I came across the following paragraph when reading Jon Meecham's The Art of Power ( it's a excerpt from the epistle from Jefferson to John Page)

we have both been drawn from our natural passion for study & tranquility, by times which took from us the freedom of choice: times however which, planting a new world with the seeds of just government, will produce a remarkeable aera in the history of mankind. it was incumbent on those therefore who fell into them, to give up every favorite pursuit, and lay the shoulder to the work of the day.

I Googled the phrase but couldn't find matching expressions. The closest one it showed was 'put one's shoulder to the wheel', which means 'work hard at something', and it somehow fits the context herein. Therefore I was wondering if the phrase has fallen out of use or morphed into other forms?

  • It's not an expression I remember having encountered before but the meaning is immediately obvious.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 6, 2017 at 0:06
  • lay your shoulder to it, put your back into it, put your weight behind it, etc. These are all obvious metaphors deriving from a literal meaning of using the mass of your body to enhance a physical accomplishment (labor). If you've ever done manual labor then there is no problem understanding any of them. If you rely only on the strength of your limbs, without taking advantage of your core mass, you likely won't get far.
    – Drew
    Jul 6, 2017 at 2:49
  • Thomas Jefferson was simply misquoting a familiar (to us) phrase, namely put your shoulder to the wheel, and the paragraph is simply badly written.
    – Ed999
    Mar 28, 2021 at 2:07

1 Answer 1


It is like "lean into it." I would say it means push harder into your work. When you have hard work to do and you are struggling you need to "lean into it" which is how I would say it in today's English, but "lay one's shoulder to" something seems to be the same type of expression, but in an older English style.

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