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. Â 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. Â (Everything old is new again.) Â 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.Â Yet where does this anarchy exist ?Â Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusetts ?Â And can history produce an instance of rebellion so honorably conducted ?Â I say nothing of its motives.Â They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness.Â God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion.Â The people cannot be all, and always, well informed.Â The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive.Â If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.Â We have had thirteen States independent for eleven years.Â There has been one rebellion.Â That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half, for each State.Â What country before, ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion ?Â 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 ?Â Let them take arms.Â The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them.Â What signify a few lives lost in a century or two ?Â The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.Â Our convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts ;Â 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. Â 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.Â The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive.” Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â Both amount to extortionate demands: Â “Acceed to my wishes, or face violence.”
12 thoughts on “Watering the tree”
Unless it was a slave rebellion, of course.
I'm not sure I entirely buy your argument, Mark. While he does try to distance himself from a particular instance of rebellion, he seems to have a lot of sympathy with the idea of an armed revolution. And even then, he tries to dismiss the importance of Shay's Rebellion, even though it had a realistic chance of toppling a state government by saying it was "honorably conducted" and rare in any case.
How peculiar, that one of the founding fathers, leaders of an armed revolution, might have sympathy with the idea of an armed revolution.
No, Brett, that's not peculiar at all. What's peculiar is that someone might regard that as a sensible suggestion about contemporary American politics. My point is simply that "It is time to water the tree" is an incitement to the killing of our elected political leadership, and ought to be recognized as such.
I certainly recognize it as such. And there have been times, such as after Waco, when the government was still in full defense of what it had done, that I agreed with the sentiment. I still think it would be a better world if folks like Lon Horiuchi got what's coming to them.
Honestly, do you think it's a good thing that people in government can pull any sort of crap they like, order people around, turn their lives upside down, and never fear any personal retribution, no matter how far they go? I don't. I think Jefferson was right: For liberty to endure, it helps a great deal if the people running the government think there are lines they dare not cross. If they think there aren't, they need to be corrected once in a while.
Governments kill citizens all the time, and government has no rights it wasn't delegated by the people. Doesn't this imply that the people have the right to kill government officers, in some extremity? The only question is the extremity.
Reading the exchange above, we reflect on Jefferson's "gazetteers" and the lies they spread then and now.
It is interesting that Blumenthal's Republican Gomorrah comes out as we see an increasing number of the fringe minority carrying guns, purporting (or believing) to speak for the American people. Let us not confuse visibility and decibel level with breadth. Let us be clear: teabaggers speak for a fringe minority, not the American people. I say again: teabaggers speak for a fringe minority, not the American people.
The problem is that the same people who talk about "watering the tree of liberty" now were completely silent when George W. Bush was committing the most egregious violations of the Constitution in living memory. They were quiet when he was openly committing illegal surveillance in violation of the Fourth Amendment and when he was having prisoners tortured in violation of the Eighth Amendment. They said not a word when he and Cheney made the most expansive claims of executive power in U.S. history. Yet they are now threatening violent revolution over the proposed enactment of a social insurance program? It's hard to take this seriously, or ascribe any intellectual integrity. These teabaggers are more concerned with their pocketbooks than with freedom.
I think what's interesting about Jefferson's letter is not just that it speaks well of "honorably conducted" armed rebellion, but also that it speaks approvingly of the armed suppression of such rebellions. "Pacify" in that context doesn't mean "make nice until the rebels go home;" it's much closer to the roman proverb. But today the idea that even a drop of blood of some self-identified "patriot" should be shed is, um, beyond the pale.
Why do you say that he's no historian? Because he mixes up the quote from Jefferson with the Dont' Tread on Me snake from an earlier era?
Anyway, it is very interesting (Jacobin madness) that the blood of patriots is included with that of tyrants in the passage from Jefferson. The man with the sign thinks he is advocating for the latter but it is really the former that his sign implies.
You all do remember that this "Tree of Liberty" stuff was on the tee-shirt Timothy McVeigh was wearing when he was arrested.
"hen George W. Bush was committing the most egregious violations of the Constitution in living memory. "
Got a very selective memory there, don'tcha?
Brett, the Supreme Court upheld the internments of Americans of Japanese ancestry, so it's difficult to argue that it was a Constitutional violation.
On "No Justice, No Peace," I've never interpreted it as an extortionate demand — I've always read it as a warning to look to the root causes of violence (and, of course it leads to the homophone "Know Justice/Know Peace").
"Brett, the Supreme Court upheld the internments of Americans of Japanese ancestry, so it’s difficult to argue that it was a Constitutional violation."
That's a joke, right? The Supreme Court upholding some outrage doesn't make it the least bit hard to argue that said outrage was a constitutional violation, except for people who are committed to the proposition that the Supreme court, by definition, is never wrong.
Most people are not committed to that proposition, and have no trouble at all arguing that something the Supreme court signed off on is unconstitutional.
Sometimes the Supreme court makes mistakes. Sometimes they get things deliberately wrong.
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