Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Question with boldness

Jerry Stratton, April 30, 2006

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Steyn takes Senator Kerry to task for misquoting Thomas Jefferson on dissent. There is no record of Jefferson ever saying “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” This is true, and Steyn takes various people and organizations to task for using this apocryphal quote.

…as the Capital Times of Madison, Wis., concluded its ringing editorial on the subject:

“Thomas Jefferson got it right: ‘Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.’ And teaching children how to be thoughtful and effective dissenters is the highest form of education.”

Teaching them authentic Jefferson quotes would be a better approach.

While I agree with Steyn that misuse of quotes is wrong, I find it difficult to disagree with the Times’ conclusion, nor do I think that it misstates Jefferson’s views to say that he would encourage “thoughtful and effective dissent”.

Jefferson was strongly in favor of education. An educated public would ensure good government and forbid bad. “Enlighten the people generally,” he wrote to Pierre S. Du Pont de Nemours in 1816, “and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.” (Sources of the American Republic, Volume I, p. 272)

Steyn doesn’t suggest any authentic quotes that we might teach our children, so I will provide a few. The quote is wrong, but Jefferson’s love of dissent is not. Even when the dissent was clearly wrong, and very violent, Jefferson thought it was “productive of good”.

Jefferson believed that free inquiry would result in erroneous dissent disappearing and truthful dissent overcoming opposition. Writing about religious freedom in his Notes on Virginia, he said:

Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error… They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only… It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself… is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature. Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion… What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth… Free inquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves. (Sources of the American Republic, Volume I, p. 277-278)

Half the world fools, the other half hypocrites. Sounds like a description of our current climate of unreasoning partisanship.

Jefferson was a strong believer in reason as a counter to erroneous dissent. In his first inaugural, he wrote:

We are all republicans; we are all federalists. If there be any among us who wish to dissolve this union, or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed, as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. (Voices of the American Past, p. 99)

Jefferson certainly felt that he had had to deal with erroneous dissent. In his second inaugural address, he said:

During this course of administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been leveled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare. These abuses of an institution so important to freedom and science are deeply to be regretted, inasmuch as they tend to lessen its usefulness and to sap its safety. They might, indeed, have been corrected by the wholesome punishments reserved to and provided by the laws of the several States against falsehood and defamation, but public duties more urgent press on the time of public servants, and the offenders have therefore been left to find their punishment in the public indignation. (Sources of the American Republic, Volume I, p. 231)

I can imagine President Bush feeling the same way about the artillery and licentiousness of the press. But what Jefferson was worried about was the effectiveness of dissent; he didn’t want poor dissent to invalidate good dissent. He chose leniency combatting those perceived errors so as not to discourage good dissent in the future.

His leniency did not extend only to non-violent dissent in newspapers. After Shays’ Rebellion, when propertied men throughout the East feared armed revolt, Jefferson counseled leniency. Why? Because he didn’t want to discourage armed rebellion. In a letter to Edward Carrington in 1787, he wrote:

To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs through the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people… were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. (Voices of the American Past, p. 61)

And writing to Madison he was more to the point. He used farming analogies to argue the necessity of storms such as Shays’s rebellion: they nourish good government in the same way that rain and lightning nourish crops.

Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to public affairs. I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government. (Voices of the American Past, p. 62)

To Abigail Adams he was even more succinct. The spirit of dissent is valuable for its own sake and must always be kept alive.

The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere. (Voices of the American Past, p. 62)

Emphasis in each of these three letters is mine. If armed rebellion is “a medicine necessary for the sound health of government”, one better used wrongly than not at all, it is near certain that Jefferson also supported mere vocal dissent.

“Question with boldness,” wrote Jefferson to his nephew, “even the existence of God; because if there be one, He must approve the homage of Reason rather than that of blindfolded Fear.”

Dissension deserves no less. Dissension itself is not the highest form of patriotism. But encouraging dissension is.

“I prefer perilous liberty to quiet servitude.”—Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, January 30, 1787

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