A Perversion of Jefferson

By Elizabeth Mazzara

In January of 1787 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to James Madison. The Constitutional Convention had been called for May of that year. The eastern states were in the middle of a series of escalating uprisings that were named after farmer, and Revolutionary War Veteran, Daniel Shay who led the first insurrection in Massachusetts. With immense war debt and grossly deflated currency, concern was growing that these United States, the American Experiment, might already be near its’ end.

It was in this context that Jefferson wrote what may well be one of his best known ideas. To quote:

The mass of humanity under [a republican government] enjoys a precious degree of liberty and happiness. It has its evils, too, the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. But weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing. Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietam servitutem. [I prefer perilous liberty to quiet servitude.] Better even, this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs.

I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms 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 a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.

Jefferson stood apart from his colleagues on this point. He believed that uprisings, protests against the government, public questioning of the rulers and their rules was exactly what was needed in order to keep a government both in check and responsive. Indeed, the inability for the early colonists to have this sort of voice is a very large part of what led to the Revolution itself.

However, I am not sure Jefferson had the “Tea Baggers” in mind when he wrote that. Let’s start with the basics… the assumption underlying the “Jeffersonian Rebellion” is that citizens are decrying actual harm (whether direct action or policy) by the Government. It also assumes that in publicly airing these grievances, even a failed rebellion (or uprising or protest) will remind the Government who is really “in charge”, the voters.

However, it is difficult for me to believe Jefferson would put the current outpouring of hate, ignorance and bigotry in the same category as his political rebellions. A quick view of some of my favorite “Tea Bagger” signs:

“Taxpayers are Obama’s Jews for the ovens.”

“Obama, what you talkin’ ‘bout Willis. Spend my money?”

“No Taxes. Obama loves taxes. Bankrupt USA. Killing babies.”

“Barrack Hussein Obama: The New face of Hitler.”

For those of you paying attention, there should be no surprise that I am relying on the father of American’s right to protest as I denounce a group who so inappropriately has attached themselves to (arguably) America’s first effective political protest against the British.

And, for those of you who think the Tea Baggers are old news, I refer you to the election in Massachusetts earlier this week. This is exactly the sort of defeat the conservative right-wing was hoping for. This gives them the leg up they needed to claim a referendum on the Obama presidency. Ironically though, it is neither the obscene efforts of the Tea Baggers or “The Right” or even Scott Brown that is to blame for any of this.

It is us. The progressives. The Liberals. The Ds. If we are not fighting an outside force, we are just as happy fighting among ourselves. It is my very strong belief that the true “Tea Baggers”, the ones who truly believe Obama can and should be compared to Hitler, are few and far between. Idealogues in any movement are typically the minority. This, instead, is yet another brilliant organizing effort by the Right to distract us. It’s a political sleight of hand that we fall for every time.

And so, rather than reflecting on the Jeffersonian notion of political protest and speech and coalescing to send a forceful, consistent message, we spend our time being outraged and offended. We blog about their perversion of Jefferson’s ideals, rather than organizing our own little rebellions. We allow our intellectual outrage to be the sole outlet for our political energy.

To add insult to injury, instead of raising money and supporting candidates who will bring fresh, truly progressive ideas to their offices, we take the easy route. We react instead of lead. We elect middle of the road, seen it all before, been there done that, Democrats. And, on the occasion that we do come together to do something truly risky and exciting and innovative, we expect immediate gratification. Instant solutions. We raise the bar so high for our own elected officials, we don’t need the Right to point out their shortfalls. We already have that list in our head and out our mouths.

So, this is my Jeffersonian call to action:

1. VOTE

2. STAY INFORMED

3. PROTEST

4. DONATE MONEY TO CANDIDATES YOU BELIEVE IN

5. VOLUNTEER FOR PROGRESSIVE ORGANIZATIONS

6. SHARE WHAT YOU KNOW WITH YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY

7. AND, MOST IMPORTANTLY, DON’T LET THEM DISTRACT YOU…

If we challenged ourselves to become full participants, with a plan for action, and a dedication to Jeffersonian principles to use the public forum for political outrage, rather than just reacting to it, we would begin to see REAL change. And, I believe, if we actually made these efforts, we just might make one of the most important Americans to never sign the Constitution happy.

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on February 18, 2010

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