Public protests against government action has recently become common place in America. Protests—sometimes peaceful and sometimes violent—regularly occurred leading to the American Revolution in the 1760s and 1770s. After achieving independence, however, many Americans rejected the idea of protests in the streets against government action or inaction. With the deep depression of 1786, violent protests erupted in a half dozen states when legislatures refused to enact relief for hard-pressed debtors. The largest and most sustained protest occurred in western Massachusetts during the fall and winter of 1786–1787 when angry debtor-farmers attempted to close the civil courts that were foreclosing on their property when they couldn’t pay their taxes or debts. This uprising has come to be called Shays’s Rebellion. The state government suppressed Shays’s Rebellion by raising an army with private funds from Boston merchants. The Shaysites were routed in a couple engagements and then disbursed. The legislature eventually pardoned all participants, many of whom were soon to be elected to the legislature.
Ironically, almost all American political leaders opposed these protests, especially Shays’s Rebellion. They saw little similarity between Shays’s Rebellion and the pre-war protests against British tyranny. Their feeling was that in republican forms of government, protests should be peaceful and should be settled at the ballot box.
Thomas Jefferson, then serving as U.S. minister to France, stood alone in defense of Shays’s Rebellion. Jefferson saw “nothing threatening” in the uprising. He believed that all governments would become oppressive and that the people must stand up and protest against arbitrary actions. In essence, the people would serve as the canary in the mine shaft alerting the people and the government when government was becoming oppressive. In four letters written from Paris in 1786 and 1787, Jefferson explained his position. To James Madison, Jefferson wrote “that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, & 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.” Governments should be “mild in their punishments of rebellion” because these protests were a “medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” To Abigail Adams, Jefferson wrote that “the spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now & then. It is like a storm in the Atmosphere.” Inaction against government oppression would be “lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.” Jefferson asked “what country can preserve its liberties, if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?” Jefferson admonished “Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them.”
Jefferson convinced no one. In fact, the fear of Shays’s Rebellion and other acts of domestic insurrection contributed greatly to the drafting of a new federal Constitution that would create a strong national government that could suppress violent protests.
Thomas Jefferson: Rebellion as a Good Thing
The commotions which have taken place in America, as far as they are yet known to me, offer nothing threatening. They are a proof that the people have liberty enough, and I would not wish them less than they have. If the happiness of the mass of the people can be secured at the expense of a little tempest now & then, or even of a little blood, it will be a precious purchase. Malo libertatum periculosum quam quietam servitutem.*
*I prefer dangerous liberty to a quiet servitude
To Ezra Stiles, Paris, December 24, 1786
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. 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.
To James Madison, Paris, January 30, 1787
The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now & then. It is like a storm in the Atmosphere.
To Abigail Adams, Paris, February 22, 1787
God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people can not be all, & 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 lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13 states independent for 11 years. There has been one rebellion [i.e., Shays’s Rebellion]. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century & a half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve its 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 & 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 & tyrants. It is its natural manure.
To William Stephens Smith, Paris, November 13, 1787