World leaders of the 1770s laughed at the idea of a modern democracy. Hadn’t men proved repeatedly they were incapable of governing themselves? That was the reason all nations were ruled by kings, or the military, or a wealthy elite.
America has run its democratic experiment more or less successfully for more than 200 years, but not without moments of tension. Our democratic republic has confronted the violence stirred by small factions of angry groups. The times and places have varied, but the root causes are usually the same three: economic inequality, immigration, and race.
1. Economic Inequality: High unemployment and reduction of wages led to The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which led to violent confrontations in nine major cities, sometimes with federal troops firing on civilians.
And in the 1999 Seattle protests of the World Trade Organization Conference, a conservative crowd of 4,000 tried to obstruct the conference. Before it was over, 600 people were arrested and the city had seen over $20 million in damage to property.
2. Immigration: Because of their resentment of the wave of Irish immigrants entering the country, anti-immigrant mobs in Philadelphia set fire to homes, churches, seminaries. At least 13 Catholic churches were burned and 20 people killed.
When New Orleans’ police chief was murdered in 1891, the city indicted 19 suspects, all of whom were Italian-Americans. When it appeared nine would later be set free, a mob broke into the jail and murdered 11 of the prisoners.
3. Race: Judging from our history, race is the deepest, most divisive, and most enduring cause for civil unrest. The examples of racial violence are numerous:
- Watts, April 11-16, 1965: Racial tensions in Los Angeles exploded with rumors of police brutality at a traffic arrest. Six days of mayhem left 34 dead and 3,500 arrested.
- Detroit, July 23-27, 1967: police actions in shutting down an illegal bar led to assaults, arson, and mass destruction. It resulted in 43 dead, 2,000 buildings destroyed, 7,300 arrests.
- Los Angeles, April 29-May 4, 1992: a video of police beating Rodney King led to the arrest of four policemen. When they were subsequently acquitted of the beating, Black protests led to a wave of looting, assaults, and arson and left 63 dead and 12,000 arrested.
- Tulsa, May 31-June 1, 1921: a white mob descended on the Black Greenwood District, beating inhabitants and destroying Black homes and businesses. Thirty-nine were confirmed dead but later research has offered reason to believe the total could have been as high as 300.
- New York Draft, July 13–16, 1863: Irish immigrants who faced conscription in the Union army learned that wealthy New Yorkers were paying substitutes to take their place in the fighting. Their anger grew with resentment of having to fight to free Blacks, whom they considered as their rivals for jobs. White rioters attacked Black citizens and burned two Black churches and a Black orphanage. They even fell upon federal troops sent to the city fresh from the battle at Gettysburg. In three days of rioting, over 100 Black men, women, and children were killed.
Yet, until 2021, Americans had confronted federal authority with armed aggression just four times.
1. Shay’s Rebellion
In the Fall of 1786, thousands of New Englanders rose in protest against harsh tax laws in a time when money was scarce in the new states. Armed protestors in what came to be known as Shay’s Rebellion interrupted county courts, demanding legislative action to alleviate tax burdens. Over 1,500 protestors tried to seize weapons at the armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. They were driven back by state-led militia forces.
By Spring of 1787, some of the protestors had turned to looting shops and homes. After a bloody confrontation in which 30 insurrectionists were wounded, the rebellion melted away.
In return for amnesty, 4,000 Americans ultimately confessed to taking part in the rebellion. Two leaders were hung. The Federal Government’s inability to respond effectively to the uprising was one reason legislators felt the country needed a Constitution to strengthen its central government.
2. The Whiskey Rebellion
Just four years later, farmers were arming themselves in protest against an excise tax on whiskey.
Whiskey was an important source of income for farmers, enabling them to turn their corn crops into valuable, easily transported merchandise. Whiskey was frequently used as currency in 1791, when little cash was circulating among farmers. In protest against the new whiskey tax, several tax collectors were tarred and feathered. Consequently, no excise tax was collected for 1791 and 1792.
Farmers next began threatening neighbors who supported enforcing the tax, and sometimes burned their barns. A mob attacked the home of a federal tax inspector, and several members were killed in gunfire. Some protestors now proposed declaring independence from the U.S. and allying with another nation. Others talked of marching on Pittsburgh, looting the homes of the wealthy, and burning the city to the ground.
Fortunately, President Washington responded by leading an army of nearly 13,000 into western Pennsylvania. This show of force and Washington’s promise of clemency was enough to end the uprising.
3. John Brown and Harper’s Ferry
In 1859, John Brown and over 20 followers seized the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He had planned to distribute the weapons to Black Americans and launch a slave uprising. He and his followers were captured by federal troops. Brown was hung, but became a martyr to many abolitionists who opposed slavery.
4. The Battle of Fort Sumter
And then, there’s the fourth insurrection, which arose from a losing side’s anger over a presidential election. On April 12, 1861, military forces of South Carolina fired on the federal fort in Charleston Harbor, Fort Sumter, to force out its Union troops. The siege started a four-year-long insurrection — better known as the Civil War — that left over 600,000 Americans dead. It destroyed slavery, but not racism, and it led to countless mob actions that still recur even today.
In many regards, this last insurrection never fully ended. Many Americans are still divided over the issue of what constitutes racial justice. And for many, the Confederacy, though defeated 160 years ago, is still a living embodiment of what America should be. There appears to be no urgency in ending this division, which keeps the country perpetually weak and divided.
This divide would seem to support one of John Adams’s darker warnings: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
Featured image: Illustration of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry (Wikimedia Commons)
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