In March 1791 the United States Congress passed the Whiskey Act, the new government’s first excise tax on a domestically produced product. Shortly afterward the United States of America’s first tax revolt began. In its course, tax officers were stripped naked, tarred, and feathered. Armed men broke into the homes of tax officers and assaulted them and their families. A mob of hundreds shot up and then burned down the house of a local Pennsylvania dignitary who had been sheltering a federal marshal. A crowd of thousands marched through Pittsburgh under its own flag of secession. Only after a federal force of 13,000 entered western Pennsylvania were the rebels dispersed and the rebellion brought to an ignoble end.
The famous Whiskey Rebellion was the first in a long train of civil disorder, organized revolt, and mob violence in the United States since 1789. Most of it is not an illustrious history. Riots against abolitionists, blacks, immigrants, Catholics, the military draft, war, capitalists, capitalism, police, and the federal government are too numerous to list. Just fifty years ago the country was struggling to hold its head above a rising tide of assassinations, bombings, and criminal-political movements. The riots of the past summer claimed over two dozen lives and perhaps $2 billion in property damage.
The breaching of the United States Capitol on Wednesday by a mob of pro-Trump demonstrators-cum-rioters joins this long procession of American ignobility. In material terms it is a footnote. It was not, as both CNN and the BBC reported, the first time the Capitol was attacked since the War of 1812. In 1954 a group of Puerto Rican nationalists used semi-automatic pistols to shoot five U.S. Representatives on the floor of the House. Bombs were planted and exploded inside the Capitol building in 1971 and again in 1983.
But of course, it is not the material damage of broken windows and stolen podiums, or even an hour of fear felt by members of Congress sheltering in place during the chaos, that is foremost in view today. It is the symbolic injury of rioters ripping down a Capitol flag and replacing it with a MAGA banner, vandalizing Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, and standing on the dais of the United States Senate. The evidence lies in our leaders’ invocation of the religious in this irreligious age. Thus President-elect Joe Biden referred to the proceedings interrupted by the rioters as “a sacred ritual” and “an assault on the most sacred of American undertakings.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer lamented that a “temple to democracy was desecrated.” On the Feast of the Epiphany, Speaker Pelosi “pray[ed] that this instigation to violence will provide an epiphany for our country to heal.”
Early reactions to the incursion tended toward the catastrophic, and more than one journalist spoke of a “coup,” the death of the Republic, and “civil war.” By evening calmer heads and cooler emotions began to emerge as the rioters were arrested and dispersed, revealing less a Bolshevik storming of the Winter Palace than a LARPing event by QAnon paranoids. It is important that the president himself has used his office as an accelerant to this disorder. Donald Trump is a man of inordinately bad character, and he has cultivated the same in adherents to his cult of personality. But long after Trump has left the White House, “We the People” will continue to include millions of his supporters and tens of millions of his voters.
Following the favorite locution of his mentor, President-elect Biden said on Wednesday that “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.” The history of America contradicts him. Political violence is indeed part of the “true America,” an undeniable share of “who we are.” Now that the Democratic party holds the presidency, the House, and the Senate alongside the professions, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, higher education, the prestige media, and the culture industries, will it reconcile itself to this fact? Or will it begin impeachment proceedings, throw half the Republican caucus out of Congress, pack the Supreme Court, eliminate the Electoral College, and institute a de-Trumpification truth commission?
After order has been restored, speeches ended, and the Electoral College vote certified, we find ourselves still traveling down the same long national pathway. America is a violent country with a violent past. It has been held together for 230 years not simply by a shared constitution, a shared political culture, and a shared national identity, the lofty objects of so many speeches from the Senate floor on Wednesday night. The very existence of a “we” has also been nurtured on long periods of economic growth, a wide scope for individual opportunity, common enemies fought in war, a judicious degree of federalism, and a generous distribution of government largesse from 160-acre homesteads to $1200 checks.
This history tells us that idealism must be tempered by prudence. President George Washington pardoned the only two Whiskey rebels convicted of treason and was widely praised for putting down the rebellion without pushing the country into tyranny. Six years later the Democratic-Republican party swept national elections and used their democratic power to repeal not only the whiskey tax but all federal taxes levied on domestic products. An acceptance that vanquishing evil this side of the Second Coming is impossible, alongside a faith that one shall live to fight another day, are the wellsprings of constitutional government. May both survive their enemies wherever they lurk.
Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College and author of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage.
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