Jefferson’s “Tree of Liberty” & His Defense of Protesting Rubes

14 03 2011

It’s useful to take the time to look into history sometimes. Particularly when details of that history are shorn of context and held bare in a spotlight as proof of current righteousness.

We get it.

I don’t begrudge the tea party activists their protests; though I get the sense they feel that only their protests “count,” that theirs is true populist rage but nothing else is. If you want to protest taxes you perceive as too high, hey, that’s a long tradition in America. Go buck wild. But don’t then look at the massive protests for immigration reform, labor rights, against the war, and pretend they’re less meaningful because they’re somehow un-American or not “real.”

We get it.

The Tea Party campaign has taken the powerful and expansive ideas of the revolution and dulled their power by limiting them to being “anti-government.” The Founding Father’s weren’t “anti-government.” They were anti- lots of different things. Some were practically monarchists, others French-style Jacobin democrats. There was one thing common to almost all of them, though: they were radicals. By the measure of the time, they were progressives and they were radicals. This is a bald fact. They wanted to engage in social engineering, to undo the entire social, political and economic system and rebuild it according to commonly-held principles. They wanted to form the first republic in the history of civilization to officially forbid government interference in religion and vice versa. It is not at all a debate that within the at-time “modern” world, America’s revolutionary leaders were radicals–revolutionaries, after all.

Guess what we get?

And Jefferson, who provides right-wing activism with some of its most potent rhetoric, was on the radical end of that radical group. Jefferson rested his theory of government on a foundational need to formally limit the power of three classes (said another way, he really fucking hated the following groups of people): aristocrats, clergy, and creditors. He wasn’t a fan of slave traders either, but coming from a slave owner that’s not really compelling.


Aristocrats to Jefferson were not a political class as much as an economic class. They were the landowners. They weren’t powerful because their title was a magic word; their title was powerful because it represented ownership of property that was impossible to dislodge from their grip. As to clergy, he said once there would have never been a single infidel if there had never been a single clergyman. He used the phrase “monkish ignorance.” You get it. That one’s obvious. Creditors–sometimes “bankers,” some times other wacky 18th century nicknames for them, like “stockjobbers,” though that one is specific to London–he loathed probably because he was in debt his whole life. But also he saw the hold of debt by one free person over another as a threat to democracy. Prior to industrial economies of scale, the creditor was most responsible for the economic misery of the working class husbandman or tradesman. It was a vacuous freedom to Jefferson to work all your days for the benefit of another who expends no labor.

Which brings us to his “Tree of Liberty” letter to William Smith, which provides one of the favorite quotes of the activist right. I think we could agree beforehand on one premise: an expression attributed to a historical figure is rightfully gauged by the subject they are discussing or referring to. For example, if Winston Churchill had said, “Never has much been owed by so many to so few,” about the SS, we probably wouldn’t quote it today.

Jefferson, when he wrote his famous quote bolded below, was writing about Shays’ Rebellion. Shays’ Rebellion was a debtors’ revolt.

After the Revolutionary War, the States didn’t have enough money to cover their many debts–not their war debts per se, but because all foreign debts had priority and had to be paid in specie, the states’ other debts were left to fester and grew worse. The wealthy urban creditors who had lent the states money were putting the squeeze on not only the state governments, but the many individual debtors–many of them war veterans who, underpaid by the government, had gone into debt to buy land and equipment. The states had to levy all types of taxes to meet their debts, while the courts were regularly executing writs of replevin and foreclosures on behalf of banks. The taxes were regressive and so affected farmers and tradesmen the worst.

Daniel Shays and his brothers in arms were protesting taxes and debts–in particular, they were protesting taxes caused by usurious lending by a small class of citizens. It was a moral outrage.

Well, kind of. Maybe the rhetorical way to go would be to draw a sharp analogy to America’s current condition, and then reclaim the mantle of Jefferson and the Founding Fathers. But that’s stupid. Because events then were complex, as were the various men involved in them. Shays’ Rebellion wasn’t a “conservative” rebellion or a “progressive” rebellion. It was a rebellion of the poor against the powerful–both in government and finance.

Oh, and Jefferson, for his part, didn’t even agree with the protesters, that’s the other thing. In fact, he explicit calls them ignorant. Oh snap. And when he wrote the phrase in question, he was probably being a little tongue-in-cheek.

Here’s the letter; his topic is the role of the executive branch in the latest draft of the Constitution, still being debated:

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 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….What country before ever existed a century & a half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve its 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. 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 any thing 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.

I sort of think Jefferson wasn’t being wholly serious. That is to say, this is his high flown way of telling his friend, “The Constitutional Convention needs to take it easy.” Yes there was a rebellion, yes the rebels were ignorant of reality, it wasn’t that big of a deal, only a couple people got hurt. He takes pains to say he doesn’t approve of why they were rebelling, since they didn’t end up really hurting anything. Then at the end he characterizes his little rant as an amusement. The jokey way he talks about the potential for revolutions in South America–“this country” in this context means France, where he was stationed at the time–seems to me to say that this was a more casual letter to a friend, expressing frustrations in familiar tones, the way you’d complain about something to your friends in exaggerated terms, the way you wouldn’t at work.

He wasn’t climbing on top of the barricades shouting for the blood of tyrants and patriots (which probably would have confused his buddy patriots anyway), he was emphasizing a point, that the sea liberty is boisterous, that eruptions of anger will happen–often because people are misinformed–and that hysteria is an overreaction, that we should trust our long-term judgment over our short-term fears. We know he wasn’t in firebrand mode because it’s hard to reconcile someone urging people to rebellion while he thinks they have no idea what they’re talking about.

And as for the Sons of Liberty–Sam Adams, deliberately ignoring or blissfully unaware of the irony, drafted a Riot Act meant to terrorize the protesters, and argued that they should be punished with death.

The appropriation of American Revolution imagery by one side in a debate is troubling to me because the American Revolution was a big, almost transcendent moment in human history, complex, and bigger than just policy proposals. It was an attack on the world as it was, not just on “the government.” The Founders very consciously aimed to unravel many of the social and economic institutions that deprived people of liberty, not just lower taxes (which notably they did not do programmatically). Thomas Jefferson’s first acts in Virginia after the Revolution were to abolish primogeniture and entail, which were legal regimes and economic institutions protecting family property. (Jefferson also created Virginia public schools funded publicly–meaning through taxes–and designed to offer no barrier to admission.) The Founders abolished indentured servitude, an economic relationship, and otherwise curtailed the power of patriarchs over their clients.

Jefferson’s primary critique of the French monarchy for example in his own words was that it created “two nations” one of rich and one of poor (not one of aristocrats and one of normals), and that the rich acted like wolves who preyed on the poor. Class war!

Characterizing the American Revolution as “anti-government” is shallow and characterizing it as “anti-tax” is offensive.

Throw up your “all men are created equal” sign, or your banner reminding us that among our inalienable rights are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Those are political ideals. The imagery of the revolution–the coiled snake warning you not to tread on him, the blood/tree fertilizer quote–turns your ideological opponent into your literal oppressor, to an occupying force or all-powerful class. Its point is to make your opponents un-American. Worse, it is historically inaccurate. Being a leftist I’m used to being called un-American, but I’ll be damned if you’re going to quote Thomas Jefferson out of context.



2 responses

14 03 2011

The imagery of the revolution–the coiled snake warning you not to tread on him, the blood/tree fertilizer quote–turns your ideological opponent into your literal oppressor, to an occupying force or all-powerful class. Its point is to make your opponents un-American.

Well done.

7 03 2012

I think your critical analysis of this particular letter written by Thomas Jefferson is spot on, however you miss the mark entirely in your comparative analysis of the Tea Party movement. Guilty of the same sin you are admonishing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: