Political violence is as American as apple pie

Summary: Mass murders are sad but relatively small problem. Political violence is an endemic problem in America, a dark force that has often shaped our 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.

Burning City - Dreamstime-46822273
ID 46822273 © Wisconsinart | Dreamstime.

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.

Burning police Car

For More Information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

See Robert R. Dykstra’s books: The Cattle Towns (1983), Bright Radical Star: Black Freedom and White Supremacy on the Hawkeye Frontier (1993), and The Gilded Age: Industrial Capitalism And Its Discontents (2005).

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about political violence, and especially these …

  1. Fear the rise of political violence in America. We can still stop it.
  2. Terrorism won yesterday in Berkeley and Portland. See these important stories.
  3. How the Left sees its political violence: as innocents victimized.
  4. The Right began the current cycle of political violence in America.
  5. Important: A simple solution to the political violence afflicting America.
  6. About Steve Crowder’s horrifying exposé of Antifa’s violence.
  7. The Left uses violence to fight climate change.
Dick Schumann: Political Violence in the Weimar Republic 1918-1933: Battles for the Streets and Fears of Civil War
Available at Amazon.

A reminder from the past.

Let’s not follow the path taken by the Weimar Republic, with its street battles between thuggish armies of Communists and Nazis. It did not end well for them, and won’t end well for us. To see this sad but useful history I recommend Political Violence in the Weimar Republic, 1918-1933: Fight for the Streets and Fear of Civil War by Dirk Schumann (Professor of History at Georg-August University, Göttingen), 2009. From the publisher…

“This book provides a comprehensive analysis of political violence in Weimar Germany with particular emphasis on the political culture from which it emerged. It refutes both the claim that the Bolshevik revolution was the prime cause of violence, and the argument that the First World War’s all-encompassing ‘brutalization’ doomed post-1918 German political life from the very beginning. The study thus contributes to a view of the Weimar Republic as a state in severe crisis but with alternatives to the Nazi takeover.”

7 thoughts on “Political violence is as American as apple pie”

  1. In the early twentieth century, closer to home (three miles south) is an historical marker on the side of the road. Coatesville recovered and became a bustling steel town, then died again after the mill closed. Not much left now, just another broken down city.
    Americana.

    “The Lynching of Zachariah Walker Historical Marker”:

    https://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-3DB

    1. Several times a week, riding my cruiser to the promised land of western Chester county of rolling hills and Amish dairy farms, I have to ride through that busted town, abandoned steel mill,and that historical marker.
      Shake my head and think about the human condition, every time.

  2. My reading of history is that gangs of young men with sharp pointy things led by a sociopath have been all that was needed for a small group to control and subjugate a mass of unfit men and women and children. Think of medieval Japan or Europe. Add guns to the mix and the gangs cannot calculate so precisely how easy and profitable it would be to terrorize other people.
    Without guns, there is hardly any advantage to being smart and educated when violence is on…

    1. Rum,

      “My reading of history is that gangs of young men with sharp pointy things led by a sociopath have been all that was needed for a small group to control and subjugate a mass of unfit men and women and children”

      The record shows that the success rate is microscopic of insurgencies against a local government*. We tend to remember the few wins, which gives a false impression. Unless you use hindsight, and declare those few instances of wins to be against the “unfit.” That was true before firearms. It is still true today.

      * Since Mao brought 4th gen warfare to maturity, insurgencies almost always win against foreign armies once they reach a national scope.

  3. When I think of the benefits of having guns, the notion of being able to win a revolution from below is last on my list. In fact, I have never interpreted the 2A as having being written with that in mind, primarily.
    The American Revolutionary War was more a civil war than a war against the mother country. The Patriots fought the Brits every now and then – and usually lost – but they fought each other in the backwoods every week. Arguably, that is a prime reason the Brits quit; they could not protect the loyalists from patriot irregulars. The language of the 2 A was abstract and nice sounding, the emotion was that no faction was willing to disarm. Think of Iraq after S Hussein fell.
    Gun control laws have almost always been a scheme by one faction to disarm another. Crime stats, per se, or mass shootings, are the excuse. Australia could be offered as an exception. But in 2019 America, it could not be more clear. The Dems do not even pretend anymore. They want to punish their enemies without fear of danger.
    Julian Castro widely publicized the names of big Trump donors in his city recently. Of course he meant no threat and it was legal for him to do so .. .”Nice little family you have there, it would be a shame if anything happened to them.”
    If any of those people did not own guns before, they do now. That is the 2 A in action.

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