Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Jefferson's "Tree of Liberty" Quote in Context

Over the past few weeks we have witness how the debate over healthcare has ignited the fires of political partisanship on both sides of the conservative/liberal spectrum. Whether taking the form of intense town hall meetings or fervent public protests -- in which some even chose to carry automatic weapons in public -- the debate over healthcare has caused scores of Americans to yet again invoke the founding principles of America to support their respective take on the issue.

In the wake of this public discourse one infamous and stirring quote has made its way onto the public stage: enter none other than Thomas Jefferson.

In 1787, Thomas Jefferson -- who was then living in France -- wrote a letter to his friend William Smith. In the letter Jefferson wrote the following words, which have, from time-to-time, been quoted to affirm the right of the people to rebel against one's government:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it's natural manure.
Simple enough, right? Well, not quite. And while Jefferson's "tree of liberty" quote has become a favorite of many who oppose the current direction being taken by the Obama Administration, the quote has an important and often forgotten context.

As mentioned before, Jefferson was still living and working in France in 1787. At the time, Jefferson was deeply concerned about some of the proposals for the new United States Constitution -- particularly the role of the executive branch, which he saw as being far too powerful. In addition, Jefferson believed that the recent rebellion in Massachusetts -- which became known as Shays' Rebellion -- had heightened the fears of the American elite, causing them to throw their weight behind a stronger executive government. Shays' Rebellion was essentially an armed rebellion against taxes being levied at Massachusetts farmers. It's leader, Daniel Shays -- who had served as a soldier during the American Revolution -- used the legacy of the American Revolution to garner support for his cause. As a result, scores of patriotic Massachusetts men, most of whom were farmers themselves, resurrected the legacy of the "liberty tree" to fight the perceived injustices of the newly created government. As a result, America's governing class -- and yes, it was a class -- believed that a strong centralized government was the only surefire way to ensure America's future security.

For Jefferson, this was a textbook example of how passions could cloud judgement, creating an atmosphere of panic and fear. As Jefferson states in his letter to William Smith:

Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusetts? And can history produce an instance of rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it's motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, & always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13. states independent 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century & a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century & half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms
Simply put, Jefferson understood Shays' Rebellion to be a common and important component of republican government. Without it, the people could not be effectively represented and the communal "lethargy" would eventually destroy the nation. On the flip side, however, Jefferson also notes that the people are rarely if ever well informed on all issues. It is this communal ignorance -- Jefferson emphasises ignorance and not wickedness -- that Jefferson believes the government must endeavor to remedy. He continues:

The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them.
The remedy is not suppression or rejection of public discontent, rather persuasion and public discourse.

So would Jefferson support the current public dialogue on healthcare? There's a good chance that he would. We can debate whether or not he would like the current rhetoric of the conservatives/liberals but I think it's hard to deny that Jefferson would be pleased to see the outpouring of public interest.

With that said, I doubt Jefferson would support actual blood being shed on the proverbial "Tree of Liberty." After all, enough blood has been lost thanks in part to this often misunderstood quote. It was Timothy McVeigh, the convicted Oklahoma City bomber, who was so very misguided by his poor understanding of Jefferson's words. On the day he chose to murder 168 of his fellow Americans, McVeigh was wearing a shirt that carried Jefferson's infamous words:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it's natural manure.
May we ALWAYS remember to be cautious with the history we fail to understand!


Christian Salafia said...


Am I to understand that Jefferson meant that to mean that it's needed to remind us that the general populace is ill-informed?

I'm confused.

Brad Hart said...

I don't think I understand your question. I'll try to word it differently:

Jefferson (in my opinion) believed that the public was regularly ill-informed -- as did most of the elites of the 18th century. However, Jefferson saw public "rebellions" as constructive to republican governments.

jimmiraybob said...

Jefferson to Madison, January 30 1787 (Regarding Shay’s rebellion)


Those states have suffered by the stoppage of the channels of their commerce, which have not yet found other issues. This must render money scarce and make the people uneasy. This uneasiness has produced acts absolutely unjustifiable; but I hope they will provoke no severities from their governments.


I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. .... It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.


While (at least in 1787) Jefferson may have been fond of the idea of “a little rebellion” he was certainly cognizant of the unjustifiable acts that rebellion can produce. Given what you point out about Jefferson’s nod to ignorance giving rise to false and unjustifiable cause I would have to conclude that he would have been appalled at the loss of life, property and liberty arising from the propagation of false information to advance hidden agendas resulting in armed insurrection.

Jefferson goes on to outline three basic forms of civil management: 1) no government at all, 2) a government in which the voice of the people is well represented, and 3) a government of force, “… as is the case in all other monarchies, and in most of the other republics.”

It should come as no surprise that, while he was sympathetic to the first, he was a champion of the second and a foe of the third. But at what point does government action carried out for the good of the whole but perceived by the part (assuming imperfect information being available) justify the charge of tyranny? And at what point would he concede to either rebellion to overthrow, or government force to preserve, the cohesion of a legitimate government acting in its belief that it was acting in good faith for the greatest good (all actions will have its supporters and detractors)? Especially, when the remedy of electing representatives is readily available? What would be his “test” for necessity - for justifiable rebellion against civil authority knowing that it is the government's obligation to preserve itself and the safety, happiness/property and prosperity of the greater part of its citizens?

I want a tee shirt that outlines the test.

J said...

Actually, that bon mot probably indicates Jefferson's support of the ...French Revolution, at least in principle.

American schoolmarmies generally don't let their students know that Jefferson favored deposing the Bourbon monarchy, though I think he sided more with the moderate "Girondins"--such as Condorcet--rather than the Jacobins and Robespierre (though some of the pro-Federalist types accused Jefferson of being in cahoots with jacobins--).

Either way, I would agree the rightist/NRA types misinterpret Jefferson's quote--probably (though Jefferson was quite a libertarian and anti-statist in ways, and not always as liberal as some read him).

Brad Hart said...

Thanks for referencing the Jefferson-Madison letter, JRB. I think it's clear that while Jefferson favored public displays of "rebellion," he clearly was not a supporter of Shays' Rebellion. At some point Jefferson drew the line between communal patriotism and mob violence.

J, I agree. Jefferson was not as liberal as we are sometimes led to believe.

Soundbyte said...

Thank you for a thoughtful and balanced discussion.

Protector said...

I would like to point out that nobody was carrying automatic weapons... An automatic weapon is what is more commonly known as a machine gun. What people were carrying were semi-automatic weapons, oooo, sounds scary. Yes it is an "assault" rifle, but it is not automatic.

Ro said...

The rights of the individual must outweigh the so called 'good of the many' or you have tyranny by majority. Majority rule is two wolves and a sheep arguing over what's for dinner or 51% telling the other 49% how to live and what privileges they have rather than god given rights.

Anonymous said...

Ro- Majority Rule is also two parents and their son arguing over bedtime, or three friends arguing over which of two movies to see. Your wolf/sheep analogy presumes a predator/prey relationship, the family analogy presumes an adult/child (or more wise/less wise) relationship, and the friends analogy presumes a peer relationship. Each has their strengths and weaknesses when describing American representative government, and whichever one is used reveals a bit about the user's attitudes about that government.

I think it's more nuanced than individual rights outweighing the "good of the many" 100% of the time. If we are always primarily concerned with our own personal rights, we promote self-centeredness, greed, etc. I've always thought of "citizenship" as the ideal of putting the well-being of others before our own, at least some of the time, when we can bare the discomfort of putting ourselves first. And one could call that ideal of putting others first the act of giving up personal rights.

I want to blow through the stop sign (my personal right), but I ought to give that up in exchange for not killing someone in the intersection. Laws are the formalization of those self/other tradeoffs. And if 51% think I ought to stop at the sign, then that's what I ought to do, like it or not, or be willing to take the consequences. But, you and I may be talking about "rights" in two different ways.

I'll stop there for now, though I could go on (and on and on...). BTW, thanks to all posters here - a refreshing civil discussion, relative to the other tripe out there.

Juan Freeman said...

I can understand why "Anonymous" would wish to remain so . . .

Parent / child argument does not work. Parents are always responsible for teaching and training children. It is that training stemming from knowledge and experience that prepares the child for adulthood. Love is essential to true success. Without it, tyranny results. Decision makers at the highest level of government have displayed what can only be generously chararacterized as ignorrance or more likely it is contempt for the populace in numerous areas - hardly an experienced loving parent type.

Individual rights form the basis for freedom in action. Those rights are to be enjoyed equally by all. True liberty should also include responsibility for one's actions. If one's actions infringe upon the liberty of another, the boundary has been crossed.

Consider the stop sign example. In a truly just society concerned with liberty, the selfish or careless driver who runs the stop sign and deprives, as a result, another citizen of life, should be held responsible. Though often maligned, an eye for an eye type justice would result in fewer stop signs run.

It is so predictable how the "nuanced" arguments seek to minimize the responsibility of those who truly are, and asign responsibility to those who in truth have none.

Anonymous said...

"Majority Rule is also two parents and their son arguing over bedtime, or three friends arguing over which of two movies to see."

Since when is the majority always the "wiser" of the two sides? To suggest that is sheer arrogance. What you are suggesting is that "might makes right".

If you were intellectually honest, you would realize that is also called a "tyranny".

Shaun Texas said...

I'm sorry but there are many misgivings in both sides of Jefferson's meaning. And I purpose no interpretation myself. Just to say noone here in this time knew anything about Jefferson or his meanings that isn't purely speculative. I will say the quote serves its meaning in generality today quite well though. Our country is quickly following the dodo bird. It's not just worrisome speculation that I say this. What our government represents today is most certainly not the people. The politicians are purely so and have no interest in civic duty. The people have been "frog in boiling water" declawed and made purposefully ignorant of reality by the policies of the government of the last 100 years or more. By elitists who wish for control without conflict. Jefferson as a libertarian would undoubtedly be appalled at todays America. He would see no understanding of the people who have LET this come to be as is. As an elitist he would be proud of the cunning method in which the people have been so totally neutered as a resistant force in government. There are few like myself that remain steadfast in the honest values and principles the country became to be originally created by. We are outnumbered. We are misrepresented in mainstream propaganda news. We are mostly libertarians. But when things do come to a head we'll be the ones the rest lean on to pull ourselves out of the ashes. We niether like violence nor turn away when challenged. We stand for our country. Not our politicians and a growing majority of corrupted police who themselves act on ignorance as Jefferson stated most people do. It's not fair. It's not fun. It's not wanted. But it won't turn away those truely vested in our brothers and sisters of this country.

Teed Epefanio said...

well said, Anonymous... I agree with you...

JSimpson said...

And what so we do when the represenitives of the people no longer represent us, but the powers with money to influence them? Do we surrender, because we are good citizens, or do we fight for or way of life, even if it means armed revolution against the modern bouyuges? I don't wanna see gun, but I think it is coming, the blood that Jefferson prodicted.

Anonymous said...

We the people have been nullified by those we have elected.. we are able to see the floor show fed to the media like porage to a child by the Demorcrats and Republicans but it's all smoke and mirrors --- it's time to use the Cpnstitution to create a new republic and toss out the existing one which has been subjugated to the will of the tow polictical parties not the people

Anonymous said...

"...The people cannot be all, & always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13. states independent 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century & a half for each state."

So, lethargy is the death of the republic? I agree. But this observation applies equally to both uninformed/misinformed inaction, or informed inaction.

And so, if each state should average one rebellion per 150 years, even counting the civil war we are WAY overdue for another rebellion.

But those of us that recognize how far we have drifted from the founder's vision already know this.

The quote stands as widely interpreted.

Anonymous said...

Reading the Quotes herein leaves me with the feeling that even here, America is merely Leftist control minded vs the liberty crowd. The issue is at what point would Jefferson said ENOUGH ! I believe we have reached that point, which is an individual decision. It takes little more than Pelosi's famous quote "we must pass the bill to see what is in the bill".

My god, can any american today support such a thing? if so, I openly accuse you of ignorance of our way of life and government, solely to further your views of socialism (proven failure over and over again). THIS health care thing crosse the line, hell it abolished the line.

Leftists hang on their dream of equality and "fairness" like grim death. Problem is that the dream is a dream, not reality. and absence of reality is mental illness. Reality is that yes, people suffer. All people suffer. When the rich man gets cancer or stroke, he suffers greatly.

but wealth equality models are class warfare, and class warfare transfers all people to the lower class. Take my earnings to give to your chosen "victim" and I quit work. then what have you left???? tyranny. forcing me to work to support your hair brained dream.

Turn off the TV and its 1 sided liberal pap. get out into the real world, all of it, and embrace reality, the good and the bad. Please. Real people suffer. always have, always will.

the real insanity is the false depiction of Poor in America. Appalachians, sure, that is real. abuse by coal mines, certainly. but in the welfare communities surrounding my area, they have cars, Wii, guns, liquor, ho's, and anything they want. they hold us hostage by way of threat of neglect of their own kids, and use the system and fill the prisons.

signing as anonymous because I don't want to give away yet another bit of information to be used to torture me by industry or govt with spam and etc.

Greg C in South East VA.

Fat Bastard said...

He meant that we should kill the ruling class when they get out of line.

Anonymous said...

I believe Mcveigh was wearing a shirt with "sic semper tyrannis" on it.

Anthony Stanley said...

I understand the context that Jefferson made the statement,"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it's natural manure." I also realize that, as the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, he wrote,"...when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

Jefferson treads a fine line between the rights and responsibilities of the People in their participation in government. He rightly understands that ignorance is a fact of life in any form of government, but also seeks to lessen that ignorance. Also, he makes the case that when any government usurps the will of the People (and the States) so egregiously that dialogue is no longer possible, armed resistance is by the People (and the States) is not only a right, but a duty.

Trying to read into the thoughts of a man who has been dead almost 186 years is difficult enough, but when he gives two statements that aren't really at odds with one another, regardless of context, it's a safe bet (in my opinion) that he feels that the governed have more than just a passive voice in the conduct of their government.

Able Freeman said...

McVeigh was part of a larger plot by the crumbling empire. In an effort to create negative feelings in the public for any kind of unorganized militia movement. That movement representing the only real possibility of a relatively peaceful transition to the next paradigm which is inevitable. And definitely not what the elite want.

Anonymous said...

Typical LIBERAL hubris.
We are not stupid, and we understand the English language.
Thomas Jefferson meant what he said.
We DID have an American revolution with ACTUAL spilled blood that the man Jefferson knew of, and he wasn't a liar.

Anonymous said...

You're a just misinforming the public even more you prig. To understand something in context is to present it in it's entirety, which you have not. If I knew you were actually human and not a pandering pundit patsy leech payed to extrude the filth of the banking elite. I hope the blood of patriots and tyrants washes our states clean of vermin like you. Stop lying to yourself, and esp. stop lying to the people. The truth shall set you free...

halfwitt said...

I think Jefferson was being literal with the meaning that patriots and tyrants must die for liberty to be maintained and in the context he was saying that the Shay rebellion was a good thing but fomented for the wrong reasons, but the right cause. All men are misinformed and guided by causes removed in some measure from the purpose of each individual but in communion with the whole of those active in that cause/rebellion. Common purpose is liberty, but why each is involved is potentially different. Like, say one hundred don't want to pay taxes, but five or six just want to kill (for other reasons) the jerk proposed the tax and who might be the target of the rebellion.
The metaphor of the liberty tree might have been the purpose of the eloquent quote though as TJ did write in this manner. The tree of liberty is threatened by tyranny like an insect that would bore into and kill the tree from the inside and the patriot might be a predator of that borer insect, both dying in a struggle not to save the tree but as a natural struggle of nature balance. But that patriot insect might derive its livelihood from that same tree and in protecting the tree the patriot preserves himself but perishes in the process, but his progeny survives. So it is with the liberty tree, we would be fertilizer for the tree both patriot and tyrant as we rot, but the liberty being the higher life form/end, above the patriot and far above the destructive tyrant for they are the most uninformed of the lot. At least the patriot can see the threat to his livelihood, the tyrant only benefits himself whilst destroying his source of life eventually. The death of the patriot is an unfortunate consequence of this, but often no other choice is to be made if liberty is to be saved. We must prepare ourselves for this potential fully and well, for now it the time for fulfillment of Jefferson's prophetic word. Not from the famous quote, but from the letter and context. He stated that to few rebellions will lead to complacency as our grandfathers did. " If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13. states independent 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century & a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century & half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms" The civil war was the last great rebellion and it ended badly, cause if Lincoln had lived it would have meant the central banks would not have won the civil wars primary objective. Debt repayment and the Corporate take over of our national lands by foreign banks. In the time after the war, Lincoln would have dissolved the corporation of the United States of America and thus preserved ownership to the Constitutional government and the people, but by his death the bankers retained their debt collateral in the public lands which lead to the ultimate creation of the FRS and the IRS in 1913 and then the Great Depression and loss of the gold standard, leading to the artificial business cycle and the inflationary/deficit to debt cycles, now seen as tyrannical debt and loss of liberties under the soon to collapse Federal Reserve notes {collapse of the dollar} and another civil war and WWIII globally.

Chuck Burns said...

You obviously do not look at this objectively and the presuppositions you use to form your arguments are more then obvious. When men say this famous quote it should not be trivialized nor they impugned for not understanding it's historical context. We should not be lecturing other Americans for using this kind of language improperly but glad that patriots still walk among us and not all the country has slipped into complacency. The fact that this quote is being echoed more by the day should cause us all to take a look around a make note of our countries current state. If you had done this instead of Immediately jumped on your high horse you would have noticed that there is more then a reason for concern. Our president with the health care law and in 4 other instances has directly broke the law in regards to the constitution he has also committed treason and acted in a seditious fashion through his actions and their effect on Americans if you would like me to list them all out for you simply respond to my comment of find me on twitter at @CBURNS4VTA but in closing I will say your condescending tone towards concerned Americans shows your location to be on the left side of the proverbial fence whether you claim to be or not. And if I am wrong perhaps some internal reflection is needed on your part you know some "Chicken Soup for the Republican Soul".

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Inunz said...

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Eric Boston said...

Well said Shaun!