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To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face: Libertarian Political Violence and the Origins of the Militia Movement by Robert H. Churchill (University of Michigan Press 2011), 384 pages.
Discussions regarding the legitimate use of force are not limited to any single ideology. Perhaps the defining quality of any political movement vying for validity is its position on the permissibility of violence by individuals and the state. Although such conversations vary on the spectrum from mainstream to fringe political discourse, those outside the dominant political caste aren’t extremists for questioning the state’s monopoly on the use of force. Libertarian political theory is particularly concerned with this issue; championing peaceful interaction and private property rights, commonly exemplified by the nonaggression principle. But libertarians also differentiate nonaggression from the legitimate use of force in defense of persons or property against other individuals or the state.
Libertarianism is distinct in its view of the relationship between individuals, the state, and violence — or the absence thereof — in society. To that end, Prof. Robert H. Churchill’s To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face surveys the history of libertarian political violence in America by outlining several historical events of unprecedented resistance to state power invoking the insurrectionary violence epitomizing the late 18th century. Churchill gives context to the development of libertarian political theory in this narrow respect by analyzing how those lessons reverberate as much today as the fire of muskets by their antecedents.
Insurgent violence as political theory and the Revolution as living memory
The package of legislation emanating from the Parliament in the spring of 1774 were known as the Coercive Acts, an attempt to quell an unwieldy Massachusetts mere months after some of Boston’s residents relieved the British East India Company of its tea into the harbor. The libertarian memory of the American Revolution is defined by Churchill as, “a struggle to defend liberty against a corrupt and abusive state” and “to protect liberty by enforcing inviolable constitutional restraints on the power of the state.”
Resistance to Parliament took two familiar libertarian forms. The first approach was an economic boycott led by the nonimportation movement. The other approach was most pronounced in Massachusetts and clearly articulated in the Suffolk Resolves. Churchill notes that they stressed the infringement of liberty and the right to self-government as galvanizing factors for opposition, rather than the well-known matters of taxation and representation focused on by the nonimportation movement and commonly repeated today.
Jonathan Mayhew’s Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers was the first American declaration of this libertarian resistance. Mayhew’s Discourse asserted deference to just authority, irrespective of the form of government. He argued that dissent was legitimate when people resolved that authorities had grown oppressive and “therefore disobedience to them is a duty, and not a crime” in such a moral crisis. Thomas Jefferson would echo similar analysis in July 1774 with A Summary View of the Rights of British America, castigating the emerging “Parliamentary tyranny,” among other grievances.
Americans referenced the Suffolk Resolves in April 1775 as individuals agreed to arm, organize militia, and train under arms for the first time. The Continental Congress attempted to represent both the nonimportation and insurrectionary movements, subordinating grievances of the latter to the former, but that sentiment was reversed by Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. The application of Whig ideology persisted in American political theory because “it offered a critique of oppressive government and state violence that would continue to apply to the acts of a fully representative republican polity,” Churchill asserts. The standing army remained the most severe threat to liberty in the view of 18th-century Whig politics and continued as debate raged between Federalists and Anti-Federalists over ratification of the Constitution in 1787-88.
Churchill underscores the libertarian memory of the Revolution with an analysis of Fries’s Rebellion and the Alien and Sedition Act crisis of 1798-99. A majority of Democratic-Republicans agreed on longstanding Whig analysis of the political crisis, but were less unified by solutions. Moderates proposed constitutional measures — petitioning and voting — while radical elements chose nullification and armed opposition. Summer and fall 1798 were filled with militia, Independence Day celebrations, and the mixing of political meetings with firearms as the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 were introduced, representing a fusion of moderate and insurrectionist opposition.
Although Democratic-Republicans made the Alien and Sedition Acts the cornerstone of their nullification campaign, Churchill explains that only six individuals were prosecuted prior to Fries’s Rebellion, and their insurgency focused on the house tax directly affecting their lives by Federalist tax assessors. Public backlash moderated Democratic-Republicans, signaling abandonment of sustained hostility to the Alien and Sedition Acts and tax collection for electoral politics and the inauguration of Jefferson. Although constitutional measures became the preferred method of dissent as the republic matured, insurrectionary politics would once again be unfurled.
Civil War dissenters, 100% Americanism, and the Brown scare
Churchill characterizes the period from the Civil War until the Cold War as refashioning patriot-ism and cleansing the libertarian memory of the Revolution from the public sphere. Libertarians know a litany of critiques of Lincoln’s administration, and conscription factored heavily in political opposition from 1861 to 1865. Rather than basing resistance to conscription on individualist principles, dissent was suffused with white supremacist rhetoric and hostility towards the Emancipation Proclamation and abolitionism. Others were concerned with economic hardship brought on families of those conscripted. Lysander Spooner, the great libertarian abolitionist, is one of those contemporary voices to be applauded for recognizing both the evils of slavery and the tyranny of conscription, serving as a counterweight of principled dissent during the Civil War.
The 20th century was the fulfillment of recasting patriotism in America, displacing the memory of the Revolutionary era with the birth of the state. “One hundred percent Americanism” grew from this celebration. Patriotism meant loyalty to the state and greater interest in preserving the nation rather than liberty for all.
The reemergence of the KKK and its ideological cousin the Black Legion was fueled by the Great Depression, centralization of power by Roosevelt’s New Deal, and influx of immigrants to the United States. The Black Legion sought to overthrow the government and then inflict state violence onto those deemed undesirable, repurposing the Revolution with their own blend of nativist, anti-communist, and patriarchal ideology.
Revelations of such plots were received by the public as avowedly un-American, leading to the Brown Scare, scapegoating, and a rejection of political violence. Academic condemnation of extreme political positions made the far Right and far Left outcasts in the Cold War political system. Churchill notes that transformation as best symbolized by the New Deal-era construction of the Jefferson Memorial, which leaves out Jefferson’s articulation of the right of revolution in its commemoration of the Declaration of Independence.
Emergence of the militia movement and resurrection of libertarian political violence
Churchill’s work differentiating two competing models of late 20th-century militias is significant. Constitutionalists formed public militias with open membership, their perception of government informed by Whig and libertarian ideology to publicly deter the state by a show of arms. As Churchill exhaustively documents, constitutionalists were deeply committed to inclusivity, sometimes leading to violent confrontations with the second faction: millenarians organized in leaderless cells without open public participation, which held darkly apocalyptic, bigoted, and often conspiratorial worldviews. Although quite different in structure and ideology, these militias were united by the reason for their formation: the militarization of domestic law enforcement.
Two events rekindled this libertarian memory of the Revolution: the 1992 siege in Idaho at Ruby Ridge and the 1993 raid on the Davidians near Waco, Texas. The Oklahoma City bombing — Patriots’ Day, April 19, 1995 — was the high-water mark for the militias. Although constitutionalists correctly blamed millenarians for the plot and harboring accomplices of Timothy McVeigh, their numbers waned, declining further following George W. Bush’s election. Churchill shows that conflating the disparate groups is incorrect and to call either exemplars of libertarianism is even further from the truth.
Libertarian political violence today
Murray Rothbard wrote in For a New Liberty, “If, as libertarians believe, every individual has the right to own his person and property, it then follows that he has the right to employ violence to defend himself against the violence of criminal aggressors,” and furthermore, “While opposing any and all private or group aggression against the rights of person and property, the libertarian sees that throughout history and into the present day, there has been one central, dominant, and overriding aggressor upon all of these rights: the State.” Jacob H. Huebert wisely notes in his 2010 book Libertarianism Today, “More gun freedom and more widespread gun ownership would not force the government to fully respect libertarian rights — it did not do so even in the founding era — but it would serve as a preventative measure against the worst possible government offenses.” Radley Balko and Will Grigg consistently document that the militarization of domestic police hasn’t ceased in the years since the modern militias formed for that exact grievance.
Fellow libertarians would be mistaken to look back on the history of libertarian political violence in America and conclude that the events should be uniformly celebrated or denounced, as comprehensively detailed by Churchill’s To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face. The history of taking up arms against the state is multifaceted, as Churchill notes, “the invocation of the past to justify present action is a perpetual theme in American politics. It need not, however, command our deference. If there is a point at which the practice of history departs from the practice of collective memory, it is in the recognition that no word or deed from ages past can in and of itself justify the recourse to violence in the present.”
Mindful of historical context and present concerns of state violence, libertarians would benefit from openly discussing the parameters of protecting individual liberty with violent force against the state’s usurpations. Although an example not covered in the text, libertarians should consider Lysander Spooner’s 1858 call to arms in A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery (and) To the Non-Slaveholders of the South, where he outlines a plan to reclaim the liberty of the enslaved by means of asymmetric warfare against the slaveholders of the South, carried out by black slaves, free southerners, and northern abolitionists. A balance must be struck, however, between principles, morality, proportionality, and practicality as libertarians reflect on this and the just use of force to defend liberty against tyranny. Perhaps Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler’s oft-quoted 1935 pamphlet War Is a Racket is another good starting point for deliberation, as he wrote, “There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.”
This article was originally published in the February 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.