The Spirit of Resistance

“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 and then. It is like a storm in the Atmosphere.”*

Thomas Jefferson wrote these sentences in a letter to Abigail Adams in February 1787 during his time in Paris at Minister of France.  Jefferson is referring to the events known as Shays’ Rebellion here.  Jefferson states that he hopes the rebels were pardoned, then moved on to other matters.  Later in the same year, Jefferson wrote to William Stephens Smith (John and Abigail Adams’ son in law) and expressed similar thoughts about the spirit of resistance.  He pointed out that the 13 States had existed for 11 years and only this one rebellion took place.  Jefferson then concluded famously:

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.**

Jefferson concluded this letter with a lament that Shays’ Rebellion had influenced the actions of members of the Convention taking place in Philadelphia.  He feared an overreaction would give the government too much power under a new constitution.

*Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, 22 February 1787 https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Thomas%20Jefferson%20to%20Abigail%20Adams&s=1111311111&r=149&sr=

**Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 13 November 1787 [Emphasis added] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-12-02-0348

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