“Revolution” Talk Serious, from Shays’ Rebellion to Today

Ammon Bundy (center) in an image from the AP

Disparaging the U.S. government and election system, with menacing warnings and occasionally occupation and weaponry, is in season.

Recent front pages had headlines about the acquittal of Ammon Bundy et al. in their armed takeover of a federally owned wildlife refuge in Oregon, and about the increasing talk among Donald Trump supporters of “revolution” if Hillary Clinton should be elected. A former Republican congressman from Illinois said he would be “grabbing” his “musket” if Trump loses.

Such would-be rebels and gun zealots revive one reason the U.S. Constitution was created: to counter conflicts like Shays’ Rebellion, when Massachusetts farmers burdened by debt took up arms against the Commonwealth in 1786–87.

Josiah H. Brown and his son in Massachusetts at the site of the last battle of Shays’ Rebellion

A sturdier Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation. That Constitution included a Second Amendment beginning: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State….”

Today’s self-appointed defenders — and selective interpreters — of the Constitution should be reminded of this history. Plotting against government institutions isn’t heroic. It’s dangerous, potentially even treasonous.

In the 1790s, President George Washington led militiamen from four states in suppressing the Whiskey Rebels. Then, militias were “well regulated,” and anti-tax protesters yielded.

The whiskey tax remained controversial but was eventually repealed through the democratic process, not armed resistance.

William deBuys cautions us: the Bundy clan’s efforts are aimed at “privatizing America’s public land.” The Sagebrush Rebellion of recent decades was related, accompanied by radical opposition to federal environmental laws and extreme views about “sovereignty” and sometimes race.

Already, as Christopher Ketcham described in the New York Times, “Assaults and threats of violence against federal employees on public lands in the West were up last year, following Cliven Bundy’s standoff but before the takeover of the Oregon refuge by his sons, according to figures compiled by the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Threats and assaults against [Bureau of Land Management] employees rose to 28 from 15, and to 155 from 97 against employees of the United States Forest Service.”

Bundy and friends were acquitted of federal conspiracy and weapons charges. Bundy, his brother, and their father still face other charges over actions in Oregon and Nevada. Let us hope that justice will prevail.

Real patriotism is not paranoid about our nation’s founding documents or about the government they undergird. Real patriots recognize that federal lands belong to all Americans (including Native Americans), and that failure to pay appropriate fees for use of those lands should not be excused.

Some citizens may believe it’s “smart” not to pay federal taxes or fees, not to heed our laws and Constitution. Wrong. Such conduct is un-American. Armed insurrection, or incitement to that end, is no joke. Domestic terrorism is still terrorism.

The Bundy family, and those of their ilk who see evil everywhere in government and imagine that a national election can somehow be “rigged” amid America’s free press — with states mostly ruled, in 2016, by Republicans more prone to gerrymandering and limiting voting rights than to fraud— are not only misinformed.

Such fanatics evoke episodes in our history, from Shays’ and the Whiskey Rebellion to the secession of the Confederacy over slavery and McCarthy-era anti-Communist mania. Each time, the United States endured internal threats before emerging stronger. May it do so again.

A version of this essay appears at Connecticut Viewpoints, where Josiah H. Brown’s prior pieces have addressed topics from demography and the electorate, history and civics to guns and security, refugees and immigration, interfaith relations, and holidays of various cultures. Twitter: @JosiahBrownCT