"A Little Rebellion, Now And Then, Is A Good Thing"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: When the United States had won its independence from Great Britain and hostilities had ceased in 1781, the new nation found it necessary to establish firm connections with other countries in regard to trade and commerce. The negotiation of such matters was of great importance to the survival of this country. In 1784 Jefferson was sent to France to join John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in these efforts, succeeding Franklin in 1785 as minister plenipotentiary to the French court. Before he returned to America in 1789 he had succeeded in persuading the French government to remove a number of unjust restrictions on American commerce. These restrictions had imposed hardships on the eastern states, and the people had grown rebellious. In a letter to James Madison written January 30, 1787 Jefferson analyzes the situation with his usual insight, outlines the causes of the unrest, and expresses a hope that the governments of those states will not be too hard on the offenders. "A consciousness of those in power that their administration of the public affairs has been honest," he cautions, "may, perhaps, produce too great a degree of indignation; and those characters, wherein fear predominates over hope, may apprehend too much from these instances of irregularity. They may conclude too hastily, that nature has formed man insusceptible of any other government than that of force, a conclusion not founded in truth nor experience." Jefferson then describes what he considers the three basic forms of government and their characteristics:

. . . Societies exist under three forms, sufficiently distinguishable. 1. Without government, as among our Indians. 2. Under governments, wherein the will of every one has a just influence; as is the case of England, in a slight degree, and in our States, in a great one. 3. Under governments of force; as is the case in all other monarchies, and in most of the other republics. To have an idea of the curse of existence under these last, they must be seen. It is a government of wolves over sheep. It is a problem, not clear in my mind, that the first condition is not the best. But I believe it to be inconsistent with any great degree of population. The second state has a great deal of good in it. The mass of mankind under that, 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. 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.