About That “Tree of Liberty”

Ken AshfordHistory, Obama OppositionLeave a Comment

This week, MSNBC got a live shot of of a man with a gun in a holster.  He was not a law enforcement person; he's one of the protesters at an Obama town hall even in Portsmouth, NH.


Chris Matthews later interviewed him.

At the protest, the man had a sign saying "It is time to water the tree of liberty", a direct reference to the Thomas Jefferson quote:

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

That quote rang a bell for me….

Ah, yes.  It was on the T-shirt worn by Timothy McVeigh on the day he bombed the Murrow Federal Building in Okalhoma City…


Here is a reminder of McVeigh's handiwork on April, 19, 1995.


McVeigh's bomb claimed 168 lives.  Many of them were children.  Those were the "patriots & tyrants" whose blood was spilled.

So what is it with this quote?

Well, obviously, it justifies horrific action by the violent extreme right.  Assassinate the President?  Sure why not?  He's a tyrant, and Jefferson — a founding father, for crying out loud — would have approved.

It's interesting doublespeak.  Thousands peacefull demonstrated against Bush when he was putting this country into war — the right branded them as "unpatriotic".  But to talk openly about "spilling blood" when Obama is trying to pass a health care plan?  That's patriotic.  It's enough to make one's head explode.

But did Jefferson really say that?  Would Jefferson have applauded the efforts of those who openly discuss armed revolt against their country?

The "tree of liberty" quote comes from a letter written by Jefferson to William Smith, John Adam's aide and son-in-law.  Here is the letter in full:

Paris, November 13, 1787

DEAR SIR, — I am now to acknoledge the receipt of your favors of October the 4th, 8th, & 26th. In the last you apologise for your letters of introduction to Americans coming here. It is so far from needing apology on your part, that it calls for thanks on mine. I endeavor to show civilities to all the Americans who come here, & will give me opportunities of doing it: and it is a matter of comfort to know from a good quarter what they are, & how far I may go in my attentions to them. Can you send me Woodmason's bills for the two copying presses for the M. de la Fayette, & the M. de Chastellux? The latter makes one article in a considerable account, of old standing, and which I cannot present for want of this article. — 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: & 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: & 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 & persevering lying. The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers 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, & 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 rebellion so honourably conducted? I say nothing of it's motives. 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. 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. — You ask me if any thing transpires here on the subject of S. America? Not a word. I know that there are combustible materials there, and that they wait the torch only. But this country probably will join the extinguishers. — 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.

So what was this about?

Jefferson, living in Paris (which was in the throes of the French Revolution) as the U.S. ambassador, had received a copy of the newly-written, but not yet ratified U.S. Constitution.  He doesn't have much deep commentary on it.  He then addresses Shay's Rebellion.

Shay's Rebellion was a post-Revolutionary War rebellion by farmers in central and western Massachusetts.  It took place in 1786 and 1787, and is named after one such farmer, Daniel Shay.  Their greivance?  Debt and taxes.

At the time, the United States was operating under the Articles of Confederation, the first attempt at what we now call "the U.S. Constitution".  The rebels shut down Massachusetts courts, preventing them from collecting taxes.  Then, in January 1787, about 1000 of them made for the Springfield (Mass) armory, where a Masschusetts militia of 4,000 was waiting.  Thousands of rebels were arrested, a few were killed.  Shay's short-lived rebellion was over.

But the impact was felt.

Now, in his letter, Jefferson correctly described the rebels as "ignorant" masses.  But he downplayed their significance.  They're idiots, not evil, he said.  And it's better to have idiots involved in the process of shaping their country, than to have evildoers trying to undo it.

So, for those who now take Jefferson "tree of liberty" quote to heart, they should understand that Jefferson was calling them — literally — "ignorant".  And included among the blood to be spilled was, and is, their blood.

But the main impact of Shay's Rebellion was that it caused a powerful group of Americans to realize that the national government needed to be stronger so that it could create uniform economic policies and protect property owners from infringements on their rights by local majorities.  And that led to the rejection of the Articles of Confederation, and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.

So for anyone prone to thinking that the "tree of liberty" provides a blessing to engage in domestic terrorism, please note the following:

  1. Jefferson, the man you are quoting, thinks you're an idiot.  He was sympathetic and unworried about idiots like you.
  2. The quote comes before the founding document of this country, the U.S. Constitution.  In other words, the "tree of liberty" quote is not patriotic; it is not a founding principle of this nation.  It was Jefferson (you know, the slave-fucking Jefferson) being, well, Jefferson.
  3. "Patriots", I think we all can agree, include all members of the armed forces.  These are men and women who take an oath to fight against all foes, "foreign or domestic" — yes, domestic.  That's you, pinhead.

In other words, the "tree of liberty" quote doesn't belong in the lexicon of people who care about the Constitution (you know, the document which allows you to have guns in the first place).  It's not a quote for people who fancy themselves wrapped in the American flag.  It's a quote for anarchists and domestic terrorists.  Just like Daniel Shay — ignorant and armed.