What Did Jefferson Really Mean When He Called For Rebellion?
Thomas Jefferson spoke of revolution often, commented on rebellions, and wrote the Declaration of Independence. So there are many Jefferson quotes regarding revolution which to explain (and just as many misquotes).
We present Jefferson’s full Nov. 1787 “Tree of Liberty” letter below, first we will offer context and explanation.
- When Thomas Jefferson said, “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” he was expressing the idea that a little rebellion is healthy for a democracy and shouldn’t be punished too harshly by the state (it should be punished, as it was illegal, but not too harshly). This was said in a letter that was expressing worry that Shays’ Rebellion would be be used as a reason to justify a conservative Constitution (the letter has him commenting on Shays’ rebellion, the Constitution which is then in draft form, and the British propaganda claiming the colonies where anarchistic).
- Likewise, Thomas Jefferson never called for a revolution every generation or a revolution every 19 or 20 years. When Jefferson said, “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion,” he was expressing the idea that “liberties are ensured by the spirit of resistance” and that all great nations had rebellions (again justifying that liberty shouldn’t be sacrificed by conservative worry). He says, “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 he is arguably justifying a revolution every century and a half more than every 20 years here.
Both the above quotes, and many other similar quotes (some of which are presented below), can be confirmed by the following link and are presented in full in his papers. Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 5 (Correspondence 1786-1789) (1905).
Thomas Jefferson ‘tree of liberty’ speech.
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. – Tree of Liberty Letter
Understanding the Radical Liberal Jefferson and the General Reaction to Shays’ Rebellion
The famous quotes above really only makes sense in context of the times and Jefferson’s character.
As noted above, Jefferson was one of the more liberal founding fathers (which means he was pretty darn liberal) and Jefferson was speaking specifically of Shays’ Rebellion in the “little rebellion” quote, not just revolution in general. He was also saying it in the context of how the event should affect the new Constitution (which was in draft phase and he was partially unhappy with).
He was mostly here criticizing the other more conservative founders who wanted to take harsh action against the rebels (Shay) and even insinuating that British propaganda was influencing their decision.
Shays’ Rebellion. The main thing to understand here is Shays’ Rebellion.
Jefferson tries to point out in protest, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure” and “And can history produce an instance of rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of its motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.”
Thus, it is not that Jefferson never called for revolution or rebellion; he most certainly did. We should take care not to take his quotes out of context thinking that he wanted his beloved America to experience a full blown revolution every 20 years (as that would be utter chaos and prove those old Tories right).
The Declaration of Independence, which contains Jefferson’s most famous quote, makes his appreciation for republics, democracy, and the law very clear.
Men have the right to a just government, have natural rights, and have the right to consent to be governed. They have the right to a little rebellion too. If that rebellion is not justified legally, the state has a right to put down the rebellion, but still, “let us not punish that rebellion so harshly that it deters future patriots”.
TIP: Jefferson was an anti-Federalist and wrote the Declaration of Independence, in many ways he was one of the more revolutionary founding fathers. Jefferson was also in France when he wrote the letter and wasn’t as personally involved as those who Shay marched on. Despite his flippant quotes, Jefferson clearly had respect for the rule of law and believed in the merits of a Republic. He believed the state-organized Militias had a right to put down Shay. However, he didn’t want the punishment to be so harsh as to make citizens fear a little rebellion now and then as he saw the freedom to demonstrate disagreement as necessary to liberty. The founders understood his point of view, and this is part of the reason Madison created the Second Amendment to ensure Militias. In other words, while the Second, Militias, and this Jefferson quote are sometimes used to justify rebellion, their actual meaning is more about how a liberal state can deal with rebels.
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: This would be like if Edward Snowden was caught, Jefferson would be saying, “we need to punish him, but not so harshly that it stops other whistleblowers”. If it were the Reconstruction era Jefferson would be saying, “the Confederates should be dealt with, but not too harshly, as we don’t want to deter future patriots”. Get it? Our founding father was a radical liberal and philosopher, but he was not an anarchist.
Thomas Jefferson’s Other Revolutionary Quotes
Jefferson often wrote about Revolution and discussed the merits of rebellion many times, so it’s easy to clarify the statements made about by checking them against his other written works. You can see examples of Jefferson and rebellion here. Below we will cover the key instances where he discusses defiance.
Earlier, Jefferson had suggested a similar thing to Madison in a letter from Paris (Jan 20, 1787). He wrote that “a little rebellion now and then” shouldn’t be punished too harshly as the people need to be able to protest to ensure their liberty. Again, Jefferson was defending America’s liberal ideals and the people’s right to protest.
He also says a similar thing to Abigail Adams. When he says:
“… The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.” – “Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Smith Adams, February 22, 1787.”
The main topic of all these letters is that we shouldn’t let the fear of rebellion create an authoritative state like a monarchy. It was not a call for uprisings.
FACT: Thomas Jefferson replaced Benjamin Franklin as United States Minister to France May 17, 1785 – September 26, 1789. He was in France at the start of the French Revolution of 1789. Franklin and Jefferson helped spur on both the American and French revolutions along with their friend, the propagandist Thomas Paine. Learn more about the French Revolution and the origin of the political terms left and right.
TIP: See an example of a misquote here Forum Post: Thomas Jefferson advocated “A REVOLUTION EVERY TWENTY YEARS” – so the “Second American Revolution” that he called for is kinda long overdue, isn’t it?
Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, & as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government. – Letter to Madison
Thomas Jefferson & His Democracy: Crash Course US History #10.
Thomas Jefferson Vs. the Other Founders
Many of America’s founders, like Jefferson, had a pro-France anti-federalist stance. However, many didn’t and even some that did didn’t support Shay.
It is important to note that the many people in the states, who were dealing with the revolution disagreed with the very classically liberal anti-Federalist Jefferson who was in Paris becoming enamored with the growing French Revolution.
In the states, the very famous well-regulated militias were used to put down the Massachusetts rebellion (Shays’ Rebellion) of which Jefferson speaks. In other words, the most classically liberal of all the founders supported rebellion from his desk in Paris, but it wasn’t the most popular idea with many Americans at the time who feared uprisings. As noted above, this whole conversation eventually resulted in the Second Amendment which both officially creates Constitutional militias in defense of the state to put down rebel groups and ensures the right to bear arms.
Thomas Jefferson on the Responsibility of Vigilance. People tend to confuse Jefferson with a call for rebellion, if Jefferson had wanted a revolution over party politics he would have taken up arms against Alexander Hamilton… instead, Jefferson created what is in some ways the most popular political party of all time the Democratic-Republicans and brought the two factions together under Jefferson, Madison, Monroe (if only temporarily).
TIP: If you want to know what the founders thought about revolution, you are in luck. There are many preserved documents showing exactly what they thought. Their views span the gambit of ideologies and defy a simple takeaway. One will be hard-pressed to find any simple justification for extremist views. The anti-Federalist (later Democratic-Republican) Jefferson comes close, but let us not forget he is a key founder of the American Republic despite his radical philosophical tendencies. It is worth a note that he and Paine supported the less radical left-wing faction in the French Revolution, the Girondins.
- Jefferson knew that times changes and that the laws must change with them. He also knew that this sometimes required “a little rebellion” (and not always just a peaceful one). He knew that the English and American revolutions had required rebellion, and he expected no less from the states. He cited the Massachusetts uprising, praising it as the only such revolt. He noted that a rebellion such as this should occur no less than every 20 years. Jefferson would later suggest that the Constitution (which of which was the main subject of the letter) be amended, showing his willingness to change laws with the time, by rebellion or politics (see Jefferson, Madison, and anti-federalist support for the Bill of Rights). “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.” See Jefferson’s full “Tree of Liberty” quote below.
- Jefferson was an anti-federalist who believed in the more radical revolution brewing in France compared to say the peaceful Glorious Revolution in England. This made him more a “radical Whig” than a “moderate Whig” in British terms. Jefferson said to Madison once, “Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” – Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, Paris, January 30, 1787.
Shays’ Rebellion Explained.
The Tree of Liberty Quotation in a Letter From Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith (John Quincy Adam’s Brother-in-law)
—I am now to acknowledge the receipt of your favors of October the 4th, 8th, & 26th. In the last, you apologize for your letters of introduction to  Americans coming here. It is so far from needing apology on your part, that it calls for thanks on mine. I endeavor to shew civilities to all the Americans who come here, & will give me opportunities of doing it: and it is a matter of comfort to know from a good quarter what they are, & how far I may go in my attentions to them. Can you send me Woodmason’s bills for the two copying presses for the M. de la Fayette, & the M. de Chastellux? The latter makes one article in a considerable account, of old standing, and which I cannot present for want of this article.
—I do not know whether it is to yourself or Mr. 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 be yet three weeks before I shall receive them from America. There are very good articles in it: & 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: & 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 & 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 its 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 its natural manure. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts: and in 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.
—You ask me if anything transpires here on the subject of S. America? Not a word. I know that there are combustible materials there, and that they wait the torch only. But this country probably  will join the extinguishers.—The want of facts worth communicating to you has occasioned me to give a little loose to dissertation. We must be contented to amuse when we cannot inform.But this country probably  will join the extinguishers.—The want of facts worth communicating to you has occasioned me to give a little loose to dissertation. We must be contented to amuse, when we cannot inform.