Background: After the Declaration of Independence created the 13 independent states, The Articles of Confederation began being drafted shortly afterward in 1776. Finally ratified in 1781, many recognized that the central government was too weak. In 1786, a convention was held to draft a new constitution, and our present Constitution became effective on March 4, 1789.
At the convention, a heated debate centered on the strength of the central government relative to the strength of the sovereign states. The debate on this topic was fueled by an armed uprising that occurred in late 1786 in Massachusetts.
This armed uprising was held by over-taxed and mistreated farmers whose lands were being seized to pay off the state’s huge public debts. The uprising is called Shays’ Rebellion[i] after one of its participants who joined a small volunteer militia that tried to occupy Springfield Arsenal in January, 1787. The attack failed. Four of Shays’ fellow militiamen were killed in the attack, and the attackers scattered and fled to neighboring states.
Shays’ rebellion provided fodder for proponents of a strong central government being necessary to put down such rebellions.
But Thomas Jefferson cited history’s lessons that prove the contrary.
Jefferson discusses Shays’ rebellion with sympathy for the farmers. He posits that an occasional rebellion to bring an overbearing government into line is not an undesirable thing. He points out first that such rebellions are frequent events in places with oppressive governments such as Europe and England while in the 13 independent states in 11 years there has been only one such small rebellion which could be seen as justified given the circumstances.
He writes to his friend William Stephens Smith[ii]:
“…That [13 states with only 1 rebellion in 11 years] comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their 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 it’s natural manure….”
“The remedy [to prevent rebellion] is to set them right as to fact…” An interesting observation.
Earlier in his letter, Jefferson comments about a compliant press that colludes with the government in frightening the populous into believing that a strong central government is necessary to prevent anarchy and to protect the common man. Here is his comment about the effectiveness of a lap-dog media publishing lies that start from the government which eventually become beliefs shared by all – a most “wonderful” process!
“Wonderful is the effect of impudent and persevering lying. 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 a rebellion so honorably conducted? I say nothing of it’s motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20. 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.”
Jefferson is insisting that an all-powerful central government is not required for domestic tranquility, and he warns us to beware of those who insist otherwise.
In fact, Jefferson goes on to cite history that indicates the more powerful and overbearing the government, the more frequent the rebellions.
After strongly advocating term limits and a twelve-month waiting period between a law being proposed and its being voted upon, Jefferson again comments on the inverse correlation between a government’s power and the frequency of rebellion in correspondence to James Madison in December, 1787.[iii]
“I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive. The late [Shays'] rebellion in Massachusetts has given more alarm than I think it should have done. Calculate that one rebellion in 13 states in the course of 11 years, is but one for each state in a century & a half. No country should be so long without one. Nor will any degree of power in the hands of government prevent insurrections. France, with all its despotism, and two or three hundred thousand men always in arms has had three insurrections in the three years I have been here in every one of which greater numbers were engaged than in Massachusetts & a great deal more blood was spilt. In Turkey, which Montesquieu supposes more despotic, insurrections are the events of every day. In England, where the hand of power is lighter than here [in Europe], but heavier than with us they happen every half dozen years. Compare again the ferocious depredations of their insurgents with the order, the moderation & the almost self extinguishment of ours.”
So Jefferson cites France, Turkey, and England as examples of heavy-handed autocratic governments that are forced to cruelly suppress frequent rebellions while the one instance in Massachusetts was orderly, moderate, and nearly self-extinguishing! He goes to put his faith in the informed, educated citizen.
“I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe. Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”
Indeed, Jefferson is echoing his predecessor Montesquieu who claimed that without an educated citizenry, no republic could stand.[iv]
Jefferson has seen clear examples of a populous tolerating a media which is in thrall to the governing power resulting in the low-information citizen. And Jefferson clearly is not for a “Homeland Security” buying one-and-a-half billion hollow-point bullets, thousands of armored IED-proof tanks and police transports, and a nice collection of deadly drones to patrol the skies.
The “most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty” lies in “the education of the common people” and a free, honest, independent press. Failing those, he sees nothing wrong with a rebellion every so often to keep the government in its place.
Although the military objectives of Shays’ Rebellion were defeated by state troops, the governor lost re-election and new laws were soon passed to alleviate the farmers’ plight…
“The legislature elected in 1787 cut taxes and placed a moratorium on debts. It also refocused state spending away from interest payments, resulting in a 30% decline in the value of Massachusetts securities as those payments fell in arrears.” [v]