America was founded in revolution, and the violent do not have to look far for inspiration or cover. They could start with James Madison in Federalist No. 46, where he tries to assure his readers that the new system proposed by the Constitution cannot become oppressive. “Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments . . . by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition.” Madison’s first line of defense against a rogue national government is federalism: The states and their militias will check the threat. But his second line of defense is the armed populace: They might do it without militias. He goes on to say that if Europeans had guns they might “shake off their yokes”; if they had local governments too, they would certainly do so.
Jefferson, as usual, wrote more bluntly. In a 1787 letter to Col. William Smith, John Adams’s son-in-law, he discussed Shays’s Rebellion, an uprising of Massachusetts farmers against high land taxes. Jefferson excused the rebels as ignorant, not wicked. “What country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. . . . The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Madison was saying that violence must always be an option; Jefferson was saying that the option has to be exercised periodically, like some bloody Olympics.