The Last Best Hope? Understanding America from the Outside In
The Insurrection Episode
Series 3 (Hilary term 2021)
Published 21 January 2021
NB the text below was transcribed automatically by https://otter.ai.
Recording: Voices from the attack on the Capitol on 6 January 2021 00:00
We've got to rise up and storm and storm the Capitol. You're seeing what's happening right now. We're going to take this house and we're going to take Chicago, we're going to take New York and we're take every city. The court systems have failed, and the judges have failed, and the military takes care of it.
Adam Smith 00:28
The voices there of people interviewed as they were in the middle of storming the US Capitol building on the sixth of January. Hello, and welcome to the last best hope, a podcast that examines America from the outside in. I'm Adam Smith, the director of the RAI, Oxford's Research Centre for the United States and its place in the world. And in this episode, we're talking about insurrection. dominant tone in American media coverage of these events, those extraordinary events on the sixth of January, is that all this was very un-American, that it's not who we are that this is the sort of thing that can't happen in the United States that it only happens in tinpot dictatorships, third world countries. Well, it is happening in the United States, which strongly suggests that it is part of who they are, even if since nations are not singular entities. America is many other things, too. It's certainly true that this particular combination of events, a president inciting a mob with lies and encouraging them to maraud around the national legislature is without precedent in American history. But what's definitely not unprecedented in the United States is the use of insurrectionary violence aimed at courts and legislatures in the name of the people. So Joining me now to look at the long history of insurrectionary violence in America are Bruce Baker radio in American history at the University of Newcastle, and an expert on among other things, the Reconstruction Era hybrids. Thanks for joining me.
Bruce Baker 02:07
Adam Smith 02:09
And also here is my colleague Grace Mallon from Oxford University who's an expert on the early republic. Welcome back to the last best hope podcast grace.
Grace Mallon 02:17
Adam Smith 02:18
Bruce, let's begin with you. I kind of want your your general reaction as a historian to these events that we've been watching. And one thing that strikes me is this contrast between, on the one hand, some of the early images that came out, and there's still photographs that were being circulated on Twitter, and in the newspapers The next day, we're almost carnivalesque, right there was the guy in the Viking helmet, though, was the guy in the back costume or whatever it was people with painted faces. But we've discovered more and more that of course, this was there was intense violence involved. Several people have died, including police officers. And there's evidence based on what some of these rioters were carrying, that they intended to do really nasty stuff, possibly take hostages, whatever.
Bruce Baker 03:07
Well, I think the use of carnivalesque is really interesting, because one of the things and to be honest, I hadn't really thought about it that way before. But one of the things that this episode sort of illustrates, I think, is something about the relationship of the general public, the citizens of the United States, to their government, and to the place of government. I saw some comments that were kind of reflecting on some of these insurrectionists, terrorists, whatever you want to I mean, I I'm not sure terrorist is quite the right word. But certainly insurrectionists is is right, that the way they behaved in the Capitol was sort of divided. I mean, there were certainly the the fellas with the zip ties and the handguns and the clear plans for taking hostages and doing the sorts of things we would think of as sort of political with with precise political sort of military sort of goals. But then there were others who were just seeing it a bit like they were on a guided tour, a sort of behind the scenes tour of the US Capitol building. And in some ways, that seems to me to, I don't know, possibly speak to a sense of alienation from the place where government happens, a sense that the Capitol and and, you know, where the House of Representatives meets and where the senate meets is not a real place where people like them are used to going and comfortable and going and so forth. And so that's that's maybe my my first thought about the use of the word carnivalesque and that sort of strange sort of atmosphere. I think the other thing that comes to mind is it seems to me that this was several Different kinds of event happening sort of in conjunction at the same time. So it was, in some ways certainly started out as a sort of garden variety Trump rally that could have been happening in a sort of abandoned shopping mall or airport hangar anywhere in the country. It just happened to be a few blocks down from the Capitol building. And I think we've probably all seen that commentary by I think it's Seth Abramson about the speech itself sort of going through in detail how Trump was sort of begging the crowd on to specifically go and invade the Capitol. But I mean, my understanding of it from from the things I've seen and read was that there was a mix of kind of what we might think of as sort of spontaneous crowd action. And also some, you know, a lot of very carefully planned out, material going on. So in that sense, I think it's a bit a bit different from some of the more obvious comparisons in US history.
Adam Smith 06:06
Thank you. Grace, what are your thoughts?
Grace Mallon 06:09
I mean, I, I sort of was so shocked at the time that I was struggling to make historical comparisons, particularly since my own area of research has to do with with government administration. And so I'm not as used to thinking about political violence and sort of moral action, as some other historians, but as I've been thinking about it over the past few days, I suppose. And that that phrase is not who we are something that keeps coming to me as a Britain particularly, is the idea that Americans celebrate their legacy of insurrectionary violence, right. Which is perhaps a cheeky point. But they have a celebration every year of the independence of the United States through the American Revolution Revolution is celebrated. And when we did see people out there at the Capitol in their 18th century dress, as you traditionally see in various kinds of political settings, in the United States. So I was quite struck that there is a celebration of this kind of revolutionary culture, which can obviously be used for more or less legitimate purposes in American political life. And this is clearly not a legitimate purpose. But I was very struck by those references to revolutionary culture.
Adam Smith 07:37
Yeah, and it's pretty overt. I think I've seen clips of Ted Cruz giving a speech in Georgia a couple of days before this event in which he was telling the crowd that, you know, they were the heirs of the spirit of Bunker Hill, and they had to go and fight like the revolutionary patriots fought. So I think that that the channelling of that revolutionary era, violence into whatever's going on today, is pretty overt. There was a there was a viral video of a kind of ludicrous video of a woman who I think was called Elizabeth who was upset because she'd been maced. And, and she'd said that she seemed to be shocked about this, because when asked why, and even though when asked why she was going to the Capitol, she said it was because we were This is a revolution. So she thought she was engaging in revolution, but was upset to have been maced. while conducting the Revolution, the availability of the American Revolutionary example, in which obviously used violence in order to achieve political ends has always been there in American history. Bruce, I mean, there's been a lot of discussion about whether this, these events are entirely unprecedented. How useful is it just in general terms? I mean, we're three historians here talking about this. I mean, what's the validity of our perspective? How useful is it to try to locate these kinds of events in a historical context?
Bruce Baker 09:01
Well, I suppose in some ways, it's it's the service that we as historians try to always offer, which is the the point that this is nothing new. I mean, it's different. But it's not entirely new. It's not entirely unprecedented. And I would say that, just about all of my historian friends that I keep up with, obviously, virtually, these days. I don't think anybody was particularly surprised that something like this happened there. There certainly wasn't the sense of kind of innocence and shock, and this is not who we are and so forth. Because I think what most of us with our different areas of specialty have have done is said, Well, nothing like this has exactly happened. I mean, Robert E. Lee would have been thrilled to have managed it, but nothing like this has quite happened, but things that are like this, in some ways, have happened at various points. So as we were just saying about the American Revolution. And you know that, again, sort of much like, I suppose what we saw happen in Syria in 2011, you get sort of political conflicts and divisions, you get sort of street level things. Eventually it sort of morphs into something more, more organised. And we've seen various species of that at different times throughout US history. I think a lot of people's attention naturally is focused on the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, because that's sort of the the extreme example of of how badly things can go.
Adam Smith 10:37
Yeah, I think if Robert E. Lee had managed to get as far as the Capitol, I think he would have done things rather better than those guys did. But, Grace, I mean, if I can, let's talk about some specific examples which we might compare to this. And Bruce has talked about the Civil War and Reconstruction, we'll come back to that in a moment. But actually, we can go back even further than that, can't we into the period that that, you know, a great deal about the 1780s and 90s, when there were several very dramatic episodes of insurrectionary violence, which were deeply challenging in the context of a newly established Republic and appointed by the Republic, of course, is especially this republic, very obvious it is it it's supposed to be based upon the consent of the governed. And so in the context of a republic, why do you have interactions at all? And if you do have insurrectionary violence? How do you deal with it?
Grace Mallon 11:32
Yes, I think I was quite interested when you said, you know, do you want to come on the podcast and talk about Shay's rebellion, or the Whiskey Rebellion or freeze rebellion, which is sort of three big tax rebellions that happened in the 1780s and 1790s. The reason I was surprised is that historians generally think that those rebels were the good guys. In a sense, what really chimes with what Bruce was saying, which is that, you know, if we think about comparisons in the past, with this latest episode, we think of the Civil War and Reconstruction because of those episodes of white people, making illegitimate efforts by clearly illegitimate efforts to overthrow the government. And in this period, there's a very strong sense, from historians, broadly speaking, that all of the rebels had legitimate goals, and that they also pursued them, to some extent, at least, in legitimate ways or ways that really, they really strove to present themselves as legitimate. And so essentially, what they were all dealing with was, was taxes. In Shay's rebellion, 736. In Massachusetts, it was that Massachusetts was imposing very heavy taxes, to try to pay off some of its to deal with his revolutionary war, debt burden. And in in 1791, through 94, it was it was the whiskey tax. And then in 1798, and 1799, it was a direct land tax. And the rebels were, first of all, you know, struggling to pay those taxes or unwilling to pay those taxes. But they also had a set of political goals that were related to those taxes, they are basically saying, I don't want you to spend my money on this. In the case of Massachusetts, they they had problems with the structure of government and the the elites who were running the Massachusetts government at that time, in 1794, in 1799, it was to do with policies of building up the military capabilities of the United States particularly, and that this money was going to be put towards, and all of these rebels, I mean, you were talking about the sort of sense of disorganisation, the divided pneus of the mall that the Capitol. And what's striking about all of these examples, is that they really strove to present themselves as legitimate. And they called conventions, they drew up lists of clear goals. They also generally attempted to negotiate with government officials at various times and to have a dialogue. And that was a very striking difference between these two episodes, I think,
Adam Smith 14:17
did they also use violence?
Grace Mallon 14:19
Yes, to be clear, they did also use violence. They did attack government officials, all of them in shit. In the case of Shay's rebellion, they shut down courthouses. And then in the case of the Whiskey Rebellion, they went after tax collectors and the same in the case of freeze rebellion, and there was sort of community based violence and divisions that were sort of brought out in these episodes and people were killed by the rebels, and later in the suppression of the interactions.
Adam Smith 14:50
And so talk a little bit more about how these interactions were suppressed. What was the response of the state and the federal government's
Grace Mallon 14:57
well in the case well, in all cases, A substantial military force was used to put down the insurrections, and there was division about how to go about putting down the rebellions. So, particularly in the case of the Whiskey Rebellion, all well, the major sort of uprising took place in western Pennsylvania. So the Pennsylvania State Government initially said, we need to go to the courts. We just need to prosecute these people. And it was George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who said, No, no, we are raising, we're raising an army. We are not messing around with these people. And in the case of Shay's rebellion, they tried to put down the rebellion using the militia, so local community based sort of almost police force, when that failed, when there was such division in the militia, that they actually went over to the rebels. In many cases, they had to raise a private army. And one of the problems they encountered is that the federal government was unable to assist the state of Massachusetts at that moment, because its resources were so limited, which was sort of a an important factor in prompting the creation of a new federal constitution, the year after in 1787.
Adam Smith 16:12
What were the goals that historians see these rebels advocating that they sympathise with them? And why? Why do historians view the strategies that they employed with sympathy?
Grace Mallon 16:25
And because that politics appears to us to be sympathetic, and I should, I should perhaps temper my earlier statement and say there is obviously, you know, not total historic graphical consensus here. There are, you know, George Washington, suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion is used as a positive example of federal action to deal with a crisis. And we saw that earlier this year, when the Trump administration was was failing miserably to deal with the coronavirus crisis, people were saying, well, well, look, George Washington had this problem of a really big problem. So he acted, even in a time when executive federal action of that kind was was less well understood or, or less popular. But but generally speaking, I think historians have seen a lot in common with with the rebels, partly because these were people who were generally genuinely struggling to, to deal with, with a tax burden. And these were people who could sort of had lived through the revolution, and could see the parallels between the actions of the British government in raising sort of stringent taxes and the federal government, they genuinely had this concern that we just fought a revolution to get rid of these people. And they're back and our own government is doing this to us. And also because, as I say, of the way the rebels presented themselves as as sort of thinking people as people with constitutional learning and constitutional goals in mind, and and a sort of strong, clear political identity, I think that's why they seem more sympathetic.
Adam Smith 18:03
So by cloaking themselves in the in the rhetoric of the revolution, they gave themselves a kind of legitimacy. Bruce, in the period, following the Civil War, there were numerous episodes of what we could characterise as as insurrectionary violence. What continuity is, do you see between the kinds of episodes that happened then and and the kinds of violence and threats of violence we're seeing now, if any?
Bruce Baker 18:34
Well, I can think of... Well, there's plenty of episodes to talk about, I think in different ways. The ones that come most prominently to mind, would be the 1876 campaign by white Southern Democrats in South Carolina, that brought reconstruction to an end in that state and sort of indirectly brought the the tail end of reconstruction to an end across the country, and the Wilmington massacre of 1898. So to start with 1876, in South Carolina, I think the point that you just made about legitimacy is really important. And that's at the bottom of it, that was the the grievance that white Southerners had was they simply never accepted that the reconstruction governments which encompassed votes for African Americans, votes for poor whites, for that matter. They never accepted that those were legitimate. And this is very clear in the contemporary rhetoric in comments and in discussions about what it meant afterwards. And a bit like the early American episodes that grace was just talking about taxes was one of the one of the mechanisms and this is I think, a pretty common argument that the wrong people are being taxed and the money is being spent on the wrong people. In other words, you're texting me and I don't like that, and you're spending the money on somebody else. And I don't like that either. So what we see is the South Carolina taxpayers convention, which gets together and makes this kind of argument about, well off white people. plantation owners are the ones who own the property in the state, but they're being taxed too much. And the money is being squandered and wasted in corrupt ways and spent on all sorts of things that they didn't think it needed to be spent on. The taxpayers convention gets together again in 1874. And then in the wake of the Panic of 1873, and economic disruption across the country, that argument begins to get more traction. So by 1876, we see democrats in South Carolina organise a set of paramilitary groups called the red shirts. And I think the the big difference between the red shirts and 1876. And what we saw at the Capitol last week, is that the red shirts were much more organised. And they were organised by people like Matthew Butler, like Martin, Gary, like Ben Tillman, who the first two of those had military experience in the Confederacy. And the red shirts were a paramilitary force in the sense that they were organised on a military basis, although they didn't have proper military standing. And we often think about their role in the campaign, which was to go around and intimidate people during the campaign chase republicans off of speaking platforms, maybe a bit like we saw the cars in Texas sort of chasing joe biden's campaign bus, that sort of sort of public intimidation, which is a sort of show of force, a sort of sense of, you know, look what we can do, if we have to. And that was another thing that was a very prominent part of that campaign, which was a very careful modulation of the level of violence. So the red shirts wanted to, to display and also to exert violence when they could, but they want it to stop just short of a level of violence that would call down the response of the US military.
Adam Smith 22:22
So in effect, that example, is one of the militarization of an election campaign. So that was, that was the use of violence specifically directed in order to seize power through the electoral process. And then then you've you also mentioned the example of Wilmington, North Carolina, a couple of decades later. And that's a that's a different sort of use of violence in slightly different circumstances, isn't it?
Bruce Baker 22:51
That is a different, it's, it's different, but it's also quite similar. So in North Carolina, just briefly, without getting into the details, the 1890s saw a successful biracial political movement where the Republican Party, mostly African Americans, fused with the Populist Party, which was mostly whites, and actually managed to take power politically, by actually being elected the old fashioned way in the 1890s. And begin to make a lot of changes. White supremacist democrats weren't happy about this, and by 1898, had a concerted effort to regain power. And they did it in much the same way that they had seen the democrats in South Carolina in 1876. Do it. And in fact, Ben Tillman, who by this point is a US Senator, goes around North Carolina, making speeches and actually saying you guys should wear red shirts as well. So they're they're very overtly adopting that. That process is a success in the state elections, and the democrats do sort of sweep back to power by suppressing the republican vote. However, the one place that they're not able to do that, or Well, they're not able to, because there's not really a local election, but the city of Wilmington still has African Americans holding political power, because there's a very big African American population, they're well established, strong Republican Party. And the democrats use outrage that they had sort of whipped up during the 1898 campaign, and concern about this idea that African American men were going to be raping white women. And they're able to direct that very forcefully in Wilmington, because African American newspaper editor Alex Manley, in the summer in the midst of this campaign, had published an article that basically said, white men need to stop raping and assaulting black women, but also that a lot of the situations that get described as rape of white women are actually consensual relations. This understanding, not surprisingly, inflames white Southern opinion, the idea that, you know, consensual sex between white women black men is happening is anathema. And the organisers, the democrats sort of used that to whip people up. And a couple of days after the election, they simply get a bunch of white guys together, armed and demand the resignation of the city government. And when that doesn't immediately happen, they start shooting people and burning down that newspaper editors office, he had safely fled by then. And by the end of the day, the Republicans had realised that there was nothing else for them to do. They resigned. The white democrats who, in remember that this this is not this is not about an election for these offices. This is simply about white democrats with guns, killing a lot of black people. It's not entirely clear how many are killed. But killing a lot of people burning houses, burning businesses, that
Adam Smith 26:12
That was a pretty that was a straightforward coup. That was a violent coup in the city of Wilmington. And it was a successful one. And there are other examples through the 19th century and in other different contexts. There was a there was the so called door war in Rhode Island, which is a slightly different story again, but which also involves a popular movement, attempting with some success to to overthrow an elected state government. And that was a that was a battle over the franchise, among other things, because Rhode Island still had its old colonial area charter with the most restrictive franchise in the United States at that time, in the 1840s. So we've been putting together then several examples. And as I say, there are many more we could pull in, as you suggested, Bruce, there are many, many more in the late 19th century south and the Reconstruction Era. So there's a there's a pattern emerging here, white men, using in many cases, the rhetoric of the American Revolution, claiming to speak on behalf of the people, often related to a perception of government abuses, or a village ultimate taxation, which of course, was one of the issues that led up to the American Revolution in the first place. And in some cases with some success. So what would appear to be describing here then is an American tradition of somewhat successful white insurrectionary violence. Bruce, is that a fair characterization of this long period of American history? And and if so,
Bruce Baker 27:57
..you know, I think that is fair. I think one of the things about being a historian is there's a lot of history that we can look at. And you can put together different trajectories and different patterns and so forth. And one of the reasons why we keep writing new history is, you know, we find new things about the past. But we also sort of evaluate things differently. I think that after last week, we'll look at the past differently and different things will sort of stand up. But certainly, other people in the past have seen this kind of continuity. And as he was talking to us then, I was thinking about a speech that was made in 1916 in North Augusta, South Carolina, which used to be a town called Hamburg during the Reconstruction Era in the antebellum period. And there was a riot and massacre there by where the red shirts attacked a local militia unit and Ben Tillman actually participated in this and executed on nine of nine or 10, of the militia members. In the course of that one white guy named Mickey Merryweather got shot and actually died. And in 1916, the town put up a monument to him and the speaker. At the dedication ceremony, a guy named Daniel Henderson, if I remember correctly, he gave a speech called I think it was called the white man's revolution, where he explicitly compared what they did in 1876, to 1776. And he put it in this longer sort of history as, as people in the late 19th, early 20th century were want to do put it in a longer history of sort of Anglo Saxon supremacy, and specifically the use of violence to enforce Anglo Saxon supremacy. And if you look back at that speech, which I talked about in my book, what reconstruction meant, but if you look back at that speech, that's the sort of trajectory that we're talking about here. Henderson thought it was a great thing. We think it's not so great. But these kinds of continuity is have been evident to other people in the past.
Adam Smith 30:08
Grace coming back to your your examples of from the 1780s and 1790s. Why had the state and the federal government's lost legitimacy in the from the perspective of these rebels? And how, if at all, did the government's in those circumstances seek go about restoring their legitimacy in the eyes of a sufficient proportion of the citizens to quell the desire for this kind of insurrection again?
Grace Mallon 30:44
That's a really interesting question. I suppose that the reason that these governments and had lost legitimacy was partly to do with representation, a sense that there were certain segments of the population that were not being properly represented. And coming back to the the reason why historians have been sympathetic to these rebels is because well, that that was true. America wasn't really a democracy in the way that we would think of a democracy now. Back in the 1780s, and 1790s, and vote, you were just talking about about franchise restrictions. And there was a restricted franchise in many states. And there was a property qualification for voting. And there was also a considerable difference in the quality of representation for people living in New Western settlements, or newer Western settlements, and an older Eastern settlements. So there was a sense that people living along the eastern seaboard really held all the power and rural agricultural people living, particularly to the to the west of the Appalachians that didn't have that kind of representation. So there was a real sense that we need to do something radical and drastic and violent to be able to get the attention of these Eastern elites who are ignoring us. And we don't have the representation in government that we need. So that was where that sense of legitimacy came from. And it was, it was true, in a sense, how do you go about restoring legitimacy? Well, I think there was sort of an interesting carrot and stick approach that was generally used to quell these rebellions to bring back order. And Shay's rebellion, for example. They said, okay, you're having problems paying your taxes, and one of the reasons you can't pay your taxes is because you don't have hard cash. And because the circulation of money is really, really bad, and particularly in the West at that time, okay, we'll let you pay your taxes and kind at the same time, and will also allow you to have an amnesty. So if you're, if you turn yourself in, you'll be fine. At the same time, if we catch you, we're going to give you 39 stripes and put you in prison for a year. So you have that sort of, we are willing to give you something, but we're also not going to take this and you see that being repeated across these different rebellions.
Adam Smith 33:17
Bruce, some of what Grace is just saying there would, I think resonate with Trump supporters, wouldn't it? I mean, what what he's just said then describing those who participated in the Shay's rebellion, and the Whiskey Rebellion and Fries' rebellion, is exactly what Trump supporters say. They say we've been overlooked. We can't get our voices heard in other ways that governments are run by Eastern elites. I mean, it's just all it's all the same language.
Bruce Baker 33:47
Yeah, it does seem to be I think, in some ways, partly because of the the prominence in the last year, obviously, of the Black Lives Matter, protests. We've, and also partly the Confederate flags marching through the capital. A lot of us who focus on the middle part of the 19th century have looked to that. And as I was saying, there are a lot of parallels. But from what grace was just saying, I was thinking that perhaps we also need to look at that period of the 1780s and 17, nine days. And exactly this point of urban versus rural and questions of our people being represented, and are their concerns being listened to. It reminded me of the map that we've probably all seen floating around Twitter, of the different counties of the United States, and which ones voted for the republicans and in which ones voted for the Democrats. And it's, it's a huge sea of red, and you know, some blotches of blue. And then obviously, people point out Well, yes, but the blotches of blue are where the majority of the population Live. And, you know, a lot of these these red counties are very, very sparsely populated, but in some ways, you know, it opens up all these debates now about representation and, and so forth. So, in addition to the questions about taxation, the obviously still unsettled questions about race in this in the United States, we probably also need to think about and wrestle with these questions of representation. I don't think, however, that the the people in the the sort of rural read parts of America have the same things to complain about legitimately about being unrepresented. That certainly were the case in the 1780s. If anything, it seems more like it's a bit the opposite. But there's this strong sense of grievance this sense of, of being oppressed, I'm kind of, I'm kind of reminded of the point that fintan O'Toole makes about Britain and Brexit and the sort of sense of manufactured grievance to sort of underpin sort of reactionary revolution. Almost.
Adam Smith 36:18
Thank you very much. I think that's a good night on which to end actually brace Baker and grace man, and thank you both very much for joining
Grace Mallon 36:24
Bruce Baker 36:25
thank you very much Adam
Adam Smith 36:27
Insurrection is in its own way, just as American as the peaceful transfer of power. It's the insurrectionary flipside of a political culture that celebrates a revolutionary moment has its origins, and aggressively asserts the sovereignty of the people whoever they are, and in which partisans have often denied the legitimacy of their opponents. Of course, the United States has a long tradition of a peaceful transfer of power, and in many ways, a resilient democratic infrastructure. But as grace and Bruce for explaining this kind of insurrection, new violence is also in its own dark way, as American as apple pie. When groups of people who feel entitled to be in control feel like they've lost control, attempted insurrection, have often been the result. And the example of the American Revolution is always there to serve as a justification. It's not so much that it's wrong to look to foreign countries for parallels to what's happening, but that America's own past is also a prologue to the present. You've been listening to the last best hope? The question mark is always important in our podcast title. My name is Adam Smith. Goodbye.