The tree of liberty... (Quotation)

"I do not know whether it is to yourself or Mr. Adams I am to give my thanks for the copy of the new constitution. I beg leave through you to place them where due. It will be yet three weeks before I shall receive them from America. There are very good articles in it: and very bad. I do not know which preponderate. What we have lately read in the history of Holland, in the chapter on the Stadtholder, would have sufficed to set me against a Chief magistrate eligible for a long duration, if I had ever been disposed towards one: and what we have always read of the elections of Polish kings should have forever excluded the idea of one continuable for life. Wonderful is the effect of impudent and persevering lying. The British ministry have so long hired their gazetteers to repeat and model into every form lies about our being in anarchy, that the world has at length believed them, the English nation has believed them, the ministers themselves have come to believe them, and what is more wonderful, we have believed them ourselves. Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusets? And can history produce an instance of a rebellion so honourably conducted? 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.[1] 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. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13. states independant 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? 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. Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachusets: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order. I hope in god this article will be rectified before the new constitution is accepted." - Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, Paris, 13 Nov. 1787[2]

Footnotes

  1. This sentence has possibly been misquoted as "every generation needs a new revolution."
  2. PTJ 12:356-7. Letterpress copy at the Library of Congress. A transcription of this letter from Ford is available online as well.

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Discussion

says

"It is it's natural manure."

Did Jefferson really misuse the apostrophe here? The correct spelling of "its," of course, does not include an apostrophe.

says

I don't think Jefferson was wrong with the English language conventions of his time.

I just googled this on etymonline.com (Online Etymology Dictionary):

"its
neuter possessive pronoun; the modern word begins to appear in writing at the end of 16c., from it + genitive/possessive ending 's (q.v.), and "at first commonly written it's, a spelling retained by some to the beginning of the 19c." [OED]. The apostrophe came to be omitted, perhaps because it's already was established as a contraction of it is, or by general habit of omitting apostrophes in personal pronouns (hers, yours, theirs, etc.)."

says

Can you confirm which "article" Jefferson refers to in

"I hope in god this article will be rectified before the new constitution is accepted."

Is he speaking specifically of the lifetime appointment of the Chief Justice?

Thank you for this great website and archive!

says

Since Jefferson's famous line about refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants has been in the news, I found it thought-provoking to read the quote in context. In some ways seeing the context makes it even more challenging to contemplate its relevance today. What do others think? What can we take away from this letter today? Is it still relevant?

says

Thank you very much for presenting this letter in the hope of inspiring some thought and contemplation. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's natural manure.” That statement is perhaps the most often quoted part of this letter, however, the rest of the letter speaks volumes with regard to what Jefferson, as well as other founding minds, thought with regard to the relationship between the citizens of a republic and their government. The relevance today, in my opinion, is pretty much what it was back then. Liberty can be lost unless the general populace maintains a constant vigil. Both Jefferson and Madison have applied the word, “lethargy,” in describing an inherent danger associated with not maintaining that constant vigil; with not being informed; with not letting those who represent us in government know that the people are watching and are ready to do what is required to preserve their liberty.

“Our Convention has been too much impressed by the insurrection of Massachussets: and in the spur of the moment they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order.” I believe that with this statement Jefferson is further warning us to be on guard against measures of over reaction, by those in government, to situations that he felt are both necessary and natural to the long term functioning and success of a democratic-republican form of government. The loss of some liberty in the hopes of gaining some security is a topic often discussed these days and the importance of what Jefferson and the other founders had to say is still very relevant. The thoughts of those that founded this nation will always be of importance and relevant, especially those of Jefferson who always cast an eye toward a hopeful future.

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