Last spring, University of Hartford historian Robert Churchill released a new book about "libertarian political violence and the origins of the militia movement," To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face (University of Michigan Press). He should have waited a year. This past week the book's subject matter came roaring back to the forefront of American politics, as politicians and their friends in the media policed the acceptable limits of dissent in a democratic republic.
Notably, this week also marked the April 19th anniversary of both the government crime—the assault on Waco—that most inspired the rise of the 1990s militia movement that Churchill's book explains and contextualizes, and the private crime—the destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City—that sapped all the momentum from that movement.
Churchill’s book provides interesting historical context for both the 1990s and now. The same forces of expansive government that first helped inspire a militia movement and later generated hostility towards that movement are again actively casting suspicious eyes on anyone who says that the modern U.S. government is in any respect tyrannical or clearly overstepping its intended constitutional bounds.
Churchill, as a historian, could see the ‘90s militia phenomenon in context—and that context was uniquely American. The notion of armed resistance to tyranny that the '90s militias came to embody was not marginal, alien, or frightening; it is one of America’s defining original attributes. This is a nation, after all, born of a civic armed insurrection, one that had the support of a substantial body of the people.
As Churchill puts it, “as a historian of early America I found achingly familiar [the ‘90s militias’] assertion of a right to take up arms to prevent the exercise of unconstitutional power by the federal government.” That's because the spirit of the colonial revolution was kept alive and used as ideological support for violent action and rhetoric at various points in our history. Churchill tells these stories with gripping detail and he neither cheers nor vilifies those who chose to take up arms at various points and for various reasons against constituted authority in America.
Like the Oath Keepers, a militia-style coalition of current and former military, police, and other public officials recently profiled by Reason’s Jesse Walker, America's original Federalists (who favored a powerful central state) were convinced that the militia would be the final bulwark of American liberty by refusing to allow the enforcement of unconstitutional law. Indeed, that idea of an armed citizen militia resisting the depredations of the state has been a mainstream idea in American history from the very start.
Churchill doesn't claim that armed insurrectionary violence was ever popular or mainstream as an active cause, however. The three stories he tells that occurred before the 1990s—Fries rebellion of 1798-99, the Sons of Liberty conspiracy in Indiana and Illinois of 1864, and the anti-Roosevelt (and anti-Semitic) Black Legion of 1936—are instead examples of a small minority acting against the general attitudes of their respective times.
In tracing the shifting attitudes toward insurrectionary violence from the American Revolution to the ‘90s militia scare, Churchill will strike a chord with readers who are elegiac for America's original libertarian purpose, those who feel the loss of a citizenry that was once genuinely passionate about civic liberty and limited government. As Churchill puts it, in the steps from the Civil War to the New Deal to now, American civic life and politics became about “the principles of necessity, loyalty, and national preservation” that had displaced “the libertarian ideals of the American Revolution.”
A libertarian polity need not resort to violence to defend its liberties. It is always better for everyone if it does not have to. Thomas Jefferson had enough faith in the inherent peaceful, civic libertarianism of his people that he believed that armed insurrection would not be accepted in America, but nor would it be necessary. As Churchill quotes from a February 1798 letter by Jefferson, forceful opposition to government action “is not the kind of opposition the American people will permit. But keep away from all show of force, and they will bear down the evil propensities of the government, by the constitutional means of election and petition.”
From a Jeffersonian perspective about the nature, powers, and extent of government, Americans in the last century have utterly failed to live up to Jefferson's expectations. But even pointing that out now is enough to get you lumped in with the very violent forces Jefferson believed Americans would rightly abjure.
See, for example, former president Bill Clinton in The New York Times, who directly links an idea that is unequivocally true—“the belief that the greatest threat to American freedom is our government, and that public servants do not protect our freedoms, but abuse them”—with convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s 1994 crimes.
Similarly, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, current intellectual heroine of left-liberal “tough common sense,” took a much-noted stroll this week through the mind of McVeigh via old jailhouse interviews. And that’s of special news relevance today, Maddow says, because “nine years after his execution, we are left worrying that Timothy McVeigh's voice from the grave echoes in the new rising tide of American anti-government extremism.”
Why are we left worrying about that? Not because any such violence has occurred or has been convincingly threatened by modern “anti-government extremists,” but because people like Maddow keep telling us we should be worried. Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post sums up the current state of the fear, while taking an on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand approach to this week’s nostalgic debate between Clinton and his old nemesis Rush Limbaugh over whether right-wing rhetoric or government murders are more to blame for McVeigh’s crimes.
“The 42nd president is out there saying that the current climate reminds him of the period before the Oklahoma bombing,” Kurtz writes. “Limbaugh is accusing him (and Barack Obama) of libeling radio talk-show hosts. And the debate has broadened to include Sarah Palin and her ‘reload’ rhetoric, as well as the Tea Party.”
Kurtz is correct: Fear of the ‘90s radical right is back like it never left. Even the Southern Poverty Law Center (whose role in selling an inaccurate, race-based vision of what inspired the ‘90s militias is explained by Churchill) has issued a fresh enemies lists of vaguely dangerous right-wingers. Mainstream-as-you-get political pundit Joe Klein is tarring nonviolent political critics of Obama, such as Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and Fox News superstar Glenn Beck, as being guilty of sedition.