I was reading through Clyde N Wilson’s archives at Chronicles Magazine and came across this short essay. “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and is as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical”, is a common quote which Wilson says has been misinterpreted, or taken to an extreme that Jefferson didn’t intend and has been used to justify various revolutions throughout US history. Emphasis mine.
Scandalously, Thomas Jefferson once wrote to James Madison, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and is as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
In the same year, 1787, in regard to what is known as Shays’ Rebellion, he wrote another friend, “God forbid that we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” A lack of rebelliousness among the people would demonstrate “a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. . . . And what country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance?”
The “rebellion” in Massachusetts had alarmed many, especially the masters of that commonwealth, who were imbued with a Puritan longing for regulated behavior and saw the tax revolt of Capt. Daniel Shays and his farmers as a threat to their control. In Jefferson’s perspective, the “rebels” were merely adhering to good American practice. What, indeed, had the recent War of Independence amounted to but resistance to heavy-handed government? And such rebellions against unsatisfactory government officials and policies had been a regular occurrence during the long colonial history of the Americans, especially in the Southern colonies.
Persistent misrepresentation of Jefferson’s words here and elsewhere by later generations has obscured what he meant. A dangerous radical? A chronic upsetter of social order? No. Jefferson does not call for an overturn of society and its reconstruction according to some abstract plan. Think of the root meaning of the term revolution. Jefferson, in fact, is mostly satisfied with his society (Virginia), although he is interested in a few small reforms that might broaden its base. So are his followers satisfied with their portions of America. That is why they support him. Despite the hysterical and sometimes insincere denunciations of the New England clergy, the Virginia planter is no Jacobin. As he sees things, any government, with the passage of time and the accretion of abuses and bad precedents, becomes corrupted. It needs to be revolved back to its original principles.
This is not a radical program but a deeply reactionary one. What Jefferson fundamentally wants to tell us is that the people should never fear the government, but the government should always fear the people. This is not the battle cry of a movement with a radical agenda. President Jefferson comes to the White House with no agenda except to preserve the joint independence of the States United and their separate rights as “the best bulwark of our liberties.” To carry out this agenda requires a rollback of the economic and judicial corruptions introduced by the Hamilton/Adams innovators.