“God forbid that we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” – Thomas Jefferson[i]
To what was Thomas Jefferson referring? A dozen years following the Declaration of Independence, a dispute exacerbated by poor economic conditions led some folks, particularly of Massachusetts, to rebel. The outbreak of violence, known as Shay’s Rebellion, stirred leaders to call a convention to establish a Constitution rather than the Articles of Confederation and to promote inter-state trade. The rebellion was quickly quelled and only a few lives were lost; eventually President Washington pardoned those convicted of treason citing that it was ignorance not malevolence that encouraged them to action.
Still, one wonders how a man like Jefferson who sought always after a peaceful life surrounded by nature and his love of architecture could promote rebellion within the U.S.
Thomas Jefferson feared the lethargy of the people over a rebellion conspired by discontent. He believed that usually the discontent will be from the ignorance of some, they being misinformed of the propriety of certain government actions. He writes:
“The people can not 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.”[ii]
Lethargy of the citizenry should be feared more than insurrection. How lethargic is the population of the U.S. in 2013? (Notice, I did not ask if they are lethargic.) In today’s modern world, men often believe themselves well informed if only they drink of the pablum of mainstream media. It is possible however, with some effort to be accurately informed on the issues of state. If they are well-informed and thereby discontented, assured of the legitimacy under the Constitution of their stand; would Jefferson still be inclined to give them a free pass for rebellion? I believe he would based on his own writings wherein he has questions himself on the legitimacy of the actions of some and even questions concerning the Constitution. (Contrary to popular understanding, Jefferson was not involved in the writing of the Constitution directly though his thoughts on limited federal government and power in the hands of the people is certainly part and parcel of the document.) His strongest argument in support of revolution, however, is not a desire for anarchy but his fear of the lethargy of the people. That would be America’s death sentence.
Jefferson is often quoted from this same letter about the tree of liberty and it needing to be refreshed from time to time by the blood of patriots and tyrants. A realist, Jefferson saw that revolt was more critical than peace if that peace is promoted by the people’s lethargy. He reasoned that if an uprising of the people cost a few lives then a few in consideration of the greater citizenry was not critical. Few quote the next sentence from the ‘tree of liberty’ portion of the letter. Please, allow me:
“It is its natural manure.” [iii]