November 13, 1787 – Jefferson Writes of Liberty’s “Natural Manure”

On this day in history, Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to William Stephens Smith, then working as Secretary of the American Legation in London. The Legation was headed by John Adams, who had been appointed in 1785 as the first American ambassador to Great Britain, serving in that capacity thirty days short of three years.

Jefferson wrote to report about Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts. This was an armed uprising that took place in central and western Massachusetts in 1786 and 1787. It was named after one of the leaders, Daniel Shays, who was a veteran of the American Revolutionary War. The rebellion arose out of protests over taxes and debt collection. After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, Massachusetts suffered from an economic depression, a credit squeeze, and insistence by many merchants for payment in hard currency only (of which there was a continent-wide shortage). Making matters worse was the fact that war veterans had difficulty collecting pay owed them by both the state and the Continental Congress. The protesters became radicalized after the Massachusetts state government arrested some of the leaders.

Portraits of rebellion leaders Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck from Bickerstaff's Boston Almanack of 1787

Portraits of rebellion leaders Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck from Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanack of 1787

The insurgents tried to attack the federal armory in Springfield, but were met by the militia. Four Shaysites were killed and twenty wounded. Several other skirmishes ensued but the outmatched resistance petered out. Hundreds of people were indicted for charges related to the rebellion, and two men were hanged. Shay himself was pardoned but shunned and vilified, eventually dying in poverty.

Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as ambassador to France at the time, was not alarmed by Shays’ Rebellion.

He wrote:

We have had 13. states independant 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century and a half for each state. What country ever existed a century and a 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? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale

Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale

Incidentally, William Smith went on to marry Abigail “Nabby” Adams, the daughter of President John Adams, and so was a brother-in-law of President John Quincy Adams, and an uncle of Charles Francis Adams. He had quite a distinguished career as well. He was appointed by President Washington to be the first United States Marshal for the District of New York in 1789, and later supervisor of revenue. He was one of the originators of the Society of the Cincinnati, and served as its president from 1795 to 1797. He was appointed by President John Adams surveyor of the Port of New York in 1800.

William Stephens Smith

William Stephens Smith

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