“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the Atmosphere.” – Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams was not amused. But Jefferson was quite serious. He was writing about Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786. While most of the Founders, including George Washington, regarded the rebellion as an outbreak of lawlessness, anarchy, and fundamental disrespect for authority, Jefferson defended the rebels.
Jefferson believed that people do not rebel for no purpose. In other words, he believed that most people want to live quietly, go about their business, and steer clear of trouble, but that when conditions became intolerable, when they perceived “a long train of abuses and usurpations,” as he put it in the Declaration of Independence, they had a right (even a duty) to raise the temperature of their discontentment until it got the attention of their public representatives. Jefferson believed that almost everyone would prefer to use peaceful means to achieve reforms, but that such tools as petition, remonstrance, letters to members of Congress, broadsides, pamphlets, protest parades, and sermons did not always, or even often, achieve their ends.
Then–when all peaceful means had been exhausted–Jefferson believed that it was permissible for the people to rebel.
He wrote similar letters about Shays’ Rebellion to James Madison and others, and he later defended the French Revolution’s moments of violence, including the Reign of Terror.
Fair enough. That is part of the historical record. Even Jefferson’s friends were shocked by his defense of blood as the manure of the “Tree of Liberty.” But he seems to have been in earnest.
But would Jefferson argue that the African-American community in Baltimore in 2015 has a right to engage in rioting and looting in the face of what it regards as structural racism, overt racism, profiling, and excessive use of force among police officers and the judicial system?
Hard to know.
He was not a “law and order man.” He would certainly acknowledge that the first duty of authorities in Baltimore and elsewhere is to to maintain order and restore peace–as gently as possible but as forcibly as necessary. That is why they have been elected and appointed by the people of Baltimore and Maryland. But he routinely called for treating rebellious citizens with mildness and even with a kind of admiration.
Easy for him to say from his lunar perspective; he is not one of the property owners whose shops and merchandise have been destroyed by looting.
The black citizens of Baltimore have gotten the attention of not only city and state authorities, but of the nation and world. Once order has been restored and tempers slip a little below the flash point, there will now certainly be a serious public conversation, even a national conversation, about race and the law, the protocols of the nation’s police forces, appropriate uses of force, the deep frustrations of the African-American community, and the lingering race prejudices in American life.
And I’m guessing the events in Ferguson and Baltimore (and elsewhere) will lead to reforms.
If so, the riots (which Jefferson would regard as the spontaneous outpouring of public rage when no other tool any longer seemed to be efficacious) will have served their Jeffersonian purpose. Those who renounce violence altogether, Jefferson believed, will not remain free very long.
On the other hand, Jefferson’s serenity with respect to rebellion broke down entirely when it involved African-Americans and slavery. Like most other southern planters and slave holders, Jefferson lived in a kind of morbid fear of a widespread race revolt, acknowledged that the justice would be on the side of the slaves, but nevertheless insisted that his own white culture had no choice but to crush even the merest hint of slave rebellion.
When slave Gabriel Prosser led a slave revolt near Richmond, Virginia, in the late summer of 1800, Jefferson supported his protege James Monroe in what became a ruthless and vengeful response to the revolt. Altogether 26 slaves were publicly hanged, including Gabriel and his two brothers.
It’s hard to think of Jefferson looking mildly on any rebellion led by African-Americans, even 200 years after his own time.
As usual, Jefferson provides an inconsistent lens on the key fissures of the American experience. One thing is certain: no other Founding Father would have been capable of writing the letter TJ wrote to Abigail Adams, liking “a little rebellion now and then,” but for all of that Jefferson was never able successfully to transcend his race prejudices.
To read Jefferson’s letter to the Abigail Adams on February 22, 1787, click here.
» The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800 by Conor Cruise O’Brien
» The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson by Richard K. Matthews
» Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek