The Rude Pundit
I had no idea Jefferson said that in reference to Shays' Rebellion
. . . for a long time, as a threat to people in power, protesters trot out this line from Thomas Jefferson: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants." It's been tossed back and forth between the left and right like a football at recess at the special school, although most often it's proudly displayed by the yahoos in some extreme right wing nutzoid movements, be it militias or the townhall idiots. And it'd be a poignant quote, one that gets us back to our roots as a revolutionary society. Except that Jefferson was actually talking about the blood of ignorant people who rise up in arms against the American government, too. In fact, it was mostly their blood.
The entire letter makes this clear, and, as with so many things properly understood in relation to the Founders, it is stunningly prescient. Jefferson was talking to John Adams' son-in-law about Shays' Rebellion, a truly fascinating episode in the early history of the nation, pre-Constitution, but post-Revolution, where rural Massachusetts citizens rose up against the state's government over issues of taxes and debt. They were crushed, of course, and many of the politicians of the time were all a-twitter with how this was an attack on liberty and how the rebels should be put to death.
And while he could be something of a drama queen in his rhetoric - well, really, they all could be (it's the effect of long-term wig-wearing) - Jefferson's essential message in his letter was, more or less, "Chill. Stupid people will act stupidly." Or, as he put it, "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. The people cannot be all, & 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."
See, Jefferson was forgiving the dumb, saying it was better to have idiots uprising than to have no civic engagement at all. But we have to understand that they're dumb and that the dumber they are, the more they will rage in their dumbess. . . .