3/3/09 - blood is the manure of the tree of liberty'

In today's excerpt - Thomas Jefferson, writing when the states were truly thirteen separate governments under the Articles of Confederation, thought blood to be the manure in which the tree of liberty grows and wished for rebellions no less than every twenty years. Later, as President under the new Constitution, he underscored his preferences on this point by pardoning all those prosecuted under the Alien and Sedition Acts which had (among other things) made it a crime to publish 'false, scandalous and malicious writing' against the government or its officials:

"I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, & as necessary in the political world as storm in the physical."

--To James Madison, Paris, January 30, 1787

"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 & then. It is like a storm in the Atmosphere."

--To Abigail Adams, Paris, February 22, 1787

"God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people can not be all, & always, well informed. The past 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 lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13 states independent for 11 years. There has been one rebellion [Shays's Rebellion]. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. 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 its natural manure."

--To William Stephens Smith, Paris, November 13, 1787

"For my own part, I consider the [Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798] as merely an experiment on the American mind to see how far it will bear an avowed violation of the constitution."

--To Stevens Thomson Mason, Monticello, October 11, 1798

"I discharged every person under punishment or prosecution under the Sedition law, because I considered & now consider that law to be a nullity as absolute and as palpable as if Congress had ordered us to fall down and worship a golden image; and that it was as much my duty to arrest its execution in every stage, as it would have been to have rescued from the fiery furnace those who should have been cast into it for refusing to worship their image."

--To Abigail Adams, Washington, July 22, 1804


John P. Kaminski


The Quotable Jefferson




Copyright 2006 by the Princeton University Press


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