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November 13, 2009

Jefferson’s bloody “Tree of Liberty” quote still fertilizes freedom and fanaticism


One of the signs held by a gun-toting protester against the Democratic health care proposal earlier this year said “IT IS TIME TO WATER THE TREE OF LIBERTY!”

This is a shorthand reference to an oft-used and abused quotation by Thomas Jefferson:

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

Jefferson made this remark in a letter to Col. William Smith, dated November 13, 1787.

It was part of a what he said in the letter about Shays’s Rebellion, a brief uprising of poor farmers and revolutionary war veterans in western Massachusetts that reached a head that year.

They were mad as hell about the crushing taxes they were forced to pay and the laws that let the government confiscate their property if they couldn’t pay those taxes.

As a symbol of their protest, they designated certain trees as liberty trees,” like those used during the Revolution to hang tax collectors working for the British Crown. They demanded changes in the tax laws, they had guns – and they were prepared to use them.

The Massachusetts state government reacted forcefully to put down this threat to their power, with encouragement from Founding Fathers like Samuel Adams. In the rebellion’s most significant “battle,” dozens of protesting farmers were killed or wounded by the state militia. Hundreds were eventually put in prison. Some were executed.

Thomas Jefferson was in Paris at the time. From that distance, he adopted a philosophical view of Shay’s Rebellion.

In his letter to Col. Smith, Jefferson did not justify the rebellion. In fact, he said it was “founded in ignorance.”

But then, Jefferson went on to say the part that people who are mad as hell about something love to quote:

“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 tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

Protesters against “Obamacare” are fans of Jefferson’s “tree of liberty” quote.

So was Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people by blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, as an anti-government “protest.” When arrested, McVeigh was wearing a t-shirt that had a picture of a tree of liberty dripping blood, and the words: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Indeed, for over two centuries now, Jefferson’s “tree of liberty” quote has been used by various people who think it somehow justifies what they believe and do.

And, I expect it will be for years to come.

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For further reading and viewing, check out Shays's Rebellion: The American Revolution's Final Battle by Leonard L. Richards and the recent DVD A Little Rebellion. There’s also an interesting discussion of Jefferson’s “tree of liberty” quote on the American Creation blog.

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