Extract from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison

I am impatient to learn your sentiments on the late troubles in the Eastern states. so far as I have yet seen, they do not appear to threaten serious consequences. those states have suffered by the stoppage of the channels of their commerce, which have not yet found other issues. this must render money scarce, and make the people uneasy. this uneasiness has produced acts absolutely unjustifiable: but I hope they will provoke no severities from their governments ... societies exist under three forms sufficiently distinguishable. 1. without government, as among our Indians. 2. under governments wherein the will of every one has a just influence, as is the case in England in a slight degree, and in our states in a great one. 3. under governments of force: as is the case in all other monarchies & in most of the other republics. to have an idea of the curse of existence under these last, they must be seen. it is a government of wolves over sheep. it is a problem, not clear in my mind, that the 1st condition is not the best. but I believe it to be inconsistent with any great degree of population. the second state has a great deal of good in it. the mass of mankind under that enjoys a precious degree of liberty & happiness. it has it’s evils too: the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. but weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing. malo periculosam libertatem quam quietam servitutem. even this evil is productive of good. it prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, & as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.

RC (DLC: Madison Papers). Published in PTJ, 11:92–7.

The late troubles to which Jefferson referred were a series of armed conflicts in western Massachusetts between citizens, many of them impoverished veterans of the American Revolutionary War, the merchants who were pursuing harsh debt-collecting practices against them, and the local government and judicial officials who were protecting the interests of these elite creditors over those of their debtors. The conflict ultimately came to be known as Shays’ Rebellion.

malo periculosam ... servitutem: “I prefer perilous liberty to peaceful servitude.” Jefferson owned a copy of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s A Treatise on the Social Compact. Or, the Principles of Political Law (1762), and was likely familiar with the phrase from that work (E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 5 vols. [1952–59], no. 2338). He was presumably also acquainted with a much earlier and similar expression from Sallust, “potiorque visa est periculosa libertas quieto servitio” (“I looked upon freedom united with danger as preferable to peace with slavery”) (Sallust, Orations and Letters from the Histories: Speech of Lepidus, in Sallust, trans. John C. Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library [1921; repr. 2005], 394–5; see also Sowerby, nos. 55–8).

Date Range
January 30, 1787
Quote Category