Rebels They Were Not! – Part 3 – Jefferson On Rebellion


jeffersonEditor’s Note: Read Part 1, & Part 2

Not every person who calls himself “patriot” deserves the badge he or she so proudly parades in front of his fellow man. Some so-called patriots might more accurately be classed among the misdirected and ill informed, the impatient and the unenduring, or worse than these among the opportunists and blackguards who have ever exploited one movement or another to promote themselves, or to promote a cause foreign and unfriendly to their high and holy claims to the contrary.

I refer to those whose swift and single solution to every government wrong is to drape themselves in red, white and blue and then in “righteous” indignation blurt out the only quote they it seems they have ever memorized, “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God!”

Mind you, Thomas Jefferson said it, but let’s be pour a little dose of honesty on the fiery indignation of some of our “patriot” friends – and I consider myself a patriot – Jefferson’s depth and breath didn’t start with “powder” and end with “ball.” Armed conflict, Jefferson taught, was in most cases illegitimate, unwise and immoral.

Particulars mattered before a nation or a group of citizens ought to resort to that last extreme, such as:

  • the form of government
  • the opportunities for redress
  • the political, social and religious traditions of the people
  • the present educational and moral climate
  • the chances for success
  • the costs of conflict
  • the trustworthiness of political and military leaders.
  • and can we see the forest for the tree?

The real Jefferson asked probing questions before even dreaming of picking up a gun. For example:

Is revolution our first and best recourse?

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established, should not be changed for light and transient causes.”

“I do not believe war the most certain means of enforcing principles. Those peaceable coercions which are in the power of every nation, if undertaken in concert and in time of peace, are more likely to produce the desired effect.”

What will be the cost of rebellion?

“Never was so much false arithmetic employed on any subject, as that which has been employed to persuade nations that it is their interest to go to war. Were the money which it has cost to gain, at the close of a long war, a little town, or a little territory, the right to cut wood here, or to catch fish there, expended in improving what they already possess, in making roads, opening rivers, building ports, improving the arts, and finding employment for their idle poor, it would render them much stronger, much wealthier and happier. This I hope will be our wisdom.”

“The evils which of necessity encompass the life of man are sufficiently numerous. Why should we add to them by voluntarily distressing and destroying one another? Peace, brothers, is better than war. In a long and bloody war, we lose many friends and gain nothing.”

“I abhor war, it is the greatest scourge of mankind.”

Would a little patience, a little compromise work?

“[In order to ensure] a successful reformation of government, … I [would urge] most strenuously an immediate compromise to secure what the [present] government was now ready to yield, and trust to future occasions for what might still be wanting.”

“Truth advances and error recedes step by step only; and to do our fellow-men the most good in our power, we must lead where we can, follow where we cannot, and still go with them, watching always the favorable moment for helping them to another step.”

Does conservatism have its uses?

“Time indeed changes manners and notions, and so far we must expect institutions to bend to them. But time produces also corruption of principles, and against this it is the duty of good citizens to be ever on the watch, and if the gangrene is to prevail at last, let the day be kept off as long as possible.”

Are some revolutionaries, agent provocateurs?

“War … is not the most favorable moment for divesting the monarchy of power. On the contrary, it is the moment when the energy of a single hand shows itself in the most seducing form.”

Do self-serving men masquerade as “holy rebels”?

“The generation which commences a revolution rarely completes 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.”

What percentage of the people are united behind the changes that need to be made?

“It can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united.”

Where stands the public virtue?

“If Caesar had been as virtuous as he was daring and sagacious, what could he, even in the plenitude of his usurped power, have done to lead his fellow citizens into good government? … [S]teeped in corruption, vice and venality, as the whole nation was, … what could even Cicero, Cato, Brutus have done, had it been referred to them to establish a good government for their country? … No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and their people were so demoralized and depraved as to be incapable of exercising a wholesome control.”

If the public virtue wanes, what then?

“Instead of that liberty which takes root and growth in the progress of reason, if recovered by mere force or accident, it becomes with an unprepared people a tyranny still of the many, the few, or the one.”

Is civil war the “Jeffersonian” solution to big government?

“I can scarcely contemplate a more incalculable evil than the breaking of the Union into two or more parts.”

“It is time for all good citizens to … frown into silence all disorganizing movements. Strong in our numbers, our position and resources, we can never be endangered but by schisms at home.”

“I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776 to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves and of treason against the hopes of the world.”

Are payment of taxes that we have consented to a just cause for revolt?

“[C]ontributions to public purposes … are certainly among the duties we owe to society.”

Do we see the forest or the tree?

“Right, shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground.”

Shouldn’t self-government, be a check against revolution?

“In a country whose constitution is derived from the will of the people, directly expressed by their free suffrages; where the principal executive functionaries, and those of the legislature, are renewed by them at short periods; where under the characters of jurors, they exercise in person the greatest portion of the judiciary powers; where the laws are consequently so formed and administered as to bear with equal weight and favor on all … it would not be supposed that any safeguards could be needed against insurrection.”

What’s the remedy under our Constitution?

“[I]n cases of an abuse of the delegated powers, the members of the General Government, being chosen by the people, a change by the people would be the constitutional remedy.”

That is, by election, impeachment, amendment, checks and balances, trial by jury, free speech, free press, free assembly, education, lawsuit, criminal charges, sacrifice (of time, talents and resources), and every other legal, peaceful remedy.

“Come forward, then, and give us the aid of your talents and the weight of your character towards the [preservation] of republicanism.”

What is the best corrective for constitutional abuse?

“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

Is not man higher than the beast?

“The cocks of the henyard kill one another up. Bears, bulls, rams, do the same. And the horse, in his wild state, kills all the young males, until worn down with age and war, some vigorous youth kills him, and takes to himself the harem of females. I hope we shall prove how much happier for man the Quaker policy is, and that the life of the feeder is better than that of the fighter; and it is some consolation that the desolation by these maniacs of one part of the earth is the means of improving it in other parts. Let the latter be our office, and let us milk the cow, while the Russian holds her by the horns, and the Turk by the tail.”


Jefferson, like his fellow founders, was no redneck rebel, no power-hungry blackguard. He loved his country, loved peace, and knew the best solution for bad government was eternal vigilance practiced by educated, moral citizens who fight for liberty within the bounds of inspired law.

Our Constitution (and with it our liberties and free institutions) are seriously at risk as never before, and as such, in need of wise, brave, inspired, and yes, patriotic men and women to step forward and save her from the self-evident approach of tyranny. That being said, is a quick resort to the last resort the wise and inspired Jeffersonian solution? Admittedly, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” was believed by Jefferson to be a true blue through and through wisest and most just approach in some very specific cases. But then again, if we wish to be honest Jeffersonians and good Christians too, then we cannot in candor claim that this is the full package that was Jefferson’s counsel. No. So let us study and seriously considered, then give it our best effort to vigorously, thoroughly, and enduringly apply every solution within the bounds of inspired law under the Constituiton, let us likewise do all in our power to educate others to understand those laws, and to live good and moral lives so as to deserve and be trusted with its blessings first. For last resorts are for last resorts.

And besides, and once again, the Founder Were Not Rebels! but men who understood and stood by with conviction, honor, courage, and Heaven inspired endurance  the law … but not men who stood by or in favor of lawlessness. Not then. Not ever.

Steve FarrellSteve Farrell is the Founder and Editor In Chief of The Moral Liberal, one of the original and most popular pundits at (1999-2007), and the author of the inspirational novel, Dark Rose.

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