Refreshing The Tree Of Liberty In Context

It is about time that everybody remind people such as William Kostric, who appeared at a town hall bearing a side arm and a sign proclaiming that “It is time to refresh the tree of liberty”, the circumstances in which Thomas Jefferson penned those famous words in a letter to William S. Smith in November 1787. In the letter he writes about the Shay’s Rebellion, and the full “liberty tree” quote goes:

God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. 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. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. …
And what country can preserve its liberties, if it’s rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the 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 its natural manure.

In other words, although acknowledging that dissent and protest were necessary for a vibrant democracy to function, and also expecting such protests might erupt into violence and become rebellions, he firmly affirms that it is the right and duty of legitimate authorities to squash such rebellions by any means necessary.


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