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Thomas Jefferson and "The Blood of Tyrants"

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New Hampshire resident William Kostric caused a national stir on August 11 when he appeared outside President Obama's town hall meeting in Portsmouth with a loaded semiautomatic handgun strapped to his leg. Kostric held a sign that read, "IT IS TIME TO WATER THE TREE OF LIBERTY!" This was a reference to the following quote by Founding Father Thomas Jefferson: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

Asked to explain the message he was trying to send, Kostric stated, "I wanted people to remember the rights that we have and how quickly we're losing them in this country ... It doesn't take a genius to see we're traveling down a road at breakneck speed that's towards tyranny." While Kostric claimed he was not calling for violence, many viewed his actions as threatening and assumed that the "tyrant" he had in mind was the president.

It was certainly not the first time a gun rights activist had referred to Jefferson's "tree of liberty" quote. On the day he bombed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, Timothy McVeigh wore a t-shirt that bore Jefferson's words with an image of a tree with blood dripping from its branches. A Google search will reveal that the quote is cited on a myriad of pro-gun websites today, almost always with no context or source provided. But what was the context of Jefferson's remarks, and what exactly did he mean?

"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," Jefferson wrote in a letter to William S. Smith, a diplomatic official in London, on November 13, 1787. Jefferson was commenting on Shays' Rebellion, an armed uprising in Massachusetts that had been put down earlier that year by organized state militia forces. "God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion," Jefferson remarked. "Let them take arms."

In the same letter, however, Jefferson stated that the rebellion was "founded in ignorance ... 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." Jefferson also referred to the delegates who had finalized a draft of the U.S. Constitution in September 1787, stating, "Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusetts: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen-yard in order."

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention had indeed taken Shays' Rebellion very seriously, viewing the lack of a strong institutional response to the incident as symptomatic of a weak central government that was struggling to preserve the liberties they had fought so hard for. The country could not be governed in a state of perpetual revolution, the delegates realized, and despite the fears of Anti-Federalists, the Constitution authorized Congress to raise a standing Army. Furthermore, Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution stated that one of the purposes of the Militia was to "suppress Insurrections"--not to foment them.

One of the delegates at the convention was James Madison, the man who would draft the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1789. Jefferson exchanged letters frequently with Madison, sharing his view that Shays' Rebellion was "absolutely unjustifiable," but "did not appear to threaten serious consequences." We need "a little rebellion now and then," he told Madison. Madison disagreed, and supported Congressional enlistment of troops during the rebellion until "the spirit of insurrection was subdued." In a speech before Congress on February 19, 1787, he argued that Shays' rebels were "internal enemies" and constituted a threat to the "tranquility of the Union." To Madison, the rebellion was treason.

With the drafting of the Constitution, Jefferson became more tempered in his own views, and acknowledged that well ordered republican democratic political processes could make armed violence unnecessary. In a letter to Dutch diplomat Charles William Frederick Dumas, Jefferson observed, "Happy for us, that when we find our constitutions defective and insufficient to secure the happiness of our people, we can assemble with all the coolness of philosophers and set it to rights, while every other nation on earth must have recourse to arms to amend or to restore their constitutions."

Upon becoming President of the United States in 1801, Jefferson's views about executive power and private rebellion were further transformed. In contrast to his previous advocacy for a ban on standing armies, Jefferson proposed the creation of a national military academy, which was built in West Point, New York. In 1807, after Aaron Burr conspired with military officers to create an independent republic in the American Southwest, Jefferson declared him a traitor and had him arrested and prosecuted for treason. In 1808, Jefferson deployed U.S. Army troops inside the country to enforce a trade embargo against Great Britain and France. Historian Henry Adams observed about Jefferson's embargo policies: "Personal liberties and rights of property were more directly curtailed in the United States by embargo than in Great Britain by centuries of almost continuous foreign war." Jefferson's use of military personnel to enforce domestic laws remains unprecedented.

Those who hold the belief that the Second Amendment gives them an individual right to take violent action against our government should it lapse into "tyranny" have isolated Jefferson's "tree of liberty" quote in order to justify a radical ideology. The truth is that Jefferson's views on private rebellion were far more thoughtful and nuanced. While scholars like Saul Cornell have acknowledged that Jefferson affirmed an individual right to keep arms for private purposes, he never described disorganized or spontaneous insurrection as a right. Jefferson instead envisioned "a universally armed citizenry organized into well-regulated militia units based on a system of 'ward republics'" as a deterrent against "usurpers" and a key guarantor of a healthy republic.

The anti-government protesters carrying semiautomatic handguns and assault weapons outside of contemporary town hall meetings would undoubtedly consider such detailed regulation of the Militia to be--for lack of a better word--"tyrannical."