The man who stood outside a hall where the President was speaking, with a gun strapped to his leg and a sign reading “It is time to water the tree of liberty” may or may not be a lunatic, but he’s no historian.
His sign refers to the letter written by Thomas Jefferson, then in Paris, to the friend who had sent him copy of the new Constitution. Part of the background to the calling of the Constitutional Convention was Shays’ Rebellion in Western Massachusetts, one of who goals was to shut down the courts to prevent foreclosures. (Everything old is new again.) It took months for Massachusetts to put down the uprising, raising questions about the political stability of the United States under the Articles of Confederation and thus a demand for a stronger central government.
Jefferson wsan’t having any of it:
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, and 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 honorably conducted ? I say nothing of its motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and 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 thirteen States independent for eleven years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half, for each State. What country before, ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion ? 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 ? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and 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 and tyrants. It is its natural manure. Our convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts ; and on the spur of the moment, they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order.
Jefferson was not a supporter of Shays’ Rebellion. But he clearly thought that the fear of rebellion was a healthy deterrent to misrule, and that an occasional actual rebellion was a cost-justified means to that end.
The guy in the picture, and the rest of the Teabaggers, certainly illustrate the passage “The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive.” But I doubt he understands that.
Be that as it may, in the context of Jefferson’s letter the sign constitutes an incitement (albeit not in the legal sense) to murder elected officials. If “watering the tree” means shedding “the blood of tyrants,” and it’s time to do it now, then it must be time to kill some tyrants. And it’s not hard to figure out who the man with the sign has in mind for “tyrant-in-chief.”
Update Another threat, this one more explicit.
Just for the record, I feel exactly the same way about “No justice, no peace,” which used to be a mainstay of civil rights marches. Both amount to extortionate demands: “Acceed to my wishes, or face violence.”