Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tea Partiers v. Thomas Jefferson

Yesterday I bemoaned the fact that Tea Partiers are so ignorant of the history they use to justify their threats of rebellion that to begin explaining it to them seems nearly pointless. After all, where would one start?

Well, how about here? Greg Sargent:
Here's another one that could be tough for Sharron Angle to explain away: In an interview in January, Angle appeared to float the possibility of armed insurrection if "this Congress keeps going the way it is."

I'm not kidding. In an interview she gave to a right-wing talk show host, Angle approvingly quoted Thomas Jefferson saying it's good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years -- and said that if Congress keeps it up, people may find themselves resorting to "Second Amendment remedies."
Sharron Angle is right. Jefferson wrote, in a famous letter to William Stephens Smith, "God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion."

Let's begin by highlighting the word such. Jefferson is referring to Shays' Rebellion and is writing that America should have rebellions just like it. So, is the "rebellion" suggested by people like Sharron Angle, Rep. Michele Bachmann, Rep. Steve King and many, many Tea Partiers such a rebellion? Would Jefferson have supported it?

I think he would.

Let me explain: While Tea Partiers (and others who want to stir up trouble) appear to consider Jefferson's letter holy writ, they only seem to know two sentences of it, the one I quoted earlier and Jefferson's claim that "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants." Were they to read the whole letter, however, they would find Jefferson describing a rebellion much like the one they suggest and would not be happy with the comparison.

The point of the section of the letter so often quoted is that the Europeans had been suggesting America was falling into anarchy, based on their understanding of Shay's Rebellion. Jefferson asks, "Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusetts?" The rebellion had mostly consisted of acts of government interference on the part of aggrieved veterans and, once actual shots were fired, four of Shays' compatriots were dead and, shocked by the fact they had been fired upon by those they expected to join their fight, Shay's militia fled. It seems likely that an abrupt end would come to any Tea Party led rebellion as well. A poll conducted in April found that only four percent of Americans have attended a rally or donated to the Tea Party, but they believe their values reflect the values of most Americans (pdf link). In other words, like Shay's militia, if the Tea Partiers were to take up arms they would likely find themselves lacking the support they believe to be waiting in the wings to commit treason. The conflict would end quickly and decisively, just as Jefferson seemed to like it.

Jefferson would also recognize the Tea Partiers by their beliefs. Returning to the letter, Jefferson says Shay's followers weren't bad people, they just didn't know what they were talking about.
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 & a 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 it's natural manure.
Read that very carefully. Jefferson is saying:
  1. The Shaysites weren't bad people, they were "ignorant."

  2. It is better for these people to rise up now and then than for them to just stay quiet and ignorant, because that leads to the end of liberty.

  3. Resistance keeps rulers alert, but the answer to rebellions such as these is to teach the ignorant and "pacify" those who would not learn. That he goes on to say the loss of a few lives is no large matter suggests he doesn't mean the rebellious should be pacified by being given what they want.
Do we recognize the Tea Partiers' motives in the Shaysite's? Well, 64 percent of them believe that Obama has increased taxes (pdf link) when he has actually cut taxes for 98.6 percent of working households. That certainly sounds like a group of people who need to be "set...right as to facts."

Jefferson even would have recognized the way our media and representatives have blown the Tea Party out of proportion, writing to Smith that the Philadelphia Convention "has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts..."

The single most important thing to point out about Jefferson's letter, however, is that, despite its being used as a call to arms by admittedly angry Tea Party activists and other anti-government types, Jefferson wrote the letter with his tongue firmly in his cheek. He ends the letter by saying he really didn't have many facts to share, so he got a bit jokey.
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.
Get that? He's saying simply that he's being snarky.

And the Tea Partiers took that silliness and made of it a battle cry.

Of course, it should be noted that Jefferson's willingness to make a joke of Shay's Rebellion might have hinged upon the fact he was writing from Paris, where he was serving as ambassador. Here at home, a retired general named George Washington found it much less amusing, writing that, if the rebels had a point their demands should be met, but, if they didn't, it was time to decisively end their uprising.
If they have real grievances, redress them if possible; or acknowledge the justice of them, and your inability to do it in the present moment. If they have not, employ the force of government against them at once. If this is inadequate, all will be convinced, that the superstructure is bad, or wants support. To be more exposed in the eyes of the world, and more contemptible than we already are, is hardly possible. To delay one or the other of these, is to exasperate on the one hand, or to give confidence on the other, and will add to their numbers; for, like snow-balls, such bodies increase by every movement, unless there is something in the way to obstruct and crumble them before the weight is too great and irresistible.

These are my sentiments. Precedents are dangerous things. Let the reins of government then be braced and held with a steady hand, and every violation of the constitution be reprehended. If defective, let it be amended, but not suffered to be trampled upon whilst it has an existence.
As a result of Shay's Rebellion, Washington argued vehemently for a stronger federal government, finding allies in the likes of James Madison, who wrote that "liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty, as well as by the abuses of power...and that the former rather than the latter is apparently most to be apprehended by the United States." In other words, the Tea Partiers arguing against a strong federal government have their ideological forebears to thank for it, at least in part.

It remains to be seen whether the Tea Party will ever actually embrace the violence its members repeatedly espouse. We will also have to wait to see what effect its existence will have on the future of our nation. However, as the movement appears to already be losing steam, it seems the history of the Tea Party itself will, like that of the Shaysites, be one of a short-lived movement that was ignorant and bombastic, but ultimately impotent.

Jefferson would have loved it.


Anonymous Mike Boudreau said...

Ignorant is the key word here...most of the founding fathers wanted voters educated and informed. With most of them being intellectual, they were afraid of ignorance of the masses. @mikeboudreau on twitter

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Arkieology said...

Excellent post and exactly what is needed at this point, a thoughtful look at what our actual history actually is. While having little sympathy with many of the motives of the tea partiers I don't think they can be held completely responsible for the ambiance of ignorance that surrounds our current political debate. As a sixties libertarian leftest I can say that many of the Jefferson quotes you cited were used as confirmation that Jefferson would have supported everything we stood for. The real Jefferson, who in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence condemned the slave trade in the clearest possible terms and later fathered children by his wife's half sister who he happened to own. So, misguided these tea partiers may be, but they aren't the first. And if more people would take your approach and actually write about what the real history to which the tea party alludes you might actually begin to reach them. So kudos for not resorting to calling them knuckle draggers, which many are, and always remember that all of us have come from a position of ignorance at one time or another. The real question we need to ask ourselves is, what was the voice and path that led me away from ignorance and the followup, how can I speak this way that they might hear me. This article is a good step in that direction.

2:18 PM  
Blogger rewinn said...

There's nothing wrong with being ignorant; we are all born ignorant and most of us are too busy to learn everything.

The problem is with a celebration of ignorance, the suspicion and contempt of people who have actually studied problems. "Good old common sense" is not as good as actually studying science. The Know-nothing Party is ancient in America and it's always destructive; hopefully the solution of education may be easier than before.

4:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although Jefferson addresses the matter somewhat obliquely, he had just recently seen the first draft of the Constitution, and said that he had very mixed feelings about it, as some parts were good, but others very bad. In his references to rebellion, he makes an explicit plea that the people be allowed to arm themselves, albiet on the chance of the occasional minor insurrection. At this point the Bill of Rights was still inchoate, so Jefferson is also making a contemporary political argument about what should be done with the Constitution.

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At this point the Bill of Rights was still inchoate, so Jefferson is also making a contemporary political argument about what should be done with the Constitution.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I sure would love to meet some of those 98.6% of working people who had their taxes cut. And since ObamaCare is legally a tax, I want to find some people who have seen their health care costs go down. I have met a lot of non-working people who have had their moochings go up!

8:32 PM  
Anonymous said...

I think these tea partiers might be, but aren't the first.

8:48 AM  

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