Requests for Information Related to Thomas Jefferson


>Did Jefferson say something about the necessity of small revolutions
>every twenty years or so?

Not quite.  He was speaking of rebellions, not revolutions, and he took
an occasional rebellion as a sign that the people were vitally concerned
and involved in their government.  Thus, he wrote:

"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 to Abigail Adams, 1787.  FE

And with reference to such "spirit of resistance," he wrote:

"God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a
rebellion... We have had thirteen States independent for eleven
years.  There has been one rebellion.  That comes to one
rebellion in a century and a half, for each State.  What country
before ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion?"  --
Thomas Jefferson to William S. Smith, 1787.   ME 6:372

He also believed the constitution should be renewed every twenty years
or so, and wrote:

"Let us provide in our constitution for its revision at stated
periods.  What these periods should be nature herself indicates.
By the European tables of mortality, of the adults living at any
one moment of time, a majority will be dead in about nineteen
years.  At the end of that period, then, a new majority is come
into place; or, in other words, a new generation.  Each generation
is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which
had gone before.  It has then, like them, a right to choose for
itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own
happiness; consequently, to accommodate to the circumstances
in which it finds itself that received from its predecessors; and it
is for the peace and good of mankind that a solemn opportunity
of doing this every nineteen or twenty years should be provided
by the constitution; so that it may be handed on, with periodical
repairs, from generation to generation, to the end of time, if
anything human can so long endure." --Thomas Jefferson to
Samuel Kercheval, 1816.  ME 15:42

It is important to distinguish between rebellion and revolution, however.
A rebellion is an uprising, a resistance to government.  A revolution,
however, is an over-throwing of the government, and should be pursued
only when absolutely necessary.  With a proper, elective government,
revolution is not necessary, because radical change can take place
through the ballot box.

"A jealous care of the right of election by the people--a mild and
safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of
revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided--I deem
[one of] the essential principles of our Government, and
consequently [one of] those which ought to shape its
administration." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801.   ME

But a revolution is a very dangerous operation, and does not always

"Most [revolutions] have been [closed] by a subversion of that
liberty [they were] intended to establish." --Thomas Jefferson to
George Washington, 1784.   ME 4:218.

The idea is to have a good republican government so that abuses may
be corrected by "peaceful remedies," and so that the "sword of
revolution" need not be taken up to overcome oppression.

> Sir: I am looking for the quote, its context and its source wherein T.
> Jefferson said (paraphrasing): ..."a little revolution now and then is a
> good thing." Can you help me?

Jefferson was speaking of rebellion, not revolution.  The reference is to
Shay's Rebellion.  Jefferson at that time said he liked an occasional
rebellion because it indicated the people were concerned with their
rights, etc.

The quote is as follows:

"I hold it that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as
necessary in the political
world as storms are in the physical.  Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed,
generally establish the
encroachments on the rights of the people, which have produced them.  An
observation of this
truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their
punishment of rebellions, as not
to discourage them too much.  It is medicine necessary for the sound
health of government." --
Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, Jan. 30, 1787.

Along the same line was:

"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
to Abigail Adams, 1787.

And again, he wrote:

"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 a lethargy, the forerunner of death to
the public liberty." --
Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 1787.

All of this was written early on -- in 1787, and with respect to Shay's
Rebellion.  Some were taking that rebellion as a sign that republican
government could not govern, and was doomed to failure, hence Jefferson's
apparent endorsement.  Later on, when government was organized with
better representation and presumably more responsiveness to the people,
his sentiments seemed to have changed, and he wrote as follows:

"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 character 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, restraining
no man in the pursuits of
honest industry and securing to every one the property which that
acquires, it would not be
supposed that any safeguards could be needed against insurrection or
enterprise on the public
peace or authority.  The laws, however, aware that these should not be
trusted to moral
restraints only, have wisely provided punishments for these crimes when
committed." --Thomas
Jefferson: 6th Annual Message, 1806.

Those who use any of the Jefferson's quotes in this area as justification
for anti-government terrorism are, in my opinion, taking what he said
grossly out of context.  He was speaking of popular dissent on a broad
scale, and it was an uprising, with demands, etc., not a revolution
involving the overthrow of government.  The justifications for revolution
are well stated in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.


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