J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Jefferson’s Words on the Constitution and the “Tree of Liberty”

This television image shows William Kostric protesting outside President Barack Obama’s event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, yesterday. Kostric attracted attention because he was wearing a pistol in a holster. He later appeared on Chris Matthews’s television show, as described here:

Matthews asked Kostric to say the rest of the quote—the part not on his sign. He only responded that was for people to “look up. It’s not a sound bite.”

“I’m not advocating violence,” he said. “I’m advocating an informed society, an armed society, a polite society.”
So, in the public interest, here’s the full quotation in context. It comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in France on 13 Nov 1787. William Smith, husband of the younger Abigail Adams, had sent him a copy of the proposed new U.S. Constitution. Jefferson didn’t think the new structure of government was a good idea:
I do not know whether it is to yourself or Mr. [John] Adams, I am to give my thanks for the copy of the new constitution. I beg leave through you, to place them where due. It will yet be three weeks before I shall receive them from America. There are very good articles in it; and very bad. I do not know which preponderate.

What we have lately read in the history of Holland, in the chapter on the Stadtholder, would have sufficed to set me against a chief magistrate, eligible for a long duration, if I had ever been disposed towards one: and what we have always read of the elections of Polish Kings, should have forever excluded the idea of one continuable for life.

Wonderful is the effect of impudent and 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, and 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 [i.e., “Shays’ Rebellion”]? And can history produce an instance of rebellion so honorably conducted? I say nothing of its motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness.

God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and 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 thirteen States independent for eleven years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half, for each State. What country before, ever existed a century and a half, without a rebellion? And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.

The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and 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 and tyrants. It is its natural manure. Our [constitutional] convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts: and on the spur of the moment, they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order. I hope in God, this article will be rectified, before the new constitution is accepted.
Jefferson came to different ideas of the value and power of a chief magistrate once he assumed that office himself. He also felt that his election had produced a sort of revolution in government that meant no more rebellions were needed during his terms. (Of course his notion of beneficial rebellions for liberty didn’t include those by enslaved people.)

Very few of Jefferson’s contemporaries were so sanguine about bloodletting, so he didn’t make this sort of argument in public. The letter was published after his death by his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, and the sentence about refreshing “the tree of liberty” has attracted various fans over the decades. It appeared, for instance, on the T-shirt Timothy McVeigh was wearing when he was caught after bombing the Oklahoma City federal offices.

Me, I always thought the goal of a constitution, regular elections, and protected rights was that the nation could progress without needing a series of fatal rebellions. I also think the quotation “Wonderful is the effect of impudent and persevering lying” is more appropriate to the current clamor over the federal health-insurance bill, considering all the misinformation people are shouting.

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