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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Thomas 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. Though 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!

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