brandon_scott (brandon_scott) wrote,

The Tree of Liberty

 Popular political quotes often turn out to be fabricated, misattributed, or at very least taken out of context. But the people quoting Thomas Jefferson's famous "tree of liberty" seem to have his words and intent entirely correct. Thomas Jefferson's famous quote, originally written to William Stevens Smith on 13 November 1787, seems to be even more radical in context:
Wonderful is the effect of impudent & persevering lying. The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers to repeat and model into every form lies about our being in anarchy, that the world has at length believed them, the English nation has believed them, the ministers themselves have come to believe them, & what is more wonderful, we have believed them ourselves. 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. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it's natural manure.
His language is a little difficult to read, but here's my interpretation of this paragraph. Jefferson is writing ten years after the American revolution and three months after Shays' Rebellion against the recently Confederated United States of America. The British have been telling their press this meant new America was "in anarchy". Hardly accurate, Jefferson says, since there's been only one rebellion which was "honourably conducted" and "founded in ignorance, not wickedness". Even their ignorance was excusable, since "the people cannot be all, & always well informed". Shays' bewildered, ignorant rebels are merely "discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive", a statement which could also be applied to Tea Partiers today.

Jefferson then happily and unapologetically endorses armed, open conflict between government and rebels. "What country before ever existed a century & a half without a rebellion? Let them take arms." It's all perfectly natural. The costs are acceptable as well. "What signify a few lives lost in a century or two?" But the Tea Party shouldn't expect victory. "The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them." What's important is that the tree of liberty be watered "from time to time" - no fewer than once every 20 years - with the blood of patriots and tyrants in more or less equal measure.

With all due respect I strongly disagree with Mr. Jefferson. First it's the naturalistic fallacy - rebellions are "natural" so they're good. His premise is out of date, too. While it may be as unimaginable to live without rebellion as smallpox or polio, in the last century and a half of *our* time quite a few countries have been peaceful. The countries that haven't are hardly models, failed states at worst, or unstable catastrophes at best. Shays' Rebellion - 1000 rebels openly marching with a list of demands, "studiously avoid[ing] bloodshed" - is a far cry from some widely condemned lone bomber or assassin leaving behind an incomprehensible manifesto. Jefferson asks "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", but this seems terribly shortsighted even in Jefferson's day. The consequence of Shays' rebellion was "setting up a kite to keep the hen-yard in order", causing crackdowns and treason trials, and spurring the creation of the Constitution with its larger, stronger Federal government. In modern days the Oklahoma City bombing or Giffords' attempted assassination have raised police surveillance and "set kites upon the hen-yard" the same way. That the whole episode was "founded in ignorance" and "misconceived facts" made this tragedy a farce. With all due respect to Thomas Jefferson, what he's written here is one of the best arguments against originalism that I've ever read. The original intent of one of our nation's most prominent Founding Fathers was to have armies, state militias, and bands of outraged citizens shooting at each other at least every twenty years, which seems not just absolutely insane but counterproductive to the pursuit of real liberty.
Tags: writings

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