With all the calls for armed insurrection being thrown around as if it weren’t a big deal, it would not surprise me if some of my readers were unaware of the tumultuous history of the United States and its rebellious past after it had won its war for independence. I thought it prudent to discuss some of the history concerning three previous rebellions in the United States following the American Revolution: (1) Shay’s Rebellion, (2) the Whiskey Rebellion, and (3) Fries’s Rebellion. These three rebellions prove a few very important points and bust myths in the process:
- The government (contrary to popular belief), made up of founding fathers, did not respond favorably to armed, unsanctioned groups of protestors.
- Sanctioned militia, called up by United States drafts, were used to suppress violent and armed uprisings. The mobs who started these uprisings were not considered ‘militia’.
- A armed rebellion is not the same as the American revolution.
In the 1780’s-1800, in rural communities, a medium amount of dissenters just flat out did not approve of certain legislation (like paying certain taxes) and instead of trying to garner support democratically, they rioted. Chaos ensued and in the end it did nothing but polarize the country. The real interesting part is how the founders of this country handled the situations. It may surprise some of the more conservative readers of this blog.
Daniel Shays, a revolutionary war veteran, arrived back home towards the latter part of the war to find that the situation in Massachusetts had changed. The merchant-style of money exchange–where money was required upon receiving goods–was now the only means of acquiring equipment and product for farming. In the past, lower-income farmers had been able to put items on credit in order to acquire these items and had the option to pay back their debts when times were better.
Unsurprisingly, and contrary to popular mythology, the soldiers of the American revolution were promised pay; throughout the war, however, payment was seldom received as the government–fragile and constantly without money (mainly because they were busy paying for munitions to supply a beleaguered army that often found themselves short of weapons)–and many who had retired from the military during the war could not collect back pay. Shays was already upset over these grievances; as a result of his time away and the payments he had not yet collected from the war-wary government, he found himself in debt and unable to pay. He was not alone.
Just three years after an uneasy peace between Great Britain and the newly founded United States of America, the agricultural community rose up in Massachusetts. An organized group of protestors marched on court buildings in force. The governor at the time, newly elected Governor Bowdoin, called upon state militia to defend the public buildings. While some militia refused to muster, mainly because they supported the farmers, many did. Between September 26-28th, 1786, some 800 militia gathered to stand between the 1200 protestors and the government building in Hampshire County. The standoff ended peacefully, with no violence, though in other counties across Massachusetts, court buildings were shut down as a result of angry mobs.
In January, rumors spread that the mobs were heading for the federal armory, where most of the weapons and ammunition were stored for county militia. Bowdoin directed his force of militia, some 1200 men, to the armory to defend it. On the 25th of January, Daniel Shays and his co-conspirator, Eli Parsons, sent their 1500 man-mob against the armory in an attempt to take it. They anticipated being reenforced by Luke Day, but a letter Day had sent to Shays–a letter indicating that he would not yet be ready to a fight–was intercepted by Bowdoin’s militia; neither Shays nor Parsons suspected anything.
After warning shots over the mobs head did not subdue them to the point of routing, the commander of the militia, William Shepard, ordered that grapeshot be fired into the line. Two canisters were fired, inflicting some casualties on the opposing mob. This finally caused them to withdraw, but it did not end the rebellion.
That came a few days later; on February 4th, 1787, General Lincoln–the man put in command of the ‘Army’ of sanctioned militia under Governor Bowdoin (the United States at this time did not have an official full-time federal army)–surprised the encamped rebels under Shays and Day and Parsons, capturing a multitude of them and finally putting an end to the uprising in Massachusetts. The governor was given additional powers when martial law was enforced and shortly after the Disqualification Act went into effect, which made sure that no confirmed rebel would ever hold a public office.
While Jefferson remained adamant that a rebellion here and there was necessary to keep a government in check, he remained a minority. Amongst the founding fathers, many were completely disgusted.
Samuel Adams, a well respected founding father, was so shocked at the uprising that he stated, “In monarchies the crime of treason and rebellion may admit of being pardoned or lightly punished, but the man who dares rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death,” and incorporated this very language into his Riot Act, which was meant to severely punish any mob that would rise up against the United States in any form. This was widely supported and passed by the state government, along with a Militia Act, which threatened court martial and death upon militia officers and soldiers who refused to muster to quell riots and usurpers upon direction of the governor.
It is interesting to pause and recognize the implications of that last paragraph. A notable founding father directly defined the difference between standing up in rebellion against a monarchy and those who rise up against a republic. He established a rule of law; that anyone who rises up against the established government of the United States is a traitor and committing treason. In other words, a reactionary rebellion against legislation voted upon by democratically-elected officials in a democratic society is not the same thing as the American revolution, which was instead a war fought against a monarchy in order to obtain a democracy. A republic is a democracy, Adams knew this, as did the founders, who drafted the government. But more on this as we proceed.
George Washington was also disturbed by these events. He wrote in a letter to Henry Lee that:
The picture which you have exhibited, and the accounts which are published of the commotions, and temper of numerous bodies in the Eastern States, are equally to be lamented and deprecated. They exhibit a melancholy proof of what our trans-Atlantic foe has predicted; and of another thing perhaps, which is still more to be regretted, and is yet more unaccountable, that mankind when left to themselves are unfit for their own Government. I am mortified beyond expression when I view the clouds that have spread over the brightest morn that ever dawned upon any Country. In a word, I am lost in amazement when I behold what intrigue, the interested views of desperate characters, ignorance and jealousy of the minor part, are capable of effecting, as a scourge on the major part of our fellow Citizens of the Union; for it is hardly to be supposed that the great body of the people, tho’ they will not act, can be so shortsighted, or enveloped in darkness, as not to see rays of a distant sun thro’ all this mist of intoxication and folly…. Under these impressions, my humble opinion is, that there is a call for decision. Know precisely what the insurgents aim at. If they have real grievances, redress them if possible; or acknowledge the justice of them, and your inability to do it in the present moment. If they have not, employ the force of government against them at once.
Washington would not back peddle on his beliefs that he laid out so clearly and succinctly above. He would be tested, in fact, a few years later, when whiskey distillers in western Pennsylvania–angered over taxes on their trade–decided to rise up in armed revolt; an event now known as the Whiskey Rebellion.
The Whiskey Rebellion
In 1791, Alexander Hamilton raised the issue of putting an excise tax on domestic distilleries which would help lower the debt accumulated by the government and states during the founding period. This act, known as the Whiskey Act, was widely supported by the federal government; along with the new act meant to draw both state and federal debt into one debt system, it would attempt to take the burden off the states who were unable to pay back on their debt while lowering the amount of debt owed.
However farmers in western Pennsylvania and parts of Virginia felt slighted by the law, feeling as though it had unfairly taxed westerners. Several petitions were sent to repeal the law but the vast majority thought the law favorable. When nothing came of it, a tax collector named Robert Johnson became the target of the rural community of farmers, who tarred and feathered him out of frustration.
This is the interesting part; the protestors argued that they were modeling their dissent upon the American Revolution. They did not want taxation without representation. But once more this failed to take into account the difference between a monarchical society where there is little or no representation versus a democratic society where the people elect officials on their behalf (to represent them).
Whatever their motivations, though clearly driven by a general ignorance of the new type of government of the United States, they were angered and sought retribution. Western farmers became increasingly more violent. They eventually started a small skirmish between federal officials and 600 armed insurrectionists that led to the capture of the marshal out collecting taxes on distilleries. With this event, the resolve of many in Western Pennsylvania were set.
In a move that echoes so many political polemics today, 7,000 people gathered at Braddock’s Field and threatened to march on Washington, decapitate President George Washington as a traitor guilty of treason, remove the government by force.
What did Washington do? He raised 13,000 militia from Eastern Pennsylvania and surrounding states. This was one of the largest armies he had ever raised–larger than his armies against the British. President Washington even personally reviewed the army himself! Other militia were used elsewhere (800 men were called up to subdue rioting in Maryland). Washington gave an ultimatum: disperse by the 1st of September or else. Anyone suspected of being an insurrectionist would be rounded up and, unfortunately, two innocent people were killed by the federally-sanctioned militia in this process.
With a show of force, the rebellion collapsed in on itself. They never stood a chance. Over two dozen people were arrested, two were convicted. Most were pardoned as a show of good faith by the government. But let no one say that Washington believed in the value of armed insurrection by the people. His response indicates otherwise.
The Fries’s Rebellion
Much time needn’t be spent on this particular rebellion. It was short and ended without much incident. However it should be understood that certain events that did happen echo quite prominently in some political rhetoric today and is very relevant.
Under President John Adams in 1799, the United States was under threat of war with the French (The Quasi-War). As a result, Adams raised a large army and navy but also had to raise taxes to support the new military force. As a result of these higher taxes, small pockets of people formed to protest. Once again, this all took place predominantly in Pennsylvania and on a much smaller scale than the Whiskey rebellion. This actually occurred right in my home county of Northampton.
People unfamiliar with the form of government they had in front of them dressed in Continental Army uniforms and donned ‘Liberty Flags’ and waved them at government officials (sound familiar?). When assessors and tax collectors could not collect the tax, militia had once again been raised. John Adams, another founding father, just wasn’t going to permit this type of rebellion.
This time, the militia arrested all those involved (dozens of people in total) and the insurrection dissolved quite quickly.
Exemplifying the Difference between a Sanctioned Rebellion and an Armed Revolt
In a letter pardoning many of those offenders who had been arrested, Adams wrote:
Whereas the late wicked and treasonable insurrection against the just authority of the United States of sundry persons in the counties of Northampton, Montgomery, and Bucks, in the State of Pennsylvania, in the year 1799, having been speedily suppressed without any of the calamities usually attending rebellion; whereupon peace, order, and submission to the laws of the United States were restored in the aforesaid counties, and the ignorant, misguided, and misinformed in the counties have returned to a proper sense of their duty, whereby it is become unnecessary for the public good that any future prosecutions should be commenced or carried on against any person or persons by reason of their being concerned in the said insurrection:
Wherefore be it known that I, John Adams, President of the United States of America, have granted, and by these presents do grant, a full, free, and absolute pardon to all and every person or persons concerned in the said insurrection, excepting as hereinafter excepted, of all treasons, misprisions of treason, felonies, misdemeanors, and other crimes by them respectively done or committed against the United States in either of the said counties before the 12th day of March, in the year 1799, excepting and excluding therefrom every person who now standeth indicted or convicted of any treason, misprision of treason, or other offense against the United States, whereby remedying and releasing unto all persons, except as before excepted, all pains and penalties incurred, or supposed to be incurred, for or on account of the premises.
Adams did not waste time in responding to the events nor did he tread lightly in his use of terminology. He, like Samuel Adams and George Washington saw armed insurrection (not unarmed protests) as treasonous.
In comparison to the American revolution, which was relatively tame on the home front (despite threats of violence or plundering, suspected loyalists were often guilted or reasoned into submission rather than by use of force), armed rebellion following the revolution were violent and disturbing. During these tax rebellions, the fact that the new government had been established by the people had seemed to have fallen on the wayside.
The fact is that these were not loyal Americans seeking the benefit of the country–they were insurrectionists, those who cared little about the bigger picture, thinking only of their personal plights. Instead of going about in the way befitting a republic–electing new government officials–these individuals let violence and anger get the best of them. They perpetrated a crime against the state–not a tyranny, not a government beset by a dictator or monarch–made up of individuals they voted into office. This point cannot be overstated.
As one commentator noted:
A central point of the Constitution was to create a peaceful means for the United States to implement policies favored by the people but within a structure of checks and balances to prevent radical changes deemed too disruptive to the established society. For instance, the two-year terms of the House of Representatives were meant to reflect the popular will but the six-year terms of the Senate were designed to temper the passions of the moment.
Within this framework of a democratic Republic, the Framers criminalized taking up arms against the government. Article IV, Section 4 committed the federal government to protect each state from not only invasion but “domestic Violence,” and treason is one of the few crimes defined in the Constitution as “levying war against” the United States as well as giving “Aid and Comfort” to the enemy (Article III, Section 3).
The founders of our country and the framers of the constitution sought to protect and defend America and to keep it purely democratic–by voting, through elections, through a system of checks and balances. unfortunately today, people would rather shoot a politician than vote them out of office (less than 65% of Americans vote, but 50% of all guns on Earth are owned by Americans). Consider the actions and words of those conservatives who have been so hasty as to suggest rebellion.
Concluding Remarks and a Warning
In recent memory, several conservative political figures have voiced approval of an armed insurrection.
“You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason, and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government.” (Sharron Angle, 2010)
That same year, in Oklahoma,
“Frustrated by recent political setbacks, tea party leaders and some conservative members of the Oklahoma Legislature say they would like to create a new volunteer militia to help defend against what they believe are improper federal infringements on state sovereignty.” (AP, 2010)
“[The founding fathers] were not referring to a turkey shoot or a quail hunt. They really weren’t even talking about us having the ability to protect ourselves against each other. The Second Amendment deals directly with the right of an individual to keep and bear arms to protect themselves from an overreaching federal government.” (Randy Brogdon, 2010)
Within the last two years:
“Is Armed Rebellion Now Justified? There are times government has to do things to get what it wants and holds a gun to your head. I’m saying at some point, we have to ask the question when do we turn that gun around and say no and resist.” (Matthew Davis, 2012)
“”Implicit in Benjamin Franklin’s fabled response at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention was a dire warning: That the Republic would one day devolve into tyranny unless we the people prevented it. … If government can mandate that I pay for something I don’t want, then what is beyond its power? If the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday paves the way for unprecedented intrusion into personal decisions, then has the Republic all but ceased to exist? If so, then is armed rebellion today justified?” (Matthew Davis, 2012)
[Editors note: ‘Fabled’ is the correct word for this quote; Franklin is not referring to ‘armed insurrection’ here, but the value of Freedom of Speech! The actual quote is, “Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins. Republics and limited monarchies derive their strength and vigor from a popular examination into the action of the magistrates.” “On Freedom of Speech and the Press“, Pennsylvania Gazette, 17 November 1737]
“”This revolution has been brewing in the hearts and minds of the people for many years, but this Independence Day, it shall take a new form as the American Revolutionary Army will march on each state capital to demand that the governors of these 50 states immediately initiate the process of an orderly dissolution of the federal government through secession and reclamation of federally held property.” (Adam Kokesh, 2013)
“Hitler took the guns, Stalin took the guns, Mao took the guns, Fidel Castro took the guns, Hugo Chavez took the guns. And I’m here to tell you, 1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms!” (Alex Jones, 2013)
[Editors note: Incidentally, Hitler and Stalin never took the guns, they actually removed all forms of gun control; And the American Revolution didn’t start in 1776, but in 1774; the war itself started in 1775. Alex Jones is a moron.]
These individuals are dangerous; they are dangerous because they prey on the public’s general ignorance the past. They utilize myths rather than facts to energize people to their cause. They lie to their constituents, filling them with false hope, offering them a belief that what they are doing–arming themselves, committing treason against the United States–is not just righteous, but that this is exactly what the founding fathers would have done or supported. They seem to argue that the founders of this country would approve of armed insurrection by an unsanctioned mob because they could not win a democratic election; this is not simply false, it is a monstrous absurdity.
But don’t just take it from me; read George Washington’s words on it from his farewell address to the Nation:
But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government. All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency.
…It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.
Far be it for any Tea Party member to agree with any of this. When at least 44% of your base thinks that armed insurrection is the way to go, chances are good you are not following the footsteps of the founding fathers. When you have a clause in your agenda that stipulates that you will spend all your time refusing to pass any laws sanctioned by the people, you are an obstructionist and you are not following the will of the founders. Instead, you’re following in the footsteps of those who opposed them.
The first shot taken at a government official by an armed mob will indeed be the fulfillment of the words of Washington, but not the words they think they’re following. Rather, when ignorant people attempt to use armed force to remove from power a freely-elected public official, it will be the death of a free government and the rise of something much, much worse. History has done nothing but teach us this. But how many conservatives actually know their history? Apparently not 44% of them.
Because of the recent Cliven Bundy fiasco in Nevada, I made this little meme for him and those who think like him: