Saturday, June 15, 2024

Thomas Jefferson's "Tree of Liberty" & Shays's Rebellion

Thomas Jefferson was serving as ambassador to France at the time of Shays's Rebellion between August of 1786 and February of 1787. He knew the location of the Rebellion was Massachusetts, and he knew the cause of the Rebellion was an ongoing economic conflict between farmers and merchants, rural Americans versus townsfolk on the coast, political corruption, and aggressive taxation and debt collection by the state. 

He was also aware that there was an attempt to reform the state government. And when that failed, there was a later attempt to overthrow the state government by force with an assault on a courthouse and then an attempt to seize the Federal arsenal at Springfield Armory. He also knew that the Rebellion was put down by the state militia. 

Known as Shays's Rebellion, it was in fact an armed uprising in Massachusetts in 1787. The reason for the uprising had to do with a debt crisis among the citizenry. The match that lit the flame to ignite the uprising was the state government's attempts to collect what people in rural Massachusetts considered over-taxation. People were losing their homes and farms. People were angry at the government because they felt that a corrupt state government was behind the debt crisis.

In 1787, tax protestors marched on the Federal government's Springfield Armory in an unsuccessful attempt to seize the weapons there. With those weapons, it's believed that the protestors wanted to overthrow the state government. As for the Federal government's response to the attack on the Springfield Armory, the Federal government didn't have the troops to put down the attack. 

Because of the Federal government's limitations under the Articles of Confederation, the Federal government was unable to send Federal troops. Part of the reason for that had to do with the Federal government being unable to finance Federal troops. Because of that, the attack on the Springfield Armory was put down by the Massachusetts state militia along with a privately funded local militia. 

If you're now wondering how militia troops had arms but Federal troops did not have the funding for arms, it's because of the ideals that created the Second Amendment. Allow me to explain.

State militias were seen as the best security of a free state. Citizen militias were drawn from the local community. They were no different than those who belonged to the local fire brigade and citizens watch groups. The militia existed to provide for the common defense. 

Because the British used its Army to impose tyranny on the American people, after the American Revolution, a standing Army, even an American standing Army, was seen as a tool that could possibly be used to impose tyranny upon Americans. 

Let's remember that soldiers were viewed with suspicion. In fact, The Declaration of Independence listed grievances against King George III that he had affected "to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power" and had kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

The Declaration of Independence listed grievances against King George III for "Quartering large Bodies of Armed Troops among us, and "For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States."

Both during and following the Revolutionary War, several states codified constitutional arms-bearing rights in contexts that echoed their concerns about the need for militias in place of mistrusted Standing Armies. 

For example, Article XIII of the Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights of 1776 read:

That the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and the state; and as standing armies in the time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up; And that the military should be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.

Another example is Massachusetts’s Declaration of Rights from 1780 provided:

The people have a right to keep and to bear arms for the common defence. And as, in time of peace, armies are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be maintained without the consent of the legislature; and the military power shall always be held in an exact subordination to the civil authority, and be governed by it.

So yes, when the Constitution was written and amended, armed Americans were seen as the common defense of the United States. That's why the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution states, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." 

As surprising as it might sound considering how Americans just fought a war to stop a dictatorial government, the Constitutional Convention is said to have been dominated by delegates who advocated maintaining a strong Federal government in part because of Shays's Rebellion. In fact, the Rebellion had an impact on how the United States Constitution would be written since several Convention delegates brought up Shays's Rebellion during discussions about increasing the power of the Federal government. Of course, besides influencing how members of the House of Representatives are chosen, the Rebellion is said to have influenced how states manage domestic violence.

As for how Thomas Jefferson viewed Shays's Rebellion, in a letter to James Madison on January 30, 1787, Thomas Jefferson stated that he believed that occasional rebellion serves to preserve freedoms. 

In a letter to William Stephens Smith on November 13, 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure."

Below is the 1787 letter to William Stephens Smith, the son-in-law of John Adams, where Thomas Jefferson used the phrase "Tree of Liberty":

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; and 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: and 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 and persevering lying. 

The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers [news media] 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, and 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 a rebellion so honorably 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 can not be all, and 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 and a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? 

And 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 and pacify them. What signifies 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 its natural manure. 

Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusets, 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.

For me, I really hope you have found this as interesting as I do. I find it very interesting that Thomas Jefferson believed that challenges to the Federal government from time to time are good so that a tyrannical government does not assume power. Of course, being leary of government becoming too powerful is why our government was divided into three branches. By dividing political power between the branches, our Founding Fathers, those Framers of our Constitution, sought to prevent any single branch of government from becoming too powerful.

Remaining vigilant and ever-watchful of the possibility of an all too-power central government usurping the power of the American people is at the heart of being an American. 

Tom Correa

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