When Americans Committed Insurrection

Until 2021, Americans had confronted federal authority with armed aggression just four times.

Painting of John Brown at Harper's Ferry
Illustration of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry (Wikimedia Commons)

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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.

Federal Insurrections

Yet, until 2021, Americans had confronted federal authority with armed aggression just four times.

1. Shay’s Rebellion

Artist's depiction of Shay's Rebellion
An artist’s depiction of Shay’s Rebellion (Wikimedia Commons)

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

Artist's depiction of the Whiskey Rebellion
The Whiskey Rebellion (Library of Congress)

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

Painting of John Brown at Harper's Ferry
Illustration of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry (Wikimedia Commons)

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

Battle of Fort Sumter
The Battle of Fort Sumter (Library of Congress)

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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  1. “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.'” Which is why we have a federal republic, an idea that Adams was defending when he spoke these words.

  2. The old saying, “Talk is cheap!” surely was not on display Wed. Jan 6, 2021 when the current Pres. spoke to mob about a stolen election. A LYING individual since day one, he invited mob rule which led to invasion of America’s most sacred institution!!!-

  3. Ted Cruz is one of the dirtiest, nastiest, greediest and slimy senators in office today. He’s as disgusting as he looks.

  4. BATTLE OF AKRON . . . . . . 1946 ,Akron Tennesee. Pretty same problem then as what we just had . Voting a new local govt in , who confiscated the Ballot boxes to “FIX” the outcome. Local GIs just home from WW II used weapons from the armory to defend their reights.

  5. If one goes back to the 2015/16 Republican candidates’ debates, look at Senator Ted Cruz comments about the fitness of Donald Trump. It seems now Ted has done a 180, and thinks Donald is the greatest President since the invention of sliced bread.

  6. Bob, you made excellent comments about our government. This pandemic proves what vicious, lying, wicked monsters they really are. I am quite worried what is going to happen next before, on and after Inauguration Day. The Capital wasn’t an isolated event. I fear it was just a warm up for something worse.

  7. Our country has its divisions, any large group of people banning together will have divisions. To say these divisions have made our country perpetually weak is a rather odd conclusion considering the United States position in the world over the past one hundred years.

  8. Jeff, thank you for the time and research work into you put into this feature. It’s very painful and disturbing to read. John Adam’s dark dire warning in the last paragraph unfortunately sums up the current situation very well. The U.S government has not been not been “for the people by the people” for a long time now.

    It’s “for the millionaires/billionaires by the millionaires only” and screw the American public otherwise. The message has been BLATANT from them. People SO out of touch with reality as to continually deny millions of Americans out of work through no fault of their own, that have to stay at home as this pandemic rages, with no monthly financial support. Just disgusting endless bickering and dysfunction; ONLY caring about themselves and their expensive lifestyles at our expense.

    Other countries actually put their people first, such as Canada, Norway, Germany, England, Japan and many others with enough money to be comfortable and not have to worry, from the start of the pandemic through whenever it
    ends. HERE, the government only cares about supplying trillions to the military industrial complex, huge corporations and Wall Street to whom they’re totally bought and paid for by. Other countries $2k per month or more going back to March. The U.S., $1,200 last March to last for 10 months. OH! but there’s $600 currently on the way!

    So greedy and selfish they’ve let many thousands of small businesses die, permanently, that could have come through relatively unscathed if they’d had the proper support from the start. Look at the long food lines stretching for miles everyday, people so far behind on their rent they’re now out on the streets? The torturous roller coaster of getting their hopes up for the relief they need and deserve only to have it dashed continuously by our pre-school level “leaders” only out for themselves and grudges with each other.

    No checks and balances so this wouldn’t happen. No. Senate Majority “Leader” has had (until 3 days ago) Hitler-like power destroying peoples lives in this country. For all intents and purposes McConnell has been the real President during 2020, if not much longer. Everything that could be botched up in the U.S. HAS been botched up, making us the most tragic nation in the world.

    What happened at the Capital 3 days ago was a well orchestrated abomination that’s truly horrible. The people there were trying to destroy for the sake of destruction, as we often saw last year. The Capital criminals don’t represent the millions of suffering Americans at all. In fact they seemed to be pretty well off. The irony here is that you had criminals invading a building of largely white collar criminals actively working against its own citizens.

    A day of reckoning and reform has to be come, but not like that. It’s so far gone now, I don’t know what can be done. Physically the nation’s bridges and infrastructure are deteriorating to dangerous levels, yet we’re giving billions and billions of dollars to countries that actively hate us? Trillions on endless wars? There’s plenty of money for that, isn’t there??! Nothing for taking care of America or its people though. Something’s got to give, because the whole thing is going to give way anyway, make no mistake about it, and it’ll make the Capital incident by comparison look like a nice day at the park.

  9. Trump has been the most inept, corrupt president. People who can’t see this are either extremely misinformed or delusional. Yes, I know he doesn’t take his salary; however I’d rather pay him his $400,000 than be on the hook for all the golf trips w/ his whole entourage. I think we’re up to about 400 million now. Then there was the wall Mexico would pay for—the list goes on & on adinfinitum

  10. The past tense of the verb hang,meaning to execute a person, is hanged.
    Capitalizing black but not white promotes a racial hierarchy. Don’t do it.

  11. I’m a moderate and was a Trump supporter when his campaign theme was “Make America Great Again”.
    Hillary’s theme was “Trump is an asshole, vote for me” – not a good theme to run a country on. But I did not blame her for Benghazi, the USS Cole, or her personal email. The Secretary of State does not set security for an embassy, that’s the job of a Marine Captain, the Cole was a Naval Captain’s failure and any email can be hacked. She failed when she corrupted the DNC and bribed politicians to get ALL 512 super-delegate votes.
    Biden has done NOTHING in 47+ years of politics… maybe what this country needs is a TIME OUT..?
    I like what I’ve read about Kamilla and hope she sticks to her convictions and beliefs..!
    For me… Trump’s election results squabbling and lawsuits have ruined his legacy.

  12. Ira Sterling is another madman! Invents history in his own mind. Nothing corroborated with reality. trump supporter until the insurrection? What took you so long to understand and acknowledge that he is unfit to be President of these United States and a detriment to American politics?

  13. You missed the Union Coal Mine wars when 10,000 miners marched on the West Virginia capital and later the 5 day Battle of Blair Mountain in September of 1921 – the largest armed uprising since the civil war. The miner uprising was quelled when president Harding issued an order activating the WV National Guard and sending them in to support 3000 law enforcement and strikebreakers. Support also included airplanes from the Army.

  14. I hav ben a Trump supporter until the insurrection of the 6th of January. The politicians have hated Trump for long before he was elected because he was not one of them, that is, he was not a politician who would play along to get along and make a fortune from all the crooked deals they would be able to make while in office. This hatred and trying to do away with Trump never ceased in all his time as president, and persists even to this day. Mind you, I did not and still do not like some of the ways he went about running the government, he was doing his best to get rid of some of the crookedness in our government. Further, he brought about a prosperity that our nation had not experienced in years and years, and all this in spite of all the opposition he faced , sometimes even from within his own party. He was a world class narcissist, probably only surpassed by Obama, yet he truly loved our country, but it was this narcissism that led to his downfall because it led him to allow the insurrection of the 6th to take place, that plus his fear that we are about to be subjected to a Socialist takeover by “democrats” in disguise. Wolves in sheeps clothing if you will. The people have opened a sort f Pandoras box if you will and there is no telling what will come forth. Beware of Kamala Harris.

  15. Have you forgotten about the mass murder of Chinese immigrants that helped build the transcontinental railroad. Without them the railroad would never have been built. They were hard working people and the Whites at that time didn’t like that they worked so hard.


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