The Perils of Insurrection, Then and Now

The free state movement knew that they played with fire in repudiating the territorial government and its laws. Going further and creating their own government raised reasonable questions about just how far they intended to take things. Establishing their own militia, even if for self-defense, understandably gave further cause for concern. That apparently some, like Charles Dow, went in for burning proslavery Kansans out of their claims took at least some fringes of the movement beyond rhetorical protests and into serious crimes. A group that could burn homes down at will generally deserves a serious response from law enforcement, whatever its politics. To further underline the point, a Kansas Legion man seized a lawful prisoner from a sheriff engaged in the normal course of his duties. Authoritarians often invoke the frailty of civil institutions in the name of their repressions, but sometimes reasonable people of far more democratic mores make the same invocations. Now and then, they even have facts on their side.

The entire tangled prelude to the Wakarusa War makes much more sense when one keeps this in mind. The politics of the day, and our own, make it very easy for us to throw in with the free state party all the way. We have the luxury of time and distance to insulate us from any consequences of that decision. Nobody will burn our homes down or shoot us dead for our opinions about politics in territorial Kansas. Even if we disagree with the proslavery radicals, Kansas still offered the spectacle of armed men apparently ready to pursue their agenda by force. If we admit that fact as a motivation for driving antislavery Kansans to arms, then we must admit it the other way around as well.

The free state leadership knew the risk of that very well. They, like Wilson Shannon, sought a peaceful resolution to the crisis at Lawrence. Samuel Newitt Wood, a Kansas Legion man, had gone and rescued Jacob Branson from Sheriff Samuel Jones’ custody. But he did not go with the blessing of Charles Robinson, James Lane, or other Kansas luminaries. Nor did Lawrence rush to endorse his action after the fact. Rather he and the other rescuers found themselves asked to leave town. All the warlike preparation that the Kansas Legion did could have had offensive applications, but nobody until Wood had actually used force against the legal government of Kansas. While violent threats flew back and forth, it appears that most political violence in Kansas up through the winter of 1855 happened relatively spontaneously and on a person-to-person level rather than with official imprimatur. Had such an undertaking gone off, the free state movement risked dramatic retaliation from both proslavery radicals and likely the United States military. One simply doesn’t, for example, seize public property at gunpoint and expect nothing to happen in response.

Nor should one expect such impunity. If private individuals do so, then we soon find ourselves on the express train to anarchy. Instead of civil society, one finds oneself forced to align with a gang of violent thugs for protection and hope that it extends not just to protection from them but also other such gangs. While the occasional enthusiast might cast himself as the white-hat-wearing, gun-toting hero of such occasions, in the real world the most ruthless and brutal tend to rise to the top. We have the police and, if necessary, the military to prevent that sort of thing. Had antislavery Kansans found the 1st Cavalry arrayed against them and gone to war against it, they would have found their support almost everywhere go silent. Many probably would have gone all the way over to cheering for their suppression.

Why wouldn’t they? The Constitution calls levying war against the United States treason. Antislavery Kansans could hardly better discredit themselves with the nation than to cross that line. The traditional remedy for doing so involved gunpowder and ropes, a precedent most famously remembered in the case of Lee v. Grant. Even without the benefit of that precedent, it would take a very dull free state man to miss the fact that seeking out armed confrontations risked the federal hammer coming down. Thus, by and large, the free state movement up through the Wakarusa War exercised the better part of its martial valor.

This same principle holds on a smaller scale. If we see someone wandering around with a gun outside our home, most of us will probably call the police. This doesn’t take a strange phobia about firearms, but only a basic knowledge of what a bullet can do to a human body. If you see an armed person wandering about, you expect that person intends to shoot something. The police come and discourage that, one hopes successfully and without further violence.

Except when they don’t. Not everyone learned circumspection from studying Kansas, anything else. Not that long ago, a man who stole millions of dollars from you and me had an armed standoff with law enforcement that ended to his satisfaction. That Cliven Bundy has made off with far more than a typical bank robber’s haul should, perhaps, surprise us. This kind of plot twist one expects from a supervillain rather than a real world rancher.

Now that they’ve had their Negro Seamen Act, it seems some have decided that their strange revival of nineteenth century radicalism requires its Nullification Crisis. Some of Bundy’s family members have taken up the cause of a pair of arsonists, who apparently didn’t want the help, and occupied federal property. I mean that literally, they seized United States property and hold it still at the time of this writing:

a group of outside militants drove to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where they seized and occupied the refuge headquarters

If this happened in another country, we’d have a talk about armed militants about now. A story that begins with the line “armed gunmen seized property” generally ends with the lines “shot by police”. Yet with these armed militants, the authorities don’t seem all that concerned. One can understand hesitancy, especially given the federal government’s record a few decades back in handling standoffs, but so far it doesn’t seem that law enforcement has besieged the gunmen. Instead they’ve just asked people to stay away and monitor the situation while working for a peaceful resolution.

I could say that I can’t fault the circumspection, whether here or in 1855 Kansas. Even if people have clearly broken the law, one naturally wishes to keep violence to a minimum. One must consider bystanders, though in this case the miscreants have taken over a building that seems quite remote. It probably doesn’t hurt to take one’s time out in Oregon. As an isolated event, the affair raises concern but not necessarily outrage. Yes, we have a group of men with guns breaking the law and encouraging others to join them. This cannot stand, but it doesn’t mean we need to call in the tanks or a drone strike.

Isolated events, however, often turn out rather more connected than not. American law enforcement doesn’t operate in a vacuum. The police grow up in the same world as the rest of us, and that world has very firm convictions about who does and does not deserve consideration and leniency. Cliven Bundy does, even if he made out like a bank robber. His relatives and others probably do as well. Otherwise someone could get hurt:

A group of white adults with real weapons came up and took possession of a building they don’t own, inviting others to come and join them. They warrant great consideration. We don’t want people hurt:

“No’m. Killed a nigger.”

“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.

Thus Americans, ensconced as always in our city on a hill, demonstrate our most ancient and dear values to the watching world.

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