Jefferson' tree of liberty speech was given to Congress in1787 after Shay's rebellion. Jefferson was advocating a merciful attitude to the rebels, who were often desperate men. Behind it was Jefferson's philosophy which recognised that governments were a great threat to liberty and must be held to account by the nation, sometimes by force.
The origins of the rebellion Some years after the War of Independence, there was an armed rebellion led by a farm worker called Shay. A veteran of the Independence struggle, he felt betrayed that the government had so heavily loaded him with various tax burdens and that he was in debt, penniless and facing court proceedings. He and some others in the same situation rebelled and Massachusetts suffered a civil war from 1786 t0 1787. Shay was overcome, and he and his associates were imprisoned. Jefferson gave his tree of liberty speech in Congress, saying that the tree of liberty must be nourished with the blood of patriots and tyrants. Blood, he says, is the liberty tree's manure. It is one of the most famous Jefferson quotes. He stated that sometimes rebellion is necessary for bringing issues to the attention of the government, even if the rebellion fails.
Philsophy behind it
Thomas Jefferson's quote expresses his deep awareness that liberty and life cannot be separated and that to live as a human is to need liberty. That people need liberty to flourish as humans was an essential part of his philosophy and was at the basis of the United States' constitution. For Jefferson, the liberty to think one's own thoughts and express them without fear of censorship was a major part of the dignified human life.
Jefferson saw that liberty is always in danger, particularly from governments. So, he believed that if people feared governments, there was tyranny. He believed that it was better that governments feared the people.
Thus, he recognised that rebellion is always a possibility when a government is in danger of becoming oppressive. He saw that when liberty is under threat, it is only to be protected by resistance. The blood of tyrants must sometimes be shed to preserve liberty, but sadly, there would also be the blood of liberty's defenders. Yet, Jefferson was not in favour of the lone gunman or rebel. He was thinking in terms of popular movements of large groups of people responding to intolerable conditions. He was aware that even failed rebellions could bring issues to the government's attention and force it to act.