How the Founding Fathers encourage political violence
We should stop talking up bloody revolutions if we don't actually want one
Violent metaphors are standard stuff in U.S. politics, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor Tuesday. That means, he argued, it's unfair to proceed with an impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump for "inciting violence against the government of the United States" if all he did was speak as American politicians routinely do.
"Democrats insist on applying a test of incitement to a Republican that they refuse to apply to themselves," Paul said. "I want Democrats to raise their hands if they have ever given a speech that says 'take back,' 'fight for your country' — who hasn't used the word 'fight' figuratively?"
Paul's characterization of Trump's words is far too generous: The ex-president told the soon-to-be-rioters to "walk down to the Capitol" and "show strength" because "you'll never take back our country with weakness," a directive he issued while scorning some "hopeless" lawmakers present in the Capitol at that very moment.
And Paul was undoubtedly posing his question rhetorically — but I think we should discuss it seriously. Maybe we should stop urging people to "fight" each other if we don't want to real fights. Maybe we should stop talking up revolutions if we don't actually want one.
This rhetoric has been on my mind from before Paul spoke — since the storming of the Capitol, in fact. I've been thinking about the American predilection for quoting our countries' founders, a habit strongest among (though not limited to) libertarians, conservatives, and various creatures of the far right. When I was in seminary, I had a part-time gig doing social media management for a libertarian activism organization, and I shared a lot of these historic quotes. My reasoning then was that they at least had more substance than the standard social media fare. They weren't inane memes, and that had to count for something. I'd make sure the quotes I posted were authentic and sometimes link to their context in a letter or treatise if I could easily locate it.
I can't remember if I ever posted the specific quotes I've been mulling since that "walk down to the Capitol" left five dead and injured dozens more (the Capitol Police Officers' Union reports brain damage, cracked ribs, one officer stabbed with a metal fence post, and another due to lose an eye). I'm thinking of quotes like this line, which Thomas Jefferson originally penned to James Madison in 1787: "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." Or this, from another letter he wrote the same year: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's [sic] natural manure."
I have a vague but possibly false memory of deciding to eschew the "tree of liberty" quote when worked that social media job. But if I did post these or similarly combative quotes, I did so reading them figuratively. If I shared content suggesting "a little rebellion" can be a "good thing," I was thinking of peaceful protest, or organizing people to call elected officials, or primarying a bad incumbent. That sort of thing.
But that's not what Jefferson was thinking. Here's the context immediately preceding the "tree of liberty" quote:
We have had 13. states independent 11. 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 half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? [Thomas Jefferson, via Monticello, spelling and punctuation all original]
The tree may be figurative; the blood is not. Jefferson really wanted the populace to rise in armed rebellion from time to time, even against a government he helped create. I don't think he would have supported the storming of the Capitol on behalf of Trump's election fraud lie — but only because he would have rejected the reason for the protest. Supply a better cause and I suspect Jefferson would be all for overrunning the legislature. So enthusiastic was he about the occasional insurrection that he argued for keeping consequences minimal so as not to scare future insurrectionists away: "[H]onest republican governors" should be "mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much," he said in the note to Madison. "It is a medecine [sic] necessary for the sound health of government."
Jefferson is perhaps the most quotable, but he wasn't unique among the founders in thinking a perceived lack of liberty and good governance could warrant a violent response. (This should come as no surprise; after all, they did a Revolution.) We can find similar sentiments in the words of Abraham Lincoln and other post-Revolutionary figures, too.
That is not where most Americans are today. Some of us might cheer a violent regime change somewhere else in the world (or even want our military to effect it), but the vast majority does not want political violence here. We complain a lot about our Constitution, our politicians, anything and everything in Washington, but violent overthrow? Insurrection? "What signify a few lives lost"? They signify a lot! You don't have to share my commitment to nonviolence to be unwilling to follow Jefferson here.
But the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol, deluded though they were about their justifying cause, did follow Jefferson here. They read him correctly — not ethically, in my view, but in terms of his intent.
And they had plenty of opportunity to do so. Violent references from our national past that were not figurative when first spoken are everywhere in American public life. We treat them as mundane, old-timey, the stuff of Colonial Williamsburg and elementary school history lessons. On Independence Day, we set off fireworks to celebrate killing people so we could have our preferred system of governance. New Hampshire's state motto is "Live free or die." District of Columbia license plates use a revolutionary slogan to issue a perpetual (and perpetually empty) threat.
Research suggests metaphors about "fighting" are enough to make some people more supportive of political violence. So what happens when they hear sincere praise of insurrection from the most revered saints of American civil religion? Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised if some subset of the public takes it as literally as it was originally intended.
As for me, I hope my memory of a private moratorium on the "tree of liberty" is correct. I'll certainly never interpret it figuratively again, nor will I share it assuming others will read into it a peaceful intent. Jefferson's defense of liberty included spilling blood. Mine cannot.