Who Said 'Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God'?

The quote has been ascribed to both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. It's possible that neither came up with it himself.

Published Apr 9, 2023

 (Getty Images/Stock Image)
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The stirring motto "Rebellion to [against] tyrants is obedience to God" is often shared on social media, though it seems there is some confusion over its origin.

Sometimes it's ascribed to Thomas Jefferson, as in the tweet below: 

rebellion to tyrants is obedience to god

Others attribute the quote to Benjamin Franklin: 

rebellion to tyrants is obedience to god

So, who really said (or wrote) those words first? As we learned in the process of untangling its roughly 250-year history, both Jefferson and Franklin had a hand in promulgating the saying. Of the two, Franklin was more likely its originator, though it's possible neither came up with it. Here's what we found in our investigation.

Thomas Jefferson

One reason Jefferson has always been so closely associated with the motto is that he was part of a three-man committee (along with Franklin and John Adams) delegated by the Continental Congress to create a design for the great seal of the United States of America. The design Jefferson et al. submitted included, on one side, the words "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." 

rebellion to tyrants is obedience to godProposed Great Seal of the United States of America (MPI/Getty Images)

Though the proposal was rejected by Congress, Jefferson so loved the motto that he also proposed it for the great seal of Virginia and later enshrined it on his personal seal, the oldest known example of which is on the wax seal of a letter he wrote in 1790. He also had it inscribed on a gate in the graveyard of his home, Monticello.  

Lastly, scholars have found the motto in Jefferson's handwritten notes: "And never — never forget That Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God," he wrote in 1776.  But those words weren't his own. They were part of his transcription of an item published in December 1775 in the Pennsylvania Evening Post. The item, known a "Bradshaw's Epitaph," was described as follows: 

The following inscription was made out three years ago on the cannon near which the ashes of President Bradshaw were lodged on the top of a high-hill near Martha Bray in Jamaica to avoid the rage against the Regicides exhibited at the Restoration.

The "President Bradshaw" referred to was John Bradshaw, a prominent English jurist who was appointed lord president of the high court of justice to oversee the trial and beheading of King Charles I, and who was convicted of tyranny and treason, in 1649. 

Some had doubts about the authenticity of "Bradshaw's Epitaph," however, most notably Jefferson himself. He added this note at the bottom of his handwritten transcript: "from many circumstances there is reason to believe there does not exist any such inscription as the above and that it was written by Dr. Franklin in whose hand it was first seen." 

Jefferson apparently thought it plausible that Franklin wrote the epitaph himself, which also implies that Franklin could have been the true author of "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God."


Many historians think it plausible that Franklin was the true author, as well. A copy of the document on the Founders Online website, a project of the U.S. National Archives, bears the title "'Bradshaw's Epitaph': a Hoax Attributed to Franklin." It wouldn't have been out of character for him. Franklin, infamously, was a prodigious forger and disseminator of misinformation. It's not unreasonable to suppose that he created the epitaph from scratch, submitted it to the Pennsylvania Evening Post, and passed his handwritten copy to others as a legitimate transcription. Still, Franklin never admitted to doing so, nor does a paper trail exist proving he fabricated either the inscription or its backstory. 

In any case, the backstory is full of gaping holes. There is no evidence that Bradshaw was buried in Jamaica, and clear evidence that he was buried in England. No trace has ever been found of the cannon in Jamaica on which the epitaph was allegedly inscribed. Few historians today believe the epitaph is legitimate, and many believe Franklin made it up out of whole cloth (despite the scant evidence that he in fact did so). But if it wasn't a hoax invented by Franklin, where did it come from? And might Franklin himself have believed it was authentic when he shared it with Jefferson? Author and historian J.L. Bell, who has written extensively about "Bradshaw's Epitaph" and its hazy provenance, has suggested that it might never have been a hoax per se. 

Bell hypothesizes that the "epitaph" originated as a tribute to John Bradshaw composed anonymously in the early 1770s by admirers of the judge, perhaps with the intention that it be inscribed on a cannon in Jamaica. The document was shared with and copied by others, and at some point came to the attention of Franklin, who copied it, submitted it to the newspaper, and showed it to Jefferson. 

Under this theory, "Bradshaw's Epitaph" was at no point a deliberate hoax, knowingly passed on with false information. But people who liked the lines were too quick to assume that they had already been engraved at Martha Brae, then that they had been composed back in the seventeenth century. The man who knew the most about the real story, Bryan Edwards, cast doubt on it in print without ever coming out and admitting his own role in launching the tale.

The line "Rebellion to tyrants is resistance to God" is thus not a creation of Thomas Jefferson, nor a hoax by Benjamin Franklin. It's most likely a sincere product of the political movement in Britain's North American colonies resisting new Crown measures in the 1760s and 1770s—but not on the mainland.

To summarize, Jefferson's beloved motto was not authored by him, but may have been secretly authored by Franklin, who first showed it to Jefferson and to whom "Bradshaw's Epitaph" has long been attributed. On the other hand, it may be the case that Franklin didn't write it either, and that it originated not as a hoax, but as an earnest tribute to a historical figure whose opposition to tyranny aligned with the ideals of the American revolution. Or it may have originated some other way. Barring the emergence of more definitive evidence, we might never know the full and true history of the quote.


Bell, J.L. Assessing "Bradshaw's Supposititious Epitaph." Accessed 5 Apr. 2023.

Bell, J.L. "It Was Proposed to Erect a Cenotaph to the President's Memory." Accessed 5 Apr. 2023.

Bell, J.L. The Full History of "Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God." Accessed 5 Apr. 2023.

Founders Online: "Bradshaw's Epitaph": A Hoax Attributed to Franklin. Accessed 5 Apr. 2023.

Founders Online: Home. Accessed 5 Apr. 2023.

"Founding Forger: How Benjamin Franklin Mastered the Art of Fake News." HistoryNet, 22 June 2022,

"Hiding in the Archives - Identifying a Priceless Jefferson Manuscript of 1776." Monticello, 18 Oct. 2018,

"Monticello Graveyard." Monticello, Accessed 5 Apr. 2023.

"Personal Seal." Monticello, Accessed 5 Apr. 2023.

David Emery is a West Coast-based writer and editor with 25 years of experience fact-checking rumors, hoaxes, and contemporary legends.