Political violence is as American as apple pie

by Fabius Maximus

Summary: Mass murders are sad but relatively small problem. Political violence is an endemic problem, as American as apple pie. Its dark force has often shaped American history, and will again in the future. Unless we stand together to fight it.

“A firm union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the states, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection.”
— From Federalist Letter #9 by Alexander Hamilton.

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The blood flows freely in America’s cities. But Hispanics and African Americans’ blowing away themselves and their neighbors, mass murderers, children killing each other with Dad’s gun, and other casual gun use will not affect the Republic – no matter how horrific. Much as the killings in the saloons of mining towns of the Wild West had no long-term effect other than giving us pulp westerns and B-movies.

But a different kind of gun use shaped the American West during the late 19th century. Violence against Indians. Violence against blacks. Against workers (early unions). Against small ranchers. This was terrorism by armed men for political purposes, directed at Americans, in an early America riven – to an extent easy for us to imagine today – by fissures of race, ethnicity, class, and geography. They proved that guns allow an organized minority to dominate the public.

For a look at this lost history, see “Guns, Murder, and Plausibility“ by Robert R. Dykstra (Prof History, State U of NY – Albany) in Historical Methods, December 2010.

“Contention over moral reform at the cattle towns eventually reached especially uncomfortable levels. Although apparent as early as 1871 in Abilene, controversy climaxed in the 1880s after Kansas enacted statewide prohibition, then had trouble enforcing it in a few of its larger cities as well as in Caldwell and Dodge City, the two remaining cattle towns. … {t}he evangelical reformers of Caldwell and Dodge …

    1. had lost faith in the administrative efficacy of state governments;
    2. felt that town officials were dishonest by refusing to act against the saloons;
    3. harbored little “fellow-feeling” for their opponents; and
    4. felt that some of their deepest values, and thus their identity, were disrespected and dismissed by local political elites.

“… In Caldwell in 1884, the house of an uncompromising foe of liquor burned to the ground, allegedly torched by defenders of the status quo. Also 3 months later, anti-liquor vigilantes, having decided that a leading culprit was a bootlegger name Frank Noyes, dragged him from his cottage one night and – as a gruesome warning to other lawbreakers – strung him up. No similar lynching occurred that year at Dodge City. But a rogue faction among the prohibitionists also played arsonist, setting the downtown ablaze one night, ridding it of the several up-market saloons along Front Street as well as a number of legitimate businesses. A week later these zealots finished the job with a fire that wiped out the adjoining Chestnut Street bordellos.

Mayor Robert Wright, whose flagship mercantile outlet had gone up in smoke, retaliated by firing 3 pistol bullets into the house of the prohibitionists’ leading figure …

“The larger point is that the death of Frank Noyes was the only criminal fatality stemming from these many seasons of cattle-town social and political tension and unrest.

“The 1884’s violence at Caldwell and Dodge was not random. It was instrumental, purposeful, premeditated, strategic, and targeted. The aggrieved took action not against their wives, friends, and acquaintances, but against the business enterprises of men they deemed secular and moral outlaws. This was terrorism – not real or attempted homicide.

“With respect to lynching in its broader aspects, illegal executions in only three states of the Wild West (California, New Mexico, and Colorado) have been carefully studied by historians, and these three states combined suffered per-100,000 lynching rates of 5.5 in the 1860’s, and only 0.7 in the 1890s. By that last decade, rates were highest in the Deep South, as exemplified by Louisiana’s 1.2 rate for the 1890s.

“In other words, lynching had metastasized from a punishment commonly meted out to rustlers, horse thieves, and frontier murderers into deadly violence against southern blacks.”

Violence was an effective tool in late 19th century America. The South’s counter-revolution reversed many of the gains brought by the civil war (e.g., the South’s elites had recovered their wealth by 1880 and disenfranchised Blacks). Brutal oppression suppressed unions until the New Deal. Hired gunmen played a large role in the concentration of land ownership in much of the West.

Now new fissures have appeared in American society, exacerbated by our loss of national identity and dying faith in the American project. New sources of violence have appeared, albeit in embryonic form: animal rights, eco-terrorists, right-wing “militia”, and sovereign nation separatists – motivated by the same four reasons listed above. In other developed nations, that would lead to protests. Perhaps even riots. But groups have other options in heavily armed America,

Violence has worked before in America. I will bet that one or more groups will try it again. It might work again. Only fast and strong public opposition can stop it. But we might no longer have the social cohesion to do so.

“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. …the causes of faction cannot be removed; and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”
— From Federalist Letter #10 by James Madison.

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