The people can not be all, and always, well informed

It was Shays’ Rebellion which prompted Thomas Jefferson to write about the blood of patriots and tyrants. But while Jefferson praised the spirit of the rebels, he was condescending towards the rebellion and its participants.

I say nothing of it’s motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be 20. years without such a rebellion. The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive.(

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Original painted by Rembrandt Peale.
Jefferson thought the Shaysites were ignorant, and had misconceived the facts. But the Shaysites weren’t as misinformed as he thought. They certainly weren’t as misinformed as today’s self described patriots who think they’re following in Shays’s footsteps. The Shaysites knew they were being unfairly burdened during an economic crises, and had called for a fiscally conservative government to intervene and help relieve their debt.

But that government refused

Unlike many other state legislatures in the 1780s, the Massachusetts government didn’t respond to the economic crisis by passing pro-debtor laws (like forgiving debt and printing more paper money). us


I find that even my fellow liberals, while noticing the irony of quoting the man who thought their role models were ignoramuses, fail to emphasize the contrast between the Shaysites and the insurgents of today. They assume that the two are analogous and apply Jefferson’s words to both. But the Shaysites had a better reason to rebel than today’s insurgents.

Imagine if today’s angry, armed American terrorists with their threatening “tree of liberty” signs were calling for debt forgiveness and more money from the government! They might just as well have called for the government to do something about the skyrocketing cost of a medical system which increasingly served the wealthy and left the poor to die of treatable conditions. Instead they’ve been tricked by the right wing establishment to whip themselves into a murderous frenzy at the thought of the government taxing the wealthy to help the poor. Daniel Shays wasn’t nearly so misinformed.

Not only was Jefferson patronizing in his attitude towards the Shaysites, he had little company in his enthusiasm for periodic bloodshed. Sam Adams was far more representative of Founders’ attitudes towards the rebellion,

In monarchy the crime of treason may admit of being pardoned or lightly punished, but the man who dares rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.

I haven’t seen that one scrawled on a cardboard sign. With few Founding Fathers to quote in support of their bloodthirsty treason, today’s insurgents have settled for the words of a Founding Father who was safely away from any danger as he cheered the spilled blood of those who he called ignorant.

Image Library of Congress retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

Shays’ Rebellion was put down in 1787 by government forces.

Perhaps it will ultimately be for the best if our homegrown terrorists rise up and get squashed. Shays’ Rebellion had positive consequences, and ultimately helped gather support for the ratification of the United States Constitution, although most of the Shaysites were against it. On that subject they were indeed misinformed. But if today’s insurgents want to rebel in the spirit of those who Thomas Jefferson condescendingly praised, they should be fighting for much of what they are fighting against. They should be supporting, rather than threatening a government which intervenes in an economic downturn and provides relief for those who struggle to keep what little they have.

Shays’ Rebellion Maker. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Author: Daderot

Update 2015 June 30: I had written that Jefferson never fought for his country. That was big mistake. Jefferson served during the Revolutionary War. I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote that, but it’s fixed now.