Friday, November 26, 2010

Jefferson taken out of context

Yesterday I was watching the Ken Burns documentary on Thomas Jefferson. Later in the presentation there was a bit on Jefferson's postwar politics, including his support for other revolutions. The French Revolution made many Americans nervous, but he seemed to love it. Then I heard a very familiar quote in a context so unexpected that it left me gobsmacked.
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots...

I've seen this quote many times, and always for one purpose: to evoke praise for U.S. soldiers fighting in foreign wars. I didn't know who said it, or why. I nearly jumped out of my chair when I found out that it referred to Shays' Rebellion. Thomas Jefferson wrote those words to support a domestic tax riot! If there's a better example of a radical populist notion being used exclusively by conservative hawks, I'm not aware of it.

Page 241 of Thomas Jefferson: an intimate history by Fawn McKay Brodie (which, hopefully, you can see below) gives the entire quote along with some details on Jefferson's reaction to the French Revolution. It's quite an eye-opener.

1 comment:

TJIC said...

Hey Hugh,

That's my favorite Jefferson quote, and yes, I've long known that he was justifying rebellion - that's one of the reasons that I love Jefferson.

As an anarcho-capitalist, I'd like a little revolution now and then, to overthrow our overly large government and set the odometer back a bit (and bring government spending back down to, say, 5% of GDP, and not the 20-25% that it currently is).