A Little Rebellion

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...

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