Friday, September 17, 2010

Let Freedom Ring!

Morris.  Kangaroos.  Those fantastic accents.  Happy outdoorsy people living boldly among about 10,000 of the deadliest animals ever discovered.  Michelle TumesVegemite.  Phrases like "hopeless nongs" and  "gutless spivs" thrown about in Parliament.  The reasons to love Australia are almost innumerable.

Now, here is another one:


When I was in Canada this past July, one of the most talented musicians ever created, a man with refined and extensive literary taste, someone who is always interesting to talk with, and an entrenched and determined (though not angry) self-described socialist named Spencer asked me what I thought of this Tea Party Movement in my homeland.  I told him I love it.  I think his reaction was to tsk-tsk me.  Canadians, I have discovered, love to tsk-tsk Americans at any opportunity.  I leave them to their joy.  

I, however, am unapologetic.  I think the Tea (or the acronymic T.E.A. -- Taxed Enough Already) Party Movement is, overwhelmingly, a positive one. As Thomas Jefferson famously wrote to James Madison in 1787: I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing; as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. . . . It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.  Interestingly enough, he was writing this part of the letter in commentary upon the Shays' Rebellion.  So, let's look for a moment, between the ellipses.

Shays' Rebellion was an uprising by poor, debt-ridden, farmers in Massachusetts between 1786 and 1787.  It was sparked by the demand from overseas lenders that the Revolutionary War debts be paid in gold and silver, quantities of which were not yet abundant enough in the new country to afford repayment.  The borrowers on these notes, individual states, were trying to squeeze the money from mostly rural, small-time landowners to pay back the debt.  They used the force of the courts to sue farmers for back taxes, selling off the land to settle those amounts when the farmers could not pay.  It was a cruel cycle: an insolvent state wringing dry poverty-stricken landowners in a way that forced families off of their land and into greater poverty.  The farmers, called Shaysites after fellow farmer and Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays, lobbied for the issuance of paper currency and lower taxes.  Their methods involved disruption of the court system and general rowdy protest, but no bloodshed.  They were eventually put down by General William Shepherd; the rebels were rounded up; and, the rebellion itself became a call for strengthening the Federal government's power and re-thinking the Articles of Confederation.

Now, to look between the ellipses of the famous Jefferson quote: I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government. [Emphasis mine.]

This is an interesting observation.  "Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them."  In other words, if you are going to have a rebellion, you had damn well better be certain that you can win or are prepared to take the consequences; if you fail, all that stuff you're rebelling against will come down like a ton of bricks on your head.  Coming from a man who had authored the Great Rebellion's founding document, these are sobering words.  "Lives, fortunes, and sacred honor" were not lofty sentiments, but tenable, possible casualties in the Revolutionary War.  Then, the next statement is curious, indeed: "An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much."  Which truth?  The truth that rebellion is "good" and even "necessary"?  Or the truth that failed rebellions lead often to increased governmental authority?  In a way, I think he means both.*

Jefferson's first part of the letter is an almost Benthamian musing about the correct kind of government to produce the maximum amount of happiness and liberty among a population.  He sees three possible types of government; put simply, they are anarchy (without rule), democratic republics or constitutional monarchies (limited rule), or despotism (unlimited rule).  Without much pretense at an argument, he comes to the conclusion that the American-style of limited government was, indeed, the best to secure the greatest freedom and contentment among a diverse, far-flung population.  (Do you think he was at all prejudiced in favor of this conclusion?  Discuss.)  So, he is in France, as ambassador, hearing about this troublesome rebellion in Massachusetts, and he is singularly unruffled. 

He writes to James Madison that, "An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much."  Let's say he means the truth that such rebellions are good for the state; indeed, that they are "a medicine necessary for the sound health of government."  Does he mean that "honest" governors in a republic ought not to be concerned about such rebellions, because they bring to light weaknesses in the system that can then be addressed to make a better republic?  That such rebellions ought almost to be welcomed, as they pinpoint underlying concerns?  That such rebellions are positive in nature because they remind the people that they own the government, and not the other way around?  Or, is Jefferson encouraging leniency on the part of the state against rebels because, in their failure and suppression, the state can legitimately assert greater authority?  Are these two views incompatible?   I think, perhaps, what Jefferson might be saying here is that, whether they succeed or fail, rebellions in general are the great tool of freedom — constantly pruning and nourishing the great tree of liberty.  If they succeed, it means that the population in general is behind the concerns of the rebels.  And, even if they fail, they clarify a need that can then be addressed in a formal way by government. 

A little rebellion was certainly a good thing in the late 18th century.  The Shays' Rebellion was one of the events in our early national history that led to the Philadelphia Convention in May of 1787.  Now known as the Constitutional Convention, the delegates came out a little less than five months later on September 17 with what Benjamin Franklin prophetically asserted was "a republic, if you can keep it."  Can we keep it?   223 years later, I look at such things as the Tea Party Movement and think, "Yes, I do believe we can."  Because a little rebellion, now and then, is good medicine for our sick, gouty, bloated government.

Happy Constitution Day!  And, welcome liberty-loving Aussie friends!


Sources:  Wikipedia's Shays' Rebellion Page; History 1700's Shays' Rebellion Page; Archiving Early America's A Little Rebellion Now and Then Page
*As Arielle kindly pointed out in the comments, the verb "establish" has another meaning which I was not considering when I wrote this piece.  Definition the sixth in the OED (how I love that book!), lists "to place beyond dispute; to prove."  In this sense, Jefferson's sentence certainly meshes more as a completed thought with the rest of his paragraph.  "Unsuccessful rebellions," in other words (again), "indeed, generally [place beyond dispute] the encroachments on the rights of the people who produced them."  Therefore, as I speculated originally, even unsuccessful rebellions serve to "bring to light weaknesses in the system that can then be addressed to make a better republic."  As I mused to Arielle in the comments, I think that Jefferson was an idealist on this point.  Rebellion really ought to make an "honest" republic re-examine its governance; but, more often in history, including in our own great country, rebellion has brought down more draconian rules and sterner enforcement.  Successful rebellions -- I'm thinking here, specifically, of the Civil Rights Movement -- are the fulfillment of already proven encroachments on rights.

2 comments:

Arielle said...

Actually, Justine, I think you may have misunderstood his quote - I think when he said "establish" that today we would use the word 'show' 'reveal' or 'hightlight.'

I'm not positive if this is the case or not, I would have to know more about word usage from that time period.

Justine said...

That's an interesting thought! Your definition certainly conforms more with what the following sentence says, and the general Jeffersonian spirit, overall.

Your usage of the word matches best definition #6 from the OED-- to place beyond dispute; to prove. Let's substitute it and see what happens:

Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally prove the encroachments on the rights of the people who produced them.

That makes a little more sense, doesn't it? I wonder how true Jefferson's statement there was. I do not think, in general, that unsuccessful rebellions led to more than a putting down (and, generally, execution) of rebels and more draconian future enforcement. But, Jefferson was an idealist.

Thanks for reading and commenting, Arielle!