Who said, “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God”?

The rousing motto “Rebellion to [against] Tyrant is obedience to God” is often shared on social media, although there seems to be some confusion as to its origin.

Sometimes it is attributed to Thomas Jefferson, as in the tweet under:

Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God

Other attribute Quote from Benjamin Franklin:

Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God

So who really said (or wrote) those words first? As we learned in unraveling its roughly 250-year history, both Jefferson and Franklin had a hand in propagating this adage. Of the two, Franklin was more likely the originator, although it’s possible that neither has guessed. Here’s what we found in our investigation.

Thomas Jefferson

One reason Jefferson has always been so closely associated with the motto is that he was part of a three-person committee (along with Franklin and John Adams) delegated by the Continental Congress to draft a design for the Great Seal of the United States of America designing America. The Jefferson et al. On the one hand, the words “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God” were submitted.

Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to GodProposed Great Seal of the United States (MPI/Getty Images)

Although the proposal was rejected by Congress, Jefferson loved the motto so much that he also proposed it for the Great Seal of Virginia and later enshrined it on his personal sealthe earliest known example of which is on the wax seal of a letter he wrote in 1790. He also dropped it on a goal in the Cemetery of his house, Monticello.

Finally, scholars have found the motto in Jefferson’s handwritten notes: “And never — never forget that rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God,” he wrote in 1776. But those words were not his own. You were part of him transcription an article published in the Pennsylvania Evening Post in December 1775. The item known as “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” has been described as follows:

The following inscription was made three years ago on the cannon near which President Bradshaw’s ashes were placed on the top of a high hill near Martha Bray, Jamaica, to evade anger against the regicides displayed at the Restoration.

The “President Bradshaw” mentioned was John Bradshaw, a prominent English jurist who was appointed Lord President of the High Court of Justice to oversee this Trial and beheading of King Charles Iand who was convicted of tyranny and high treason in 1649.

However, some have had doubts about the authenticity of “Bradshaw’s Epitaph”, most notably Jefferson himself. He added this note at the end of his handwritten transcript: “There are many circumstances which suggest that there is no such inscription as the above and that it was written by Dr. Franklin, in whose hand it was first seen.”

Jefferson apparently considered it plausible that Franklin wrote the epitaph himself, which also implies that Franklin may have been the true author of “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”


Many historians find it plausible that Franklin was also the true author. A copy of the document on the Founders on the Internet website, a project of the US National Archives, is entitled “‘Bradshaw’s Epitaph’: a hoax attributed to Franklin.” It wouldn’t have been out of character for him. Franklin was notoriously a child prodigy Fakers and spreaders of misinformation. It is not unreasonable to assume that he created the epitaph from scratch, submitted it to the Pennsylvania Evening Post, and passed his handwritten copy to others as a legitimate transcription. Despite this, Franklin never admitted this, nor is there any paper trail proving that he invented either the inscription or its backstory.

Either way, the backstory is full of gaping holes. There is no evidence that Bradshaw was buried in Jamaica and clear evidence that he was buried in England. No trace has ever been found of the cannon in Jamaica on which the epitaph is said to have been engraved. Few historians now believe the epitaph to be legitimate, and many believe Franklin made it whole (despite scant evidence that he actually did it). But if it wasn’t a hoax invented by Franklin, where did it come from? And could Franklin himself have believed it to be authentic when he told Jefferson? Author and historian JL Bell who has written in detail about “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” and its hazy origin, has suggested that it may never have been a hoax per se.

Bell suspects that the “Epitaph” arose as a tribute to John Bradshaw, written anonymously in the early 1770s by admirers of the judge, perhaps with the intention of inscribing it on a cannon in Jamaica. The document was shared and copied by others, and eventually Franklin noticed it, copied it, submitted it to the newspaper, and showed it to Jefferson.

According to this theory, “Bradshaw’s Epitaph” was at no point an intentional hoax, knowingly passed along with false information. But people who liked the lines were too quick to assume that they had already been engraved by Martha Brae, then that they had been composed in the seventeenth century. The man who knew the most about the true story Bryan Edwardsdoubted it in print, without ever coming out and admitting his own role in starting the story.

So the line “Rebellion to tyrants is resistance to God” is neither a Thomas Jefferson creation nor a Benjamin Franklin joke. It is most likely a genuine product of the political movement in Britain’s North American colonies, which resisted new Crown measures in the 1760s and 1770s – but not on the mainland.

In summary, Jefferson’s beloved motto was not written by him, but may have been secretly written by Franklin, who first showed it to Jefferson and has long been credited with “Bradshaw’s Epitaph”. On the other hand, Franklin may not have written it either, and it was written not as a joke but as a serious homage to a historical figure whose opposition to tyranny was consistent with the ideals of the American Revolution. Or it may have arisen in some other way. Unless clearer evidence emerges, we may never know the full and true story of the quote.

Brian Ashcraft

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