Kevin R. Kosar: What the Tea Party Could Learn from the Whiskey Rebellion





[Kevin R. Kosar is a political scientist in Washington who blogs at www.kevinrkosar.com.]

In my nascent examinations of the Tea Party movement, I have been astounded by the frequency with which Tea Partyers speak of rebellion, secession, and striking out against the government.  Thankfully, the data likely indicate only a minority of Tea Partyers hold such hostile sentiments.  But, it is troubling to see some members of the movement have, for example, lionized Joseph Stack, who  crashed his plane into an Internal Revenue Service building this past February.

Keeping with the movement’s quasi-religious reverence for the American Founding, these tough-talking Tea Partyers frequently turn to famous figures of yore for pithy quotes.  Two of the more beloved quotes are: “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing” and “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.”  Both of these quotes come from Thomas Jefferson, who wrote them in letters in 1787.

Plainly, there are problems with using these Jefferson quotes to support a current political cause.  For one, the situation in 1787 was the situation in 1787; to simply assume what might have been a fine idea then would be a fine idea in 2010 requires an immense leap of faith and logic.  For another, Jefferson’s view was not universally shared.  Armed revolt makes a mockery of the democratic processes of self-rule, and it subverts liberty by undermining the law.  While Jefferson shined upon the antics of Daniel Shays and his lawless uprising, the men who would become the Founders were so appalled they went to Philadelphia that same year and replaced the Articles of Confederation with the U.S. Constitution.

Beyond those quibbles, the greater problem with rebellion is that rebellion is counter-productive to the great Tea Partyer goals— smaller government and more liberty. To see this, we need only recall the whiskey rebellion.



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