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The Blood of Tyrants in Nevada

by Michael Austin, published

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”—Thomas Jefferson


When he wrote these words to William Stephens Smith in November of 1787, Thomas Jefferson was criticizing the signers of the Constitution. Jefferson had just read the Constitution for the first time, and he felt that Article 1 gave too much power to the Chief Executive. And the reason it did so, Jefferson believed, was that Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and all the rest had been unnecessarily spooked by Shays Rebellion.

Here is the full quotation:

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 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." - Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, Paris, 13 Nov. 1787

Now that this has become a rallying cry for armed uprisings everywhere, we need to take the time to restore the original context. Specifically, we need to understand that Jefferson was not interpreting the Constitution; he was criticizing it. Specifically, he was trying to ensure that the president was never allowed to serve more than one term. And the way he chose to do this, sitting in the revolutionary salons of Paris, was to mock the other Founders for being worried about a little thing like an armed uprising.

On the point of armed rebellion against the American government, however, Jefferson was wildly out of step with nearly every other statesman of the Founding generation. And he remained out of step when he tacitly supported the Whiskey Rebellion that Washington fiercely opposed—and when he supported the French revolution well after it had entered its most violent phase and become the Reign of Terror.

But even Jefferson eventually came around. He got over his objections to second terms in time to run for one in 1804.

But Jefferson’s ill-chosen words about watering the Tree of Liberty live on. This quotation, apparently, has become a rallying cry for supporters of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher whose refusal to pay grazing fees or accept the authority of the federal government over federal lands. The situation appears to have been diffused, but the fault lines that it exposed are chilling — and I am quite sure that these fault lines will remain active for some time.

And here is something that even Thomas Jefferson understood: those who advocate armed rebellion against the government cannot pretend to be good citizens, or Constitutionalists, or respecters of the rule of law. The Founding Fathers understood the difference between patriotism and revolution. They did not pretend to be good British subjects when they took up arms against the British Empire. They knew perfectly well that they were committing treason against the Crown.

This distinction is lost on those who have recently been waving around AK-47s and “The Tree of Liberty Is THIRSTY” banners in Nevada. They have convinced themselves that by quoting Jefferson’s words in opposition to the Constitution, they are somehow supporting it. They are not. And the rest of us must be vigilant that they do not end up watering their trees with our blood.

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