Jefferson’s views on rebellion and revolution, when they are addressed, are often largely misapprehended in the secondary literature. One reason for the confusion is that rebellion and revolution are sometimes judged to be equivalent, or nearly so, and thus are often uncritically lumped together, or are viewed merely as symptoms of liberalism, taken too far. Jefferson is too often seen as a political thinker without a political philosophy or a political philosopher who was unsystematic, imprecise, and insouciant. Yet either reading is problematic when one approaches Jefferson’s political thinking with an eye to rigor, thoroughness, and exactitude. Through this lens, one encounters a thinker with a logically consistent, methodical, and rich political philosophy, which began skeletally with certain axial concepts in the 1770s and became refined and fleshed out over the decades by the addition of corollaries and other auxiliary propositions. By the time of his presidency, Jefferson’s political vision had matured. By the year 1816, it was polished.
Critical parts of his political philosophy are the concepts rebellion and revolution. Jeffersonian republicanism is an experiment between the antipodes of lawless anarchy and the excesses of legalism. Capable of governing many people over a wide geographical expanse, it aims to employ just so many laws to preserve social order, but not so many as to bypass individuals’ liberties and rights. Yet the relative dearth of laws and thin government mean that Jeffersonian republicanism is always susceptible to “turbulence”—slight or seismic disturbances, parochial or popular, by the citizenry, sometimes politically unsettled, sometimes political aware.
Jefferson’s republicanism is government by, of, and for the people, and thus it requires utmost political participation by all citizens insofar as their time and talents allow. Part of that participation requires citizens to oversee those governing them, to ensure that governors are securing, not contravening, their rights. When government is mindless of the will of the people, then rebellion is a “gentle” reminder that governmental officials ought to attend to their duty of service to the citizenry, not to their own affairs. When government consistently fails to address the concerns of the people, citizens have a natural right to revolt, overthrow the government, and institute a new government, representative of the people’s will.
Jefferson on Rebellion
Jefferson’s tenure in France as minister plenipotentiary was not a watershed for his views on above-board republican government, but rather a period of thoughtful reflection on the views he expressed had expressed in his 1774 tract for the First Continental Congress, ‘Summary View on the Rights of British America,’ and in the Declaration of Independence.
It was during his stint in France that Jefferson honed his thoughts on the benefits of periodic rebellions, a significant element of his political philosophy. The catalyst was Shays’s Rebellion—a series of protests begun in 1786 by Massachusetts farmers especially overburdened by taxes and refused credit. The capstone was the French revolution, which began in the final year of Jefferson’s tenure in France.
Shays’s Rebellion was a most unsettling event in early American history. Daniel Shays, a captain in the Continental Army, was the figurehead of the movement which began as an abortive attempt to capture the federal arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts. The movement spread as far north as New Hampshire and as far south as South Carolina, though it never seriously threatened the fledgling union. It did, however, greatly alarm numerous politicians and informed citizens.
James Madison wrote to George Muter on January 7, 1787 of the rebellion:
Our latest information renders it not improbable that civil blood may be shed, and leaves it somewhat uncertain whether the Govt. or its adversaries will be victorious. There is good ground to believe that the latter are secretly stimulated by British influence. These events are distressing beyond measure to the zealous friends of the Revolution, and furnish new proofs of the necessity of such a vigour in the Genl. Govt. as will be able to restore health to any diseased part of the federal body. An attempt to bring about such an amendment of the federal Constitution is on the Anvil.
John Jay, too, was largely disturbed. “Our affairs seem to lead to some crisis, some revolution—something I cannot foresee or conjecture. I am uneasy and apprehensive; more so than during the war.” Abigail Adams wrote a sentiment typical of most Americans: “The mobish insurgents are sapping the foundation, and destroying the whole fabric at once.” Her husband John Adams was surprisingly unconcerned. He wrote tersely of the rebellion to Jefferson on November 30, 1786: “Don’t be alarmed at the late Turbulence in New England. The Massachusetts Assembly had in its zeal to get the better of their debt, laid on a tax, rather heavier that the people could bear. But all will be well, and this commotion will terminate in additional strength to government.” He would, decades later, have a sea change. The rebellion ultimately led the government to consider amending the Articles of Confederation or framing a constitution.
Jefferson, in France at the time, was not alarmed. He even seemed pleased with the rebellion. It was to him a symptom of the vigor, not violence, of government by the people. It was a sign that the people were engaged in, not unconcerned with, governmental affairs and thirsty for liberty.
Jefferson told Edward Carrington on January 15, 1787 that the “tumults in America” had a “small effect” in Europe that had been mostly positive. The good sense of the people was the best army. Even when the people err in rebellion, the error is a reminder to the governors that they are stewards of the people. Punishment as a deterrent leads to coercive governing; the proper correction is to give the citizenry “full information of their affairs” through free presses. Given the choice between government without newspapers or newspapers without government, Jefferson avowed, he much preferred the latter. Yet for full information to have full effect, all citizens must be able to read those newspapers.
Fifteen days later Jefferson wrote to James Madison, “I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, & as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” Even when a rebellion failed in its objective, it was generally successful in bringing to light “the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” Thus, elected officials ought mostly to be mild in punishments.
Later in the year, November 13, Jefferson said in a letter to William Stevens Smith: “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion [as Shays’s]. The people cannot 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 a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.” The last sentiment is astonishingly bold: Periodic rebellion, even when its agents act on misinformation, is preferable to indifference.
The secondary literature has typically been harsh on Jefferson for his pro-rebellion sentiments. William Howard Adams writes disparagingly of the “virtual sermon on republican theology” in Jefferson’s 1787 letters on the rebellion. Thomas Fleming speaks of Jefferson’s hypocrisy. Such bold utterances on the importance of rebellion are strange given Jefferson’s own cowardice when governor of Virginia. Joseph Ellis writes of the “extremely radical statements” that “placed Jefferson far to the left of any responsible political leader of the revolutionary generation.” He adds, “His deepest allegiances were not to the preservation of political stability but to its direct opposite.” Michael Hardt states: “Liberty and freedom mean simply for Jefferson that the multitude is autonomous and thus able to exert its priority over government. . . . Freedom for Jefferson is the right of the multitude constantly to exert its power over and determine the actions of government.” Hardt sums, “Celebration of rebellion and his apology for political violence can only be seen as a recipe for anarchy.” Finally, ultraist Conor Cruise O’Brien argues that at least from the years 1787 to 1793, Jefferson espoused an anything-goes liberalism. During that time, he was “in the grip of a fanatical cult of liberty,” to which “it would be blasphemous to assign limits.” He adds, “The liberty that Jefferson adored is . . . a wild liberty, absolute, untrammeled, universal, the liberty of a great revolutionary manifesto: the Declaration of Independence.”
The tendency of scholars to disparage Jefferson for insensitivity to human well being (Adams) and for espousal of liberal anarchism (Ellis, Hardt, and O’Brien) warrants examination. Flemings’ charge of moral cowardice can be put aside as unsupported by facts. The thesis that Jefferson espoused a radical liberalism can be readily dismissed. Jefferson never at any time viewed liberty as an end, but only as a means to, a needed condition of human flourishing. The most substantive objection exists on the grounds of insensitivity to human wellbeing, and it deserves fuller treatment.
Jefferson’s political philosophy, the axial concepts of which he listed in the Declaration of Independence—rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness—is rich, systematic, and consistent. A corollary, again articulated in the Declaration, is the right to revolution, given a “long train of abuses” consistent in their aim of stifling liberty.
Right to rebellion, too, was a corollary. Jefferson was always wary of the possibility of human enjoyment of the exercise of power over others—what Jefferson in a letter to John Adams, dated October 28, 1813, called rule of the artificial aristocracy. Hence, it was the responsibility of the citizenry, once sufficiently educated, both to oversee elected officials and remove them if needed, and to rebel when governmental practices proved coercive.
In the letters to Edward Carrington and James Madison early in 1787, Jefferson delineated three sorts of government: “government” without laws or no government; coercive government where there are laws in abundancy; and government “where the will of every one has a just influence.” The first, characteristic of Native Americans, might be best, but it is “inconsistent with any great degree of population.” The second is merely “a government of wolves over sheep.” The last, allowing “a precious degree of liberty & happiness,” is best for a society with substantial population. However, it too has its flaws, “the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject,” and that turbulence includes periodic rebellions as a check on abusive governmental practices. Yet given a choice between turbulence and oppression, turbulence was much preferable. Jefferson summed, “Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietam servitutem”—“I prefer turbulent liberty to quiet servitude.” Thus, John Boles’s claim that “the usefulness of periodic rebellion was not . . . a consistent aspect of Jefferson’s political philosophy” is false.
Jefferson on Revolution
“Revolution” was substantially different from “rebellion.” In the letters to Carrington, Madison, and Smith, Jefferson wrote of rebellion, not revolution. To Smith, Jefferson added concerning the worth of rebellions in a thriving republican government: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” He considered such manure requisite for healthy governance, lest those in power be tempted to govern in their own interests, in lieu of adequate oversight. Moreover, those governed would assume mistakenly that rights once granted would be rights always granted. Jefferson viewed rebellion as the mechanism whereby those governing were periodically reminded that government in a Jeffersonian republic was of and for the people. Revolution in contrast is an attempt to overthrow a government.
Right to revolution was another important corollary of Jefferson’s axioms, though revolution is significantly different from rebellion. Rebellion is a matter of manuring the tree; revolution is a matter of replacing it when it is irretrievably moribund or when it has died.
Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in defense of a revolution. He began by articulating the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and immediately added, “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, & to institute new government,” forged to secure the happiness and safety of the citizenry. He continued by elaborating on two principles that justified revolution. “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them [the people] under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” The abuses and usurpations, therefore, must have been long and consistently symptomatic of despotic purpose. Thus, Jefferson believed, a revolution was never to be undertaken for slight reasons or because of singular cases of governmental abuse. These constituted possible causes of rebellions, not revolutions.
Revolution for Jefferson was a complex phenomenon. To John Adams, Jefferson wrote on September 4, 1823 of the beginning, sustainment, and resolution of revolutions. “The generation which commences a revolution can rarely compleat it. Habituated from their infancy to passive submission of body and mind to their kings and priests, they are not qualified, when called on, to think and provide for themselves, and their inexperience, their ignorance and bigotry make them instruments often, in the hands of the Bonapartes and Iturbides to defeat their own rights and purposes.” Revolutions could not be expected to establish a sustainable, free government in the first effort. Moreover, the revolutionary generation was generally suited to begin and sustain the revolution, but not resolve it. It was, for Jefferson, incapable of fixing a viable republican constitution.
In sum, there are generational responsibilities for a Jeffersonian revolution to succeed. The role of the first generation is inchoation. Subsequent generations must sustain and complete the initial effort to usurp the coercive government. In the final stage, a constitution is implemented that is reflective of the will of the people. Moreover, it is incumbent on each successive generation to maintain and update the constitution, in keeping with advances.
A Jeffersonian revolution is never impetuous. It is generated and sustained by the indignancy of injustice, and it aims to remedy that with the instantiation of a government reflective of the will of the people, guided by rule of law. Yet its success, like victory in war, requires systemic planning.
Jefferson’s views on revolution can be juxtaposed with those of David Hume. In his essay “Of the Original Contract,” Hume spoke out against the revolutionist proclamations of many Whigs of his day, because they reified “liberty,” saw it as either an ultimate goal toward which humans were moving or the guiding principle that inevitably led to happiness. Whig liberty promised instability and brooked the possibility of degeneracy or anarchy. Even when Hume observed the numerous merits of republicanism—he considered himself in some measure a republican and even championed the American cause for independence—he never countenanced extreme liberty. “The people must not pretend, because they can, by their consent, lay the foundations of government, that therefore they are to be permitted, at their pleasure, to overthrow and subvert them. There is no end of these seditious and arrogant claims.” He added, “In reality, there is not a more terrible event, than a total dissolution of government, which gives liberty to the multitude, and makes the determination of choice of a new establishment depend upon a number, which nearly approaches to that of the body of the people.” The issue for Hume was that, when left to the masses, revolution would likely turn anarchic, thereby negating the value of the effort.
Jefferson’s views seem radically different from Hume’s, but they are not—the two share some commonalities. A Jeffersonian revolution is always last-resort. It is also well planned and gradual. In the words of T.V. Smith, “Jefferson saw that when you have discounted the reaction which revolution always provokes, the long way of gradualism through compromise is ordinarily a shorter path to progress than any short cut of revolution.” He sums, “Jefferson’s philosophy of means—gradualism by majority rule through the strategy of compromise—reduced ‘the perfectibility of mankind’ to a faith in the snail-like pace of evolution.”
The key differences are that Jefferson believed that liberty was essential for happiness, that government could be founded securely on the will of the citizenry, and that, following many French philosophes, humans were on a path to perfectibility—what Donald Livingston calls three Humean fictions. For Hume, no civil society could conform to any prescribed set of permanent rules any more than one might fit permanent rules to a language. In the end, a revolution for Hume, because it was actuated by principles, almost always left a nation in a condition worse than it was prior to it.
Jefferson, however, believed in principles, and consequently, was in some ways more of a philosopher than Hume. When Jefferson defended the French Revolution in a letter to William Short dated January 3, 1793, he wrote of the dead—the guilty and the innocent—as ones who had “fallen in battle.” He added, “Time and truth will rescue & embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood?” One can certainly fault Jefferson for being insensitive to the issue of the numerous thousands of lives lost in the struggle, but when one takes into account Jefferson’s presumed rewards of liberty for the many millions of people in subsequent generations, the cost becomes insubstantial.
Overall, Jefferson, like Hume, granted the weighty difficulties in beginning, sustaining, and succeeding with a revolution. Yet Jefferson thought that the reward of a successful revolution, if motivated by release from a long-abusive government, was always worth the sanguinary effort. Liberty, because he considered it part of the human condition, was a natural right. Life without liberty was not worth having. Thus, a revolution was justifiable when government had taken it upon itself to decide how the citizenry ought to live, and rebellions were necessary from time to time to remind governors that they were stewards of the people, not their dictators.
Jefferson on Treason
In October 1776, not long after Jefferson finished crafting the Declaration of Independence, he began work on revising the laws of Virginia as part of a five-man committee comprised of him, Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, George Mason, and Thomas Ludlow Lee. Mason shortly resigned on the grounds he was not a lawyer, and Lee died, so the work was divided among the three remaining members. Jefferson did not shy away from his proper share of the work, and the three crafted 126 bills to be considered before the Congress of Virginia.
Bill 64, “A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishment in Cases Heretofore Capital”concerns revisal of the code of punishment for crimes. That bill, because it is stylistically crafted in a manner consistent with Jefferson’s other writings at the time and is the focus of some discussion in Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia and his Autobiography, is generally agreed to be Jefferson’s. The goal, Jefferson wrote in the bill, was justice—to proportion punishments to crimes. In his day, punishments were frequently much in excess of the crime, and the focus concerned crimes that were traditionally deemed capital offenses. Capital punishment was too often employed as a universal remedy for social ills—especially, for stealing horses, which were the automobiles of the time. Jefferson aimed to make it a last-resort punishment.
Proportioning was to be effected both by diminishing the role of lex talionis—having punishments resemble the crimes in severity, construed to be by Jefferson outdated, ineffectual, and morally dubious—and fixing forfeiture of life only to extreme cases, such as homicides and treason. Capital punishment, he said, “should be the last melancholy resource against those whose existence has become inconsistent with the safety of their fellow citizens.” Apropos of treason, Jefferson wrote:
If a man do levy war against the Commonwealth or be adherent to the enemies of the commonwealth giving to them aid or comfort in the commonwealth, or elsewhere, and thereof be convicted of open deed, by the evidence of two sufficient witnesses, or his own voluntary confession, the said cases, and no others, shall be adjudged treasons which extend to the commonwealth, and the person so convicted shall suffer death by hanging, and shall forfeit his lands and goods to the Commonwealth.
Years later, after his stint in France, and acting on behalf of President Washington, on April 24, 1792 Jefferson addressed William Carmichael and William Short, Joint Commissioners Plenipotentiary to act on behalf of the U.S. in the court of Madrid concerning navigation of the Mississippi River and border-related issues. The enclosure to the letter concerned punishments for “fugitive debtors and criminals.” Under the aim for “coterminous States [to] understand one another,” Jefferson refined his account of treason, making it more precise. He wrote of “real” treason and what might be dubbed “apparent” treason apropos of acts against the government.
This, when real, merits the highest punishment. Most codes extend their definitions of treasonto acts not really against one’s country. They do not distinguish between acts against the government, and acts against the oppressions of the government. The latter are virtues, yet have furnished more victims to the executioner than the former. Real treasons are rare; oppressions frequent. The unsuccessful strugglers against tyranny have been the chief martyrs of treason laws in all countries.
Here the remedy for treason was not capital punishment but expatriation. His change of mind was likely due to the concern that cases judged to be treasonous may often turn out to be legitimate actions against governmental oppression—whistleblowers, in modern parlance. Treason, Jefferson argued, was typically defined as any subversive action against one’s government. Yet that definition was overly broad and simplistic, as it overlooked acts of justifiable rebellion, hence his redefinition.
For Jefferson, a genuinely republican government allowed each citizen the same opportunity to participate politically in affairs within their reach and competency. It guaranteed equal rights, in person and property, to all citizens. It functioned according to rules, periodically revisable, established by the majority of the citizens. It employed representatives, chosen and recallable by the citizenry and functioning for short periods, for affairs outside citizens’ reach and competency, who were considered qualified only if they excelled other citizens both in genius and virtue.
Yet why would men of genius and virtue wish to be governmental officials? Jefferson noted in numerous writings that it was a tendency of men, once having assumed the offices of government for any length of time, to become impervious to the will of the general citizenry and to begin to act according to self-interest. What is the reason for this dereliction of duty over time?
Public office in a genuine republic, seen from the perspective of personal investment, is a burden to those elected. It demands the sacrifice of one’s personal affairs for the sake of serving the general citizenry and that sacrifice always has ill consequences for a servant’s domestic affairs—domestic affairs inevitably deteriorate. Such a large sacrifice tends to appeal only to highly ambitious persons, especially among the wealthy and wellborn, for whom the status and fame of a high governmental post can be translated into personal gain—an aim inconsistent with Jeffersonian republicanism. That is why elected officials need to be carefully watched.
The key of a virtuous government is the belief that each person is born with a moral sense—an innate sense of right and wrong. Thus, freedom from the encroachment of government in their everyday-life affairs and a modicum of education are deemed the best guarantors of human flourishing, and that can be had only when elected officials are carefully watched. When officials are not serving the interests of the will of the majority, they need to be removed from public office.
Rebellion was a key corollary of Jefferson’s republicanism, as turbulence is one of the consequences of liberty. Revolution, too, is a key corollary, as there is the tendency of persons, long in governing or large in ambition, to ignore the interests of the citizenry and attend only to themselves.
With its axioms, corollaries, and auxiliary principles, Jefferson’s republicanism was, as Hume would object, a philosophy—a collection of principles, and principles are generally adopted according to psychological propensities, and thus have little regard for reality. Consequently, for Hume, Jeffersonian republicanism was unlikely to work.
Yet that objection was unsubstantiated. Jefferson himself was never oblivious to experience. He knew that there was no proof that republicanism would work. Yet the centuries had shown that “aristocratic” governments, by one or several, do not work— they merely pretend to serve the interests of the citizenry by deciding what is best for them. That was why Jefferson consistently referred to republican governing as an “experiment” or “great experiment.”
James Madison, The Papers of James Madison, Vol. 9, 9 April 1786 – 24 May 1787 and supplement 1781–1784, ed. Robert A. Rutland and William M. E. Rachal (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1975), 231.
John Jay to George Washington, 27 June 1786. George Washington,The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol. 4, 2 April 1786 – 31 January 1787, ed. W. W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 130–32.
John Adams, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 10, 22 June–31 December 1786, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), 557. He wrote to Jefferson (June 1813): “You never felt the terrorism of Shays’s Rebellion in Massachusetts. I believe you never felt the terrorism of Gallatin’s Insurrection in Pennsylvania. . . . You certainly never felt the terrorism excited by Genet in 1793, when ten thousand people in the streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his house and effect a revolution in the government, or compel it to declare war in favor of the French Revolution and against England. . . . I have no doubt you was fast asleep in philosophical tranquility when ten thousand people, and perhaps many more, were parading the streets of Philadelphia on the evening of my Fast Day [April 25, 1799]; when Governor [Thomas] Mifflin himself thought it his duty to order a patrol of horse and foot to preserve the peace; when Market Street was as full as men could stand by one another, and even before my door; when some of my domestics, in frenzy, determined to sacrifice their lives in my defense; when all were ready to make a desperate sally among the multitude and others were with difficulty and danger dragged back by the others; when I myself judged it prudent and necessary to order chests of arms from the War Office to be brought through bylanes and back doors, determined to defend my house at the expense of my life and the lives of the few, very few, domestics and friends within it. What think you of terrorism, Mr. Jefferson?”
Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785–1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). See also Conor Cruise O’Brien, “Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist,” Atlantic Monthly, October 1996, 53–74.
Thus, tenure in political offices ought never to be long, because of the human tendency to exercise power over others to the detriment of those others. Recall in his “Summary View” Jefferson’s admonishment of George III, “Kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people.” Rotation of offices, thus, was needed. To Edward Rutledge on July 18, 1788 Jefferson stated flatly, “The total abandonment of the principle of rotation in the offices of President & Senator will end in abuse.”
See M. Andrew Holowchak, “Jefferson’s Platonic Republicanism,” Polis, Vol. 31, No. 2 (2014), 369–86, and “The Paradox of Public Service: Jefferson, Education, and the Problem of Plato’s Cave,” Studies in Philosophy and Education, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2013), 73–86.