If you’re tired of hypochondriac journalists’ takes on January 6, then try Thomas Jefferson’s. He delivered his judgment on events of that sort back in 1787. “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” he wrote to James Madison, “and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
Unlike the riot at the Capitol last year, the rebellion that Jefferson had in mind was a genuine armed insurrection. The Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays and his followers, furious over taxes and debts, forced state courts in Massachusetts to shut down in the late months of 1786. By early 1787, Shays commanded more than 3,000 men, and on January 25 he led a force to storm the federal armory at Springfield. The armory fired on them first, killing a handful of Shaysites, and the rest soon retreated. The rebellion quickly fizzled, and most of the insurrectionists received amnesty or pardons, including Shays himself.
“This uneasiness has produced acts absolutely unjustifiable,” Jefferson wrote, “but I hope they will provoke no severities from their governments.” He didn’t approve of the insurrection, but he feared how the authorities might respond. “Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the incroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them,” a fact that “should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much.”
Were insurrections like this one a threat to democracy? No, they were a concomitant of democracy. Jefferson believed that a government “wherein the will of every one has a just influence” was subject to certain unavoidable evils, “the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject.” And yet “Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs.” A small-time insurrection now and again “is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”
Jefferson stood in a long tradition of both supporters and opponents of democracy who understood it in this light. Popular government is tumultuous government, not the sterile, clinically administered thing of today’s democracy-from-above idealists. To be sure, Jefferson’s taste for tumult was stronger than that of most people even in his own time. Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietam servitutem, he wrote to Madison: “I prefer a dangerous freedom to tranquil servitude.”
The irony of the overreaction to January 6 is that it only exacerbates conditions that led to the invasion of the Capitol in the first place. The People’s House is now inaccessible to the people. Isolating Congress from the public is not the way to restore the public’s faith in Congress. Nor is the partisan desperation of Nancy Pelosi’s January 6 commission going to rebuild respect for the first branch of government. Feverish op-eds foretelling the end of American democracy seem equally unlikely to restore the confidence of red state America in blue state media. Its sermons are pitched at the choir in an increasingly empty church.
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Jefferson might be the wrong man to help liberals put January 6 in perspective. After all, his statues must soon fall. So how about John Brown? In Brown, almost everyone on the left finds an insurrectionist worth admiring — and an outright terrorist, too, a man who murdered civilians to advance his political agenda. But if he had to burn a village to save it or kill blacks in order to free blacks, his cause acquits him. An admiring Ralph Waldo Emerson reported that Brown was so dedicated to the Golden Rule and the Declaration of Independence, he used to say, “Better that a whole generation of men, women and children should pass away by a violent death than that one word of either should be violated in this country.”
(Perhaps he wasn’t so different from Jefferson after all — the Jefferson who wrote about the French Revolution that “rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is.”)
Brown’s raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry was an insurrection in the full sense of the term. He was serious enough about overthrowing the US Constitution that he even wrote a provisional one of his own. This has not stopped him from being canonized by Emerson and liberals down to this day.
The fools who stormed the Capitol a year ago were not killers like Brown, nor even armed like Shays. They had no plan, and if their presence in the Capitol had intimidated Congress into trying to throw out the Electoral College’s results, that would not have sufficed to keep Donald Trump in office. There would have been riots in every major city, as one tumult checked another. Thomas Jefferson and John Brown both would have understood that.
The Constitution was devised in 1787 in part to forestall further insurrections like Shays’s. But the Constitution was never simply democratic — it gave representation to localities, not just numbers. Capital-D Democrats who reject this bedrock principle today are short-sighted revolutionaries, weakening the barriers that force our parties to seek broad national support, not just supermajorities in population centers. The country can only remain united yet free if the parties make serious efforts to win support, and legitimacy, outside of their favored hunting grounds. The transformation of the 2020 election into a protracted, impersonal survey of voters — who cast their ballots on different days, from different places than the usual polling stations, with results trickling in at irregular times — fatally undercut millions of voters’ already dwindling confidence in the system.
The January 6 riot was an alarm, just like Shays’s was. The remedy is not to further separate the rulers from the ruled — meaning Congress from the people and the electoral winners from the losers (as well as the opinion elite from those unrepresented in the mainstream media) — but to show that the rulers wield their authority on behalf of everyone, even the deplorables.
Jefferson may have gone too far in excusing the violence of Shays, but he was right to recognize it as symptomatic of a disease that could not be cured by punishment. Perhaps President Biden can take a lesson from Jefferson and lead in a way that extinguishes rather than inflames these divisions. Daniel Shays was pardoned. Dare Joe Biden pardon the likes of the Q Shaman?