in that period: since self-preservation was understood to be the most basic of impulses and important of obligations, only it could have outweighed justice.

Researchers including Paul Finkelman and Cinder Stanton have noted, however, that Jefferson later used the plural, viz., “We have the wolf by the ears and feel the danger of either holding or letting him loose.”3 This 1824 sentence has the feel of a more hurried product of Jefferson’s pen, so one might have thought that, to paraphrase an ancient explanation of errors in Homer’s texts, “Even Jefferson nods.”

Yet, as Phil Schwarz notes, the difference between “ear” and “ears” can be read as affecting the meaning of the metaphor.4 According to Paul Finkelman, “The ‘wolf by the ear’ implies an even more precarious situation than the wolf by the ‘ears,’” thus putting the holder in heightened danger.5 Finkelman labels this metaphor Jefferson’s “most memorable statement on the subject.”6

Yet, whatever we may think of the image, and of Jefferson’s inconsistent use of it, the terrible image of the slaveholder with the wolf by the ears did not originate with Jefferson at all. Instead, it was a staple of ancient literature, found in a number of ancient writers—from the immortal to the obscure. The Jefferson of the 1820s, a known lover of Greek who carried Plutarch with him much of the time, must have encountered this metaphor in a number of places.

Perhaps the closest to Jefferson’s Holmes letter’s phrasing is that of the Greek proverb constituting this note’s epigram. Besides its use of the first-person singular instead of the plural, it is identical to Jefferson’s version there. Similar statements are also found in the eminent historian Polybius, whose cyclical theory of history and admiration of the Roman Republic’s separation of powers were known to the Founding Fathers and whose works were written in Greek; Aelius Donatus, a fourth-century commentator on Terence, the eminent Roman poet; and the smutty Roman biographer Suetonius, long a staple of Roman history courses. Terence’s version reads, “auribus teneo lupum: nam neque quo pacto a me amittam neque uti retineam scio.”7

Kevin Gutzman
Western Connecticut State University

  1. C. A. E. Luschnig, An Introduction to Ancient Greek (New York, 1975), 283.
  2. Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1905), vol. 12, 159.
  3. Thomas Jefferson to Lydia Sigourney, July 18, 1824.
  4. Philip J. Schwarz, Slave Laws in Virginia (Athens, Ga., 1996), 180 n. 3.
  5. Paul Finkelman, VA-HIST discussion list, 11:08 a.m. EST, February 21, 2003. Available at
  6. Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson, 2nd ed. (Armonk, N.Y., 2001), 160.
  7. Celia Luschnig to author, February 16, 2003, in author’s possession. “I am holding the wolf by the ears, but I know neither by what scheme I might let it away from me nor how I might keep ahold of it.”