Our permanent culture of political violence

And why the calls for civility in the wake of Saturday's shooting won't end up changing anything

Published January 11, 2011 1:45AM (EST)

John L. Magee lithograph depicts Preston Brooks's attack on Charles Sumner in 1856.
John L. Magee lithograph depicts Preston Brooks's attack on Charles Sumner in 1856.

In the wake of Jared L. Loughner’s attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords -- part of a shooting rampage that has claimed six lives -- Americans are going through much hand-wringing and some honest soul-searching, while politicians and media pundits have loudly condemned this heinous act of political violence and bemoaned its occurrence. All of these heartfelt expressions are necessary. Words are the only way we can truly express our national grief and sorrow.

But much of what is being said frames the event in terms we have become more than accustomed to, whether the occasion has been a Columbine or a standoff between local police and a hostage-taker in a domestic dispute. In all of these instances, we tend to interpret the events and their perpetrators as aberrations. Our first reaction is shock and disbelief. But our understanding of the situation soon takes the form of something else, as if acts of personal and political violence are like the devastation of a Katrina or an oil spill -- something that happens infrequently enough to make us shake our heads in sadness and disbelief. Deeper in our thoughts is gratitude that such events are not more prevalent.

And yet, deeper still in our consciousness and in our souls, we know that they really are not infrequent at all. Violence erupts around us all the time -- in our communities, on the news, or in our homes. Yet we try to dismiss it, hoping that by pushing it into the recesses of our consciousness we can deny its pervasiveness. We condemn it and we fear it, for we know we live in a world where it can manifest itself without warning at any time, in any place.

But even as we condemn such violence -- particularly political violence like what has just taken place in Arizona -- with lamentations and scowls, we persist in condoning it. There are two reasons for our toleration of political violence, despite all our sincere words of grief and castigation. For one thing, America has a long history of political violence -- a dark river of brutality, even savagery, that runs through our entire national experience. For another thing, we don’t like facing up to that fact as a people or as a nation. Americans prefer instead to see each outburst of violence -- whether in physical attacks on political figures or in blasts of gunfire in our schools and shopping malls -- as aberrations, isolated incidents committed by deranged individuals who cause mayhem and slaughter like human whirlwinds. When the wind has subsided, and the casualties have been counted, we proceed as we have done before, dismissing the event as an exception, waiting for the next act of lunacy to occur, at which time we will express our shock and dismay all over again.

The American tradition of political violence goes back as far as the colonial era, when Nathaniel Bacon and a sizable number of Virginians rose up in armed rebellion against the royal governor of the colony in 1676. Other armed uprisings took place against colonial authority in New York and Maryland in the late 17th century. In the 1760s, on the eve of the American Revolution, political violence broke out in the backcountry of the Carolinas, where disenchanted frontiersmen took up arms to fight for more equitable representation in their colonial legislatures, but these illegal posses often consisted of nothing more than roaming bands of thieves and cutthroats. By the early 1770s, Ethan Allen -- the Vermont patriot, not the furniture salesman -- led his Green Mountain Boys into violent confrontations with New Yorkers over border disputes, while Connecticut Yankees clashed with Pennsylvanians for political dominance over the settlements along the Susquehanna River. Pennsylvania, in fact, was a maelstrom, for a rebellion of Western Scotch-Irish settlers marched on the Quaker-dominated government in Philadelphia in their own bid for increased representation in the colony’s assembly.

Meanwhile, of course, other political violence boiled over as the imperial controversy with Great Britain heated up, with mobs protesting the Stamp Act, the Townsend Duties and other policies imposed on the colonies by Parliament and the royal authorities in London. Individual acts of violence -- including the tarring and feathering of royal officials -- were committed against colonists who refused to endorse resistance to British measures. In 1770, the Boston Massacre resulted in the death of five civilians, some of whom had engaged in provoking British troops by pelting them with snowballs, chunks of ice, and rocks. All of these events happened before the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, when more organized violence -- the battle between British regulars and Massachusetts "minutemen" -- opened the curtain on what would become the Revolutionary War. (I have excluded from my highly selected list of violent chapters in our nation’s past the numerous Indian wars that shook the frontier since Europeans first set foot on the shores of North America and the inherent violence -- both actual and threatened -- that kept slaves in bondage to their masters.)

Perhaps it is true, as some scholars have argued, that American violence stems from our country’s frontier heritage -- from the brutal realities of the life-and-death struggle to survive as European settlers established their first settlements along the Atlantic coastline and then pushed westward over the mountains and plains toward the Pacific. Maybe other experts are correct in seeing the modern strain of American violence as an urban phenomenon and as an expression of class (and sometimes racial) conflict between the haves and the have-nots in our society. Still others maintain that political violence has its roots in the failure of our laws and our culture to provide for the general welfare according to popular expectations and to ensure that justice is served fairly, equitably and in a timely fashion.

It's my belief, though, that American political violence is a direct legacy of the American Revolution, for the patriots’ victory in that conflict proved to the American people that violence could achieve a positive end: independence and the creation of a new nation. It is a troubling, but inescapable, bequest that stems from the fact that our nation was born in violence, and it derives from the reality that violence has ever since become not only the device of criminals, but also of government and those who disagree with the government. Public officials who condone the use of torture in recent times should, by rights, give pause when they try to condemn the actions of Jared L. Loughner, Timothy McVeigh or the Unabomber. But, typically, our public servants see no contradiction, no hypocrisy, in advocating extreme political violence against our alleged enemies around the globe while condemning political violence when it is aimed against the government -- or, more precisely, against them. In other words, political violence is legitimate when the government commits it; but it is appalling when individuals commit it against the government or its representatives. Political violence committed by individuals is explained by marginalizing those perpetrators as crackpots. Political violence committed by the government is justified as guaranteeing national security.

Despite the violence that pervades our history and our society, we pretend that we are a peaceful people who, at the same time, just happen to love our guns, including assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. It’s hard to disagree with D. H. Lawrence, the English novelist, who once said (with obvious repugnance) that "the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer." Lawrence may have had in mind the litany of politically violent episodes I’ve outlined that led up to and culminated in our Revolutionary War. Or he might have had a general familiarity with all the political violence that followed the Revolution, such as Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, when more than 2,000 farmers in western Massachusetts rose up to gain a greater voice in the state government (the Constitutional Convention was called, in part, to create a strong central government that could put some limits on the kind of state political excesses that had led to the Shay insurrection), or when western Pennsylvanians protested a federal tax in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, or when Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans attended sessions of Congress in the late 1790s by arming themselves with pistols and dirks. Most notably, in 1797, a brawl broke out on the floor of Congress between Matthew Lyon of Vermont and Federalist Roger Griswold of Connecticut. Luckily no one was seriously injured. Lyon is reported to have said that "I did not come here to have my [ass] kicked by everybody." Only a few years later, in 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in the most famous duel in American history. (A later vice president, Dick Cheney, wounded a friend while hunting birds, but the incident seems to have been an accident.)

In reckoning with the extremity of the political rhetoric of our own time, a longer view of American political hyperbole and violence suggests that as bad as the dialogue between Democrats and Republicans is right now, it pretty much pales in comparison with the virulence that has characterized American political language since the nation’s founding. That rhetoric, more often than not, has been accompanied by violence. Whether the rhetoric causes the violence is, I think, a moot point -- something of a chicken-and-egg proposition. You only need to take stock of the incredibly large number of assassination attempts, aborted or successful, that have been made against our presidents or presidential candidates to understand how endemic political violence has been in our history and culture: Andrew Jackson (assaulted in May 1833; unsuccessful assassination attempt in January 1835), Abraham Lincoln (aborted attempt, February 1861; aborted attempt, August 1864; assassinated, April 1865), James A. Garfield (assassinated, 1881), William McKinley (assassinated 1901), Theodore Roosevelt (unsuccessful attempt, October 1912), Franklin D. Roosevelt (unsuccessful attempt, February 1933), Harry S. Truman (aborted attempt, November 1950), John F. Kennedy (aborted attempt, December 1960; assassinated, November 1963), Robert F. Kennedy (assassinated June 1968); George C. Wallace (unsuccessful assassination attempt resulting in serious injuries, May 1972); Richard M. Nixon (aborted attempt, February 1974), Gerald Ford (two different unsuccessful attempts, September 1975), Ronald Reagan (unsuccessful attempt, March 1981), George H.W. Bush (foiled attempt, April 1993), Bill Clinton (unsuccessful attempt, September 1994; unsuccessful attempt, October 1994; aborted attempt, November 2006), George W. Bush (unsuccessful attempt, February 2001; possible target, September 11, 2001; unsuccessful attempt, May 2005; possible aborted attempt, November 2008), Barack Obama (at least two foiled attempts). Then, of course, one must not forget the numerous political assassinations committed during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., in April 1968.

Nothing, however, compares to the political violence that climaxed in the American Civil War, when Northerners and Southerners enlisted by the thousands for the sole purpose of killing one another. They turned out to be very successful in what they set out to do. More than 620,000 soldiers died in the war and hundreds of thousands were wounded, many of them maimed for the rest of their lives. No one has ever come up with a reasonable estimate of civilian casualties during the war, but it’s safe to conclude that the Civil War -- by any measure -- was this nation’s worst episode of political violence. But even before the war began there were signs that America was on the road to destruction, for it was the violence that sprang forth during the sectional controversies of the 1850s that immediately foreshadowed the more dramatic bloodshed that was to follow in an all-out war. In 1854, a small-scale, but deadly, civil war broke out in Kansas over the issue of the extension of slavery into the western territories, and it was there that the radical abolitionist John Brown gained his first notoriety as a domestic terrorist when he and a handful of followers murdered five pro-slavery advocates with broadswords in the dead of night -- an act that naturally prompted the pro-slavery forces to retaliate by escalating the violence to an even higher level. At about the same time, nativist members of the Know Nothing Party -- an intemperate political movement bent on reducing immigration, persecuting Roman Catholics, and putting the government in the hands of only native-born citizens -- attacked and burned numerous Catholic convents and churches around the country. In 1857, President James Buchanan sent the U.S. Army into Utah to wage war against polygamist Mormons. Violence seemed to be everywhere, confronting Americans at every turn.

On the floor of the Senate, the sectional controversy brought forth more violence when in May 1856 Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina pummeled Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with his cane for having insulted Brooks’ uncle, Sen. Andrew Butler. In an engraving of the incident, Southern congressmen were depicted as laughing and cheering on Brooks. Sumner suffered severe physical and psychological injuries from the attack; he spent three years recuperating, during which time he was reelected to his seat, despite his absence from the halls of Congress. Northerners condemned the attack on Sumner for its barbarism, although Abraham Lincoln coyly noted its political benefit for the Republican Party. "The outrage upon Sumner & the occurrences in Kansas," Lincoln wrote to Sen. Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, "have helped us vastly." Violence, in other words, had its political purposes. In 1859, after John Brown and a small band of insurgents tried to incite slave uprisings in Virginia by capturing a federal arsenal and armory at Harpers Ferry, Lincoln and other Northerners attempted strenuously, and without much success, to convince Southerners that Brown was a lunatic acting on his own and without the support of the antislavery Republican Party. Violence in the political realm may have its purposes, but sometimes it cuts both ways. In the case of Brown’s raid, violence accelerated the speed of the impending bloody collision between North and South. After the war, the sesquicentennial of which we are now in the midst of commemorating, violence continued, particularly in the South, as policies of white supremacy were enforced by the terrorist violence of the Ku Klux Klan; by the turn of the century, an epidemic of lynching swept through the South as yet another means of enforcing racial control over African-Americans.

But confronting that violence, admitting its prevalence, and committing ourselves to actually doing something about it has proven to be, over the course of the American experience, something we never quite seem able to handle. In our own time, the NRA and its powerful gun lobby have ensured that deadly weapons can be easily obtained and placed in the hands of every member of the American populace, including children. Finding a weapon of choice for committing whatever act of political violence you may be contemplating is, in fact, probably easier than picking an appropriate target for that act. We console ourselves with the propaganda that guns don’t kill people, people do -- particularly crazy people. And that slogan gets us all off the hook. Violence is not an American solution. It is, we try to convince ourselves, only the solution of wingnut Americans.

But we’re wrong. Over and over again we deny the American heritage of political violence, for though we understand that much of our past has been filled with violence, or at least marked in prominent ways by violent acts, we find it very difficult to admit that we are, in the end, a very violent people and that aggression may be found at the very core of our culture. As Americans, there is much violence that we justify and even legitimize, particularly when it comes to looking at our past. We have been ready -- proud, even -- to justify the violence of the American Revolution that won our independence from Great Britain as a necessary means toward a positive end. Likewise, our participation in wars always seems to have been for the best of reasons -- or for what at least looked like the best of reasons at the time. Violence in many forms, then, is often seen as a legitimate means to accomplish a positive purpose.

Yet political violence is by no means unique to the American experience (all nations confront the problem of political violence from time to time). What is unique, it seems to me, is the American tendency to legitimize violence -- to rationalize its necessity -- while also denying that we are, in our darkest essence, a violent people. The ability of Americans to ignore the patterns of violence in their history has astounded scholars and experts, for the act of denial requires a kind of national amnesia that essentially -- and very successfully -- forgets how much violence there really is and has always been in our lives. Violence has actually formed a seamless web in our history, but the subject of violence has been suppressed in our national consciousness. As one historian, Richard Hofstadter, has put it: "What is most exceptional about the Americans is not the voluminous record of their violence, but their extraordinary ability, in the face of that record, to persuade themselves that they are among the best-behaved and best-regulated of peoples."

While confronting the fact that violence erupts around us every day, not only in the cities but often in the house next door, and while we live in utter fear that violence -- especially random violence or terrorist violence or the kind of political violence that felled Rep. Giffords and so many other innocent bystanders in Tucson on Saturday -- could easily touch our own lives, we nevertheless prefer to look away from the record that shows how commonplace violence (particularly political violence) has been throughout our history, how frequently it has occurred, and how it has persisted from the past into our own times.

So what can we do about this tradition of violence? The remedy, in my opinion, should begin with recognizing its existence. Acknowledging our full and rather tawdry history of violence would be the first step toward doing something about it. The United States has unpleasant chapters in its history; likewise, the American people have not always behaved in civilized, rational, ways. If we face up to our history, confronting it head-on, we might be able to move past all our elaborate denials of our worst traits, our shared sins, our mistakes, our lies. To accomplish this as a people, however, requires something unusual, something remarkable, something even noble. It requires courage. It requires us recognizing that American political violence is something that’s not just committed by the likes of Nathaniel Bacon, John Brown, Preston Brooks, or, allegedly, Jared Loughner. It requires us admitting that the violent deeds that flow so calamitously through our history were -- and are -- quintessentially American. In that sense, then, what we cannot face is that those who commit these terrible acts are not pariahs or maniacs, just as the acts themselves are not mere aberrations. What we truly cannot face is that violent Americans like John Brown and Timothy McVeigh and Jared Loughner are ... us.

By Glenn W. LaFantasie

Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University. He is working on a book about Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.

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