IIn March 1791, the United States Congress passed the Whiskey Act, the new administration's first excise tax on a domestically manufactured product. Shortly thereafter, the United States' first tax riot began. During the course, the tax officers were stripped naked, tarred and feathered. Armed men broke into tax officials' homes and attacked them and their families. A crowd of hundreds shot up and then burned down the home of a local Pennsylvania dignitary who had been protecting a federal marshal. A crowd of thousands marched through Pittsburgh under his own secession flag. It was only after a federal force of 13,000 entered western Pennsylvania that the rebels were dispersed and the uprising brought to an ignoble end.
The famous Whiskey Rebellion was the first in a long train of civil unrest, organized revolt, and mob violence in the United States since 1789. Most of it is not an illustrious story. The riots against abolitionists, blacks, immigrants, Catholics, the military draft, war, capitalists, capitalism, the police, and the federal government are too numerous to list. Fifty years ago the country was struggling to hold its own against a spate of assassinations, bombings and criminal-political movements. Last summer's unrest claimed over two dozen lives and potentially $ 2 billion in property damage.
The violation of the United States Capitol on Wednesday by a crowd of pro-Trump protesters and rioters joins this long procession of American immobility. In material terms, it is a footnote. It wasn't the first time the Capitol had been attacked since the 1812 War, as reported by CNN and BBC. In 1954, a group of Puerto Rican nationalists used semi-automatic pistols to shoot five US Representatives on the floor of the house. In 1971 and 1983, bombs were planted and exploded in the Capitol.
But of course it is not the material damage of broken windows and stolen podiums or even an hour of fear that members of Congress feel today as they seek refuge during the chaos. It is the symbolic violation of rioters who tear down a Capitol flag and replace it with a MAGA banner, demolish Spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi's office and stand on the podium of the US Senate. The proof lies in the invocation of our religious by the leaders in this irreligious age. President-elect Joe Biden described the process, which was interrupted by the rioters, as a "sacred ritual" and an "attack on the most sacred American enterprise". Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Senate minority, lamented that a "temple of democracy" has been desecrated. At Epiphany, Spokesman Pelosi prays that this incitement to violence will be a revelation for our country to heal.
Early reactions to the incursion were rather catastrophic, with more than one journalist speaking of a "coup d'état", the death of the republic and a "civil war". In the evening, calmer minds and cooler feelings emerged as the rioters were arrested and dispersed. This revealed less a Bolshevik assault on the Winter Palace than a LARPing event by QAnon paranoids. It is important that the President himself used his office as an accelerator for this disruption. Donald Trump is a man of extremely bad temper, and he has cultivated the same thing in followers of his personality cult. But long after Trump leaves the White House, We the People will continue to have millions of its followers and tens of millions of its voters.
According to his mentor's preferred location, President-elect Biden said on Wednesday, "The scenes of chaos in the Capitol do not reflect real America, do not represent who we are." The history of America contradicts him. Political violence is indeed part of "real America", an indisputable part of "who we are". After holding the Presidency, House and Senate alongside the professions of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, higher education, prestige media and the cultural industries, will the Democratic Party come to terms with this fact? Or will it instigate impeachment, kick half the Republican caucus out of Congress, wrap up the Supreme Court, eliminate the electoral college, and set up a de-Trumpification Truth Commission?
After order was restored, the speeches finished and the electoral college vote approved, we are still on the same long national road. America is a violent country with a violent past. It has been held together for 230 years, not just by a common constitution, a common political culture and a common national identity, the lofty objects of so many speeches from the Senate on Wednesday evening. The very existence of a "we" was also promoted by long periods of economic growth, wide scope for individual opportunity, common enemies of war, a reasonable level of federalism, and a generous distribution of government size from 160 acre homesteads to $ 1200 checks.
This story 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 quelling the insurrection without driving the country into tyranny. Six years later, the Democratic Republican Party swept the national elections and used its Democratic power to overturn not just the whiskey tax, but all federal taxes on domestic products. The assumption that it is impossible to defeat the evil on this side of the Second Coming is the source of constitutional government along with believing that one will live to fight another day. May both of their enemies survive wherever they lurk.
Darel E. Paul is a professor of political science at Williams College and author of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Made America Into Same-Sex Marriage.
Photo by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons. Cropped image.
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