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Washington’s Rules for Rebellion

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Law & Liberty

Richard Samuelson


Rebellions are a natural phenomenon. Until the millennium arrives, all governments will, from time to time, have to handle violent challenges to their authority. One purpose of having a democratic system is to minimize rebellion by ensuring that the people are heard. The desire to be elected and re-elected will ensure that government has the pulse of the people. Ballots and not bullets should rule, or, as Jefferson put it to John Adams, “we use no other artillery than goose quills.” For the people to ensure that they are heard they need to make noise, but there’s a clear line between peacefully making oneself heard and attacking persons or property. That line, will, however, be crossed from time to time. The question is what to do about it.

What do rebellions tell us? A rebellion is, to quote Jefferson again, “like a storm in the Atmosphere.” They are a sign of disorder. Perhaps a better metaphor is that they are like a fever. They are a signal that there is something like a sickness in the body politic. People will always complain, and they often will have reason. But when they reach critical mass, it seldom happens that there is not somewhere behind it a legitimate claim. Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable. That does not mean that the proximate complaint is, in fact, the true problem. Especially in a country with a long history of relative domestic calm, to see regular, recurring violence against persons and/ or property, as the US has seen since last May, is probably a sign that something is not right. The question is what to do about it.

Solutions must be tailored to particular problems. There are, however, general rules one might consider. We could do worse, and probably will, than to consider some lessons from the first serious uprising under the Constitution, the Whiskey Rebellion. In that case, as in so many others, President Washington offered something like a clinic in republican self-government. Herewith a few rules of action in such case.

Rule 1: Prevention


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Remembering the indispensable man

Scott Johnson


Today we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of George Washington. Of all the great men of the revolutionary era to whom we owe our freedom, Washington’s greatness was the rarest and the most needed. At this remove in time, it is also the hardest to comprehend.


In anticipation of Washington’s visit to Newport, the members of America’s oldest Jewish congregation prepared a letter welcoming Washington for presentation to him at a public event on the morning of August 18. The letter was authorized by the congregation’s board and signed by its president, Moses Seixas. It is Washington’s magnificent letter responding to Seixas that that has become famous as one of the classic statements of religious toleration in America.

The congregation’s letter to Washington is not so well known, although the most prominent line in Washington’s letter echoes that letter. By far the most striking feature of the congregation’s letter is its expression of sheer gratitude to Washington himself and to America for the freedom and equal rights the congregants had attained as American citizens. Here is the congregation’s letter:


Permit the children of the stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits ~~ and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.

With pleasure we reflect on those days ~~ those days of difficulty, and danger, when the God of Israel, who delivered David from the peril of the sword, ~~ shielded Your head in the day of battle: ~~ and we rejoice to think, that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest, upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate in these States.

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People ~~ a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance ~~ but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: ~~ deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine: ~~ This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good.

For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men ~~ beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised Land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: ~~ And, when, like Joshua full of days and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.

Done and Signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort, Rhode Island August 17th 1790.

Moses Seixas, Warden


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