In a long, historically based and rather brilliant comment on my I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to think anymore post, AZ BlueMeanie looks into the meanings and ramifications of the Tree of Liberty quote conservatives, along with one of their own, Timothy McVeigh, so dearly love.
If you're of a scholarly bent, read his entire comment. If not, here's the Cliff Notes version that doesn't do it justice.
Jefferson didn't like Shays Rebellion in the 1780s. He thought the rebels were ignorant and misinformed, though patriotic. What the hell, he said, let them rebel. It's probably good for a government to get a wake-up call once in awhile. We'll end up killing some of them, and the others we'll set straight, then pardon for their wrongheadedness.
If we translate that to today, Jefferson might say about today's "Take up arms!" conservatives, Yeah, let those idiotic conservatives rise up and take arms. After all, they're doing it for patriotic reasons, even if they are idiots. And if some of them and some of us get killed, well, that's the way it goes. It's probably the only way we can knock the fanatical wrongheadedness out of their heads and make them realize how wrong they are.
One of the results of Shay's rebellion, by the way, was a stronger federal government. Oops!
A while after he wrote the Tree of Liberty letter, Jefferson, while helping to write the Constitution, changed his mind. He thought a carefully formed republican democracy could make armed rebellion unnecessary.
Here's a Jefferson quotation from that later period. The Tree of Liberty quoters might want to take a look at this to see that Jefferson, like most brilliant and complex thinkers, can't have his entire philosophy reduced to single sentence.
"Happy for us, that when we find our constitutions defective and insufficient to secure the happiness of our people, we can assemble with all the coolness of philosophers and set it to rights, while every other nation on earth must have recourse to arms to amend or to restore their constitutions."
The more thoughtful and curious among you, go read the Meanie's comment. He writes like a scholar. I write like a high school teacher.